LISTENING AND CONSULTING IN CORNWALL

2 July 2007

In recent polls around 81 percent of voters in Cornwall opposed the county council’s proposals for a unitary council. In Penwith the figure was a massive 89 percent. See this post.

Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrat county council has decided to persist with its proposals. The five MPs for Cornwall, all Liberal Democrats, supported the original unitary proposals and have supported this decision to persist in the face of vast public rejection. Incidentally, the council’s decision to persist was supported in a vote by only thirty two of the eighty two county councillors.

The MPs have consulted stakeholders in each constituency – people like doctors and school governors. I do not know how many people were consulted and replied, six or sixty or six hundred. I don’t know what questions were asked but I see on one of the websites there is a survey for the public with a series of questions which asked if they supported more decisions being taken locally by “elected Cornish representatives” rather than by “unelected authorities” in the south west region which isn’t the point as people aren’t being asked to decide on an abstract principle but on actual on-the-ground proposals. I assume the stakeholders were asked the same or similar questions by the MPs. If one asks that general question mutatis mutandis anywhere in England one can pretty well guarantee the answer. The MPs got an unsurprising majority Yes vote.

To interpret this as a vote in support of the unitary proposals would be absurd.

An MP should listen to what his or her constituents say and, if consonant with his judgement and principles, accommodate them, but listening does not necessarily mean agreeing. I think if four fifths of constituents, or even nine tenths as in Penwith, take a particular view an MP is still free to stick to his contrary view; indeed it might be seen as his duty to since an MP owes his constituents his judgement not his compliance, but he has also a representative duty to tell the government that most of his constituents disagree with him and to explain to his constituents why he thinks them wrong.

The Liberal Democrat MPs apparently believe that half a loaf is better than none and that a unitary council could lead to many more powers than are on offer at present and a de facto devolved regional assembly for Cornwall – the summa summarum for Liberal Democrats here. I do not share their conviction and for all their trumpeted meetings with the government about this the MPs are not giving guarantees about more powers, but in the long term they might be right. However, this fails to address the seriously unsatisfactory aspects of the current proposals with which we might be lumbered for many a year.

In the meantime, Penwith district council has asked the government whether additional and serious powers will in fact be devolved to a unitary council in Cornwall so we should soon know the answer to that.

To sum up. 81 percent of voters in Cornwall reject the unitary proposals. The county council and five MPs still support the proposals.

In the light of the decisive rejection of the unitary proposals by people in Cornwall, the government cannot credibly go ahead with them. To persist would be to dismiss out of hand people’s views and in a matter of local government that is absurd. The final decision should rest with the people whose local government it is.

Oh, and I expect we shall sooner or later be told by the MPs and the Liberal Democrats generally on some issue or other that the government isn’t listening to people. The Liberal Democrat MPs and Liberal Democrat county council have established – and I agree with them – that to listen to people does not necessarily mean to agree with or to obey, no, not even if it’s nine tenths of people.

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