DISUNITARY

26 October 2009

See the addendum at the end

ORIGINAL POST 14 October 2009

One of the arguments for a single authority for Cornwall is that Cornwall would then speak more strongly and more effectively with one voice for all the people of Cornwall.

Oh dear, it has gone wrong so quickly. Cornwall unitary council, imposed by an alliance of some local Liberal Democrats and the Labour government, is at odds with people in Penzance. The new council, now run by an alliance of Conservatives and Independents, is accused of not listening to what local people in Penzance want. Forget London-based, London-centric, the perpetual moan of the nationalists; the complaint in west Cornwall is in effect against Truro-based, Truro-centric.

This long-running row, which began when the county council existed, is basically about where the Penzance freight depot and passenger terminal of the Penzance-Scillies sea run should be. Polls have shown about three quarters of respondents in Penzance are opposed to the proposal of the unitary council. There have been vigorous comments from both sides.

Nationalists and others often cry against the centre, London-based decision-making, and urge the devolution of authority to the periphery, Cornwall. But in this dispute west Cornwall cries against Truro, where the unitary council sits, and Truro against west Cornwall. Note that this is not indigenes against adventives but a row between a new centre and a new periphery.

At present it seems not so much One and all as One and all at one another.

This dispute throws up an old question. What principles command us when government and people disagree with each other on a particular issue? It is an issue that localists tend to ignore, naively believing that devolving powers from an old centre to what turns out to be a new one dissolves problems of decision-making. In Cornwall we see it most keenly with proposals for affordable housing: often local people do not want houses that government or council, seeing the larger picture, promotes. We have seen it in the planned moving of UGI cancer surgery to a specialist centre at Plymouth. We should see it if there were to be a Cornish parliament.

In practice what usually happens when there is this disunity, this disagreement between the centre and the peripheries, between one group and another, government and governed? Not usually a referendum in Britain so not decision by numbers. Not usually automatic deference to the centre or the locality so not decision by geography. People argue and with goodwill, and sometimes abuse, an answer is thrashed out which pleases everyone or no one or most or few. Sometimes of course an issue cannot logically or physically be resolved with a compromise and one view eventually prevails, not always the most reasonable one and often, I must say, the view of those with most power or nerve or stamina. That’s how democracy works. Argument, debate, thrashing out, the struggle of reason to be heard, are all part of the process of getting to an imperfect answer. Being positive, that’s what is happening here. It is merely an awakening to the new world of shifting centres and peripheries and the realisation that to listen is not necessarily to agree.

ADDENDUM 26 October 2009

Another difficulty showing that ‘one and all’ Cornwall is problematic. Near Davidstow in north Cornwall a planning application for twenty wind turbines is opposed by many local residents, environmental and other groups, and local councillors. The local planning councillors — the East Sub-Area Planning Committee in the unitary lexicon — rejected it. However, the Cornwall Council strategic planning committee, to which it was referred, has approved it. Short of appeals, that is that.

I am not here discussing the merits of the proposal or those of the ferry terminals: I am pointing out the unsustainability of the idea that one council for all Cornwall would speak unchallenged and democratically for all Cornwall, that a one-Cornwall council would solve decision-making difficulties. There is understandable dismay in north Cornwall about what is seen as the loss of the principle that the people in an immediate area affected should decide rather than people from all over Cornwall deciding, a principle which district councils came nearer to realising and which unitary sub-area planning committees were designed for. I have discussed this in the last two paragraphs of my original Penzance ferry terminals post about who gets to decide in unitary Cornwall.

Those who advocate localism have a hard question to answer. How local is your localism?

Is Truro-centric becoming the new London-centric?


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