With impeccable timing, on April 1st the news broke that Cornwall Council was launching a ‘Stand up for Cornwall’ campaign to demonstrate public backing for its case for devolving some powers from London to Cornwall Council. But, like the Grand Old Duke of York, Leader John Pollard stanked up to the top of the hill only to turn around to find that … not 10,000 had followed him, more like 300 or so.
The Cornish masses have met Cornwall Council’s rallying cry with a collective stifled yawn of indifference. Undeterred, the Leader’s loyal officer cadre has now rather amazingly concluded that there is ‘strong support for the Case for Cornwall’. On the basis of this, they’re asking the Council’s Cabinet to recommend approval to full council.
They may be adept at making a pig look like a princess, but the Council’s elite seem to have taken a step too far here and drifted off entirely into their own little dream world. This is a place where evidence takes on an ethereal, hazy and mysterious quality. The view from Kremlin Kernow is of a land populated by hundreds of thousands of grateful citizens waving their flags and urging on the Council with tears of joy in their eyes. However, for anyone who hasn’t consumed too much Spingo and with a vestige of critical faculty left in their heads, the Council’s ‘Stand up for Cornwall’ ‘engagement’ looks a lot more like an unmitigated disaster.
Let’s leave dreamland behind us for a few minutes. In the more than three months since the launch of ‘Stand up for Cornwall’ at the end of March, its facebook page garnered just 232 likes. The last post was put on the page on the 26th May, the previous one on 13th April, suggesting a rather low level of activity and interest. The total reach of the page in over three months has been 2,649 people. The Council’s ‘engagement’ team seem quite proud of this. But put it into perspective. It’s about the same as the It’s Our Cornwall facebook page gets in an average 24 hours.
The ‘Stand up for Cornwall’ twitter feed fares no better, with just 63 followers – in over three months?! Hardly surprising when even the Council’s ‘engagement team,’ seemed to have lost the will to live a month ago and been unable to summon up enough energy to tweet since June 4th. By any standards, the social media campaign has been an utter flop, resulting in a level of disengagement previously unsurpassed in the history of democratic governance and making Cornwall Council into a laughing stock.
Similarly, the ‘consultation’ meetings organised by the Council attracted a grand total of 198 people plus 127 more of us who, rather sadly, had nothing better to do with our time than follow the webcast of the Truro meeting. And most of those attending that meeting were more determined to grill Pollard and the rapidly departing (although was he ever here?) Chief Executive Andrew Kerr about the Council’s developer-led planning strategy. In total there’s been a massive 387 responses to the Council’s request for feedback on its ‘Case for Cornwall’. That’s 0.09% of the Cornish electorate, and even then each specific ‘ask’ of the ‘Case for Cornwall’ was only supported by from 36% to 69% of respondents. Meanwhile, it’s best not to dwell on the Stalinist online form, which consisted of asking people to ‘tell us why you’re standing up for Cornwall’, with little opportunity to express opposition.
Clearly, the vast majority of people are not ‘standing up’ for Cornwall. In the real world this disengagement would be met by the sound of heads rolling. But not at Lys Kernow, where it’s instead interpreted as ‘strong support’. Presumably in their more sober moments (if they have any) at least some of the elite congratulating themselves in the Leader’s office as they sip their sherries may in private wonder why their ‘Stand up for Cornwall’ campaign met with such a hugely underwhelming response. Scratching their heads, they surely pondered deep into the night on the reasons why their attempt to get more powers for Cornwall Council proved to be such a damp squib. Yet the answer stares them in the face. Most people outside the Council can distinguish between standing up for Cornwall and standing up for Cornwall Council. The two are not the same. It’s not just a few disgruntled parish councillors in the sticks or nimbys trying to protect the value of their houses; there’s a rising tide of contempt for Cornwall Council and all its works.
To be fair, much of the detail in the Council’s ‘Case for Cornwall’ would be supportable in a different context. For example, if it was part of devolution to a genuinely strategic Cornish Assembly or part of a much more ambitious package that included democratic accountability and measures of cultural protection. But the ‘Case for Cornwall’ founders on the yawning gulf between the Council’s rhetoric and its track record.
Take population growth. The Council admits that its first ‘challenge’ is that the population is ‘changing and growing’. Can it be finally realising that its long-held strategy of supporting a population growth rate three times that of England and four times that of Wales might be leading to the disastrous transformation of Cornish landscapes and the de-Cornishization of our communities? Well, not really. It fails to call for the control of planning necessary to get a grip on this issue. Indeed, it’s not only failed to resist the process of developer-led population growth in the past; it’s actively colluded with developers in building the unaffordable housing that attracts people to Cornwall. In fact, it proudly includes among its ‘decisions and achievements’ becoming a ‘can-do council’ in 2011, when it notoriously boasted about pushing the build rate even higher, by up to 50%.
It stretches credulity and seems disingenuous, indeed dishonest, for the Council to suddenly do a u-turn and express its keenness to tackle the second homes scandal and provide decent, affordable housing when, as Andrew Kerr’s remark about living in a developer-led world would indicate, councillors and planners have up to now been unable to imagine anything other than that developer-led world.
Or take the reference to Cornish identity in the ‘Case for Cornwall’. The Council also claims credit for the ‘recognition of the Cornish as a national minority’, even though that, like the award of EU Objective One funding in 1999, only occurred after many years of tireless campaigning by others outside the Council. This campaigning often received only the feeblest support from Cornwall Council or its predecessors incidentally. But let’s forget about that and re-write history instead.
Yet here we are, a year after national minority status was gained, and the Council has still not produced a policy paper on the implications. In fact, its officers have stubbornly resisted calls to use the clauses of the Framework Convention as part of a more robust case for reducing the housing target and giving Cornish communities a well-earned breathing space. We can forgive people therefore for their widespread scepticism and the suspicion that the nod towards the Cornish identity in the ‘Case for Cornwall’ is merely a token, part of the usual cynical manoeuvring to get central government to cough up a bit more cash for Cornwall Council. This conclusion might just be reinforced when we read that top of the list in the ‘Case for Cornwall’ is a five-year funding settlement that would redirect £30 million of stamp duty receipts (dependent on a continuing healthy rate of house sales note) into the Council’s coffers.
The belated report this week on EU Objective One/Convergence spending starkly illustrates how it has failed to come close to meeting targets. But the rot in Cornwall’s government structures and its ruling elite goes a lot wider than the Convergence programme. Cornwall Council proposes to take over the EU grant programme. But could they do better? Their recent record suggests not – a botched privatisation deal with BT that failed to deliver job promises or provide a satisfactory working IT environment for council employees; the continued pouring of £millions into prestige projects that have also missed promised targets by a wide margin, while planning to offload libraries and heritage services; the wasting of money on highly-paid chief executives who can’t even be bothered to live in Cornwall. Is it any wonder that the Council’s desire to take over the EU grant programme, let alone health and social care in Cornwall, is met with a shiver of fear from the Cornish public?
Hopefully, councillors, who up to now have patently failed to understand what devolution actually requires, will come to their senses and do the decent thing. Cornwall Council is a jumped-up local authority and not a strategic assembly, so just give the ‘Case for Cornwall’ a decent burial. The ‘engagement strategy’ of ‘Stand up for Cornwall’ has been an unmitigated and embarrassing disaster for the Council and should tell them something. Drop it now before you do even more damage.
If the Tory Government was deliberately setting out to come up with a way to discredit the cause of Cornish devolution they couldn’t do much better than to ‘devolve’ a few powers to Cornwall Council. Having already done much by its formation to destroy the idea of local democracy in Cornwall as well as effectively undermine the case for a Cornish Assembly, the unitary authority and its hapless members are now poised to finish the job and sterilise calls for genuine devolution of power to a strategic Cornish Assembly for a few generations at least.
We need devolution, but not to Cornwall Council. Properly democratic devolution, not the developer-friendly devolution that giving more power to Cornwall Council would indubitably saddle us with. We need a grassroots campaign for genuine devolution, one that is less cryptic than the Council’s ‘Case for Cornwall (Council)’, with its obscure ‘challenges’ – ‘the cost of living is increasing inequality’ (what the hell does that mean?) and its robotic management-speak. Equality with the Scots, Welsh and the English is not some add-on but should be centre-stage; the case for Cornwall should rest on the retention and enhancement of Cornish difference.
The Council, somewhat breathtakingly, assures us with a straight face in the ‘Case for Cornwall (Council)’ that ‘we have long campaigned for Cornwall to have greater autonomy from London’. If that were true then the Council might begin to restore its battered reputation by ditching its ‘Case for Cornwall (Council)’ and instead throw its weight behind a campaign for a democratically-elected strategic assembly and the restoration of an accountable local government structure in Cornwall.