What can we learn from other areas? We have a couple of examples from different parts of England. In Herefordshire, campaigners against a major building scheme in Hereford and plans for hundreds of houses in the countryside joined force with sympathetic councillors in July 2010 to form It’s Our County (Herefordshire) (IOC). The organisation, at first a pressure group, became a political party and fought the May 2011 local elections, putting up candidates in half the wards of the unitary authority and winning nine seats. This year, IOC stood in 41 of the 52 wards in the May elections and gained another three councillors, coming second in a further 15 wards. It’s now the main opposition to the Tory administration. IOC has a constitution that admits supporters and paying members, the latter determining the direction of the party. It claims it’s a ‘new kind of political party dedicated to returning democracy to Herefordshire and promoting what makes it so special’. Ring any bells?
If anything, even more impressive is the Guildford Greenbelt Group (GGG). Formed in December 2013 to unite opposition to plans to build in the countryside, this became a political party in November 2014. Just five months later, it put forward candidates in 15 of the 22 wards of Guildford District Council and succeeded in winning three seats. Again, this number would have been a lot higher (more like eight) under a less antiquated and proportional voting system. Several GGG candidates came second and were not that far away from winning.
The GGG also has a paid membership structure, charging £10 for individuals and £15 for organisations. It’s similar to IOC but more focused on planning issues, ‘passionate about protecting the countryside and committed to respecting a sense of place’, and with a more professional website. Its manifesto commitments earlier this year could easily be tweaked to apply to Cornwall, for example something like this ….
- preparing a new Local Plan based on real local needs, not developers’ wishes
- respecting a Cornish scale of settlement
- establishing a democratic local planning framework with devolution of planning
- powers to a Cornish Assembly
- protecting the Cornish countryside and green spaces
- giving more power to parish councils and local communities by respecting their views and rejecting developer-led planning
The relative success of both groups in the local elections, despite being drowned out by a general election during which local issues were relegated in importance, shows that campaigns against developer-led planning, and local authority collusion in, or submission to, the process can touch a popular chord. Incidentally, it’s also noticeable that in both Herefordshire and Guildford the protest vote that went to Ukip elsewhere was picked up by these local parties. We might also note that, despite having been going for five years, the IOC facebook page has just over 1,000 likes. The GGG page has 460, but the It’s Our Cornwall page is now almost at 2,000, which surely might indicate a potential level of support. However, transforming potential support into actual activism is not an overnight task. It took a year from initial discussions among campaigners in Herefordshire to the launch of IOC.
We have our target, which is the local elections in 2017. But in order to mount a credible challenge along the lines of either of these upcountry groups, ideally a start has to be made this year. Only a political movement will fill the vacuum at a Cornwall level and provide a lightning rod for the simmering disquiet about Cornwall Council’s failures. It needs to have a simple set of aims, to be inclusive (for example by being open to members of other parties and by seeking electoral pacts where desirable), and to have an action plan.