VAGUELY ONWARDS, DIMLY UPWARDS

13 December 2014


The superfluity of words in the unitary council’s hazy draft document, the Case for Cornwall, boils down to two demands: give us more money and let us spend it as we choose, though of course the demands are not put in so candid a form. The ‘we’ is the unitary councillors. Always ask Who decides? and do not be blinded by first person plurality.

Note that this is seeking the enhancement of local government, not the semi-independence of political Cornish nationalism.

How much more money is sought? How will it be spent and for what purposes? Ah, let us see.

Present deficiencies in Cornwall
The document lists some of the well-known present deficiencies in Cornwall such as low paid work, seasonal work, low productivity, unemployment, modest educational achievements of many, high house prices. As it says, “Our economy is underperforming”.

It lists the work the empowered council will do such as focusing on low wages levels, improving skill levels, providing affordable and decent housing, providing private sector investment, improving productivity, even tackling inequality.

It is a noble list: these are the ills and we shall cure them with more money and more powers to decide what to do.

How?
Yes, yes, but how? How will the council – probably eventually called an assembly like London’s – grow the economy of Cornwall? How will it increase low wages? Provide affordable housing? Improve skill levels? Improve productivity? Provide private sector investment? Reduce unemployment? How will it reduce inequality? How will it increase life expectancy in areas of Cornwall where it is low? How?

There is a difference between glittering generalities and concrete plans. No one would dissent significantly from the diagnosis, what needs tackling though I think many would doubt the self-confidence of the present council that overflows in the document. However, if the council wishes to command belief it must explain how it would do these things. It is exact in identifying some sources for the money it wants; it must also be exact in explaining exactly how it would use that money and those powers, if it got them, to realise its goals.

This supposes that there is a link between local government empowerment and more funds on the one hand and economic growth and social goods on the other. I do not think that link has been convincingly demonstrated in reality or theory. The council’s response earlier this year to the inquiry on fiscal devolution to cities and city regions struck me as an unconvincing account of the link.

How much money?
The council’s response to the above inquiry also sets out its serious lack of knowledge on the possibilities of financial self-sufficiency in Cornwall: “We have been unable to assess the level of information that we need to create a comprehensive picture of income and expenditure for Cornwall”.

Downsizing local government
I have another concern. The document robotically calls for “fairer funding” for Cornwall, not an objective and absolute figure as the immediately above section shows but the code for unsatisfactory comparisons and more money, but the austere future will be less funding. There is scant recognition in the document that local government is changing in this time of austerity; vast cuts in funds are quietly and radically downsizing it, reducing it, withering it. The ability to deliver public services at a reasonable level is being compromised. The document scarcely explains the future will be pared down and does not assure us that there are worked out plans that take that into account in the devolution demands. The document does not explain how a downsized, underfunded Cornwall Council will deliver its goals.

I think the document also fails to acknowledge that it is describing the current contingent economic model not an essential one. It places too much reliance on what it calls Cornwall’s “defined geography”, an extraordinarily narrow perspective in the vicinal and cooperative world of 2014. The incoherence is realised as there is an anxious assurance that the isolationism isn’t isolationist and the council works with other bodies outside “defined” Cornwall.

Centripetal
The council’s view of itself in the document is not only too self-confident; it disregards the concern that it disregards the interests of Cornwall’s far flung parts. There are complaints that the council is over-focused on Truro. The council’s own localist agenda amounts to little more than offloading difficult services such public lavatories, more cloacalism than localism.

Nationalism
The draft document was accompanied by political nationalist ideas: “The Cornish have minority status, we have one heritage.” I understand pride in Cornishness but the political nationalism is a misdirection of reality in the county. In the 2011 census 59 percent of people in Cornwall gave their nationality as solely English; 10 percent gave it as exclusively Cornish. The heritage of the majority of people in Cornwall includes far more than only Cornwall. The document should acknowledge the diversity in Cornwall, the value of all nationalities and cultures in Cornwall, and explain the place of English people and culture in its devolved Cornwall.

Of course political nationalism may be being used only as a marketing tool for an economic devolution argument, a bolster for that argument; perhaps Cornish is intended to mean everyone who lives in Cornwall. But consider that bit in the document about cornishing English Heritage in the county. Why? What is the justification for this? None is given. What would be the practical difference if a local organisation ran the Cornwall sites? None whatever apart perhaps from some partisan history; it is naked, pointless, petty, tribal political nationalism.


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