In the evening Carmelite Street in London is a quiet place, its narrow streets bereft of life. But wait. A lone figure staggers out of the nearby Blackfriars tube station and heads back to the New Statesman office. Having spent a few hours in Cornwall in the company of Tory MP George Eustice and various of the local self-appointed great and good, the NS scribbler just had time to grab a latté before penning a thousand words or so on ‘the real Cornwall: a county poorer than Lithuania or Hungary‘.
Job done. A frisson of excitement for the second home owners who can savour their proximity to the dangerous classes and a sop to the natives. ‘They’ll be chuffed with that’ he thought to himself, ‘a brave exposé of the food banks, domestic abuse and poverty that fester behind the media’s normal fawning coverage of David Cameron’s favourite holiday hideout’.
Sure enough, the natives were, ever eager and proper grateful for a few crumbs falling from the metropolitan table and a little recognition of the reality lurking behind the chintz curtains of Lifestyle Cornwall. It’s always good to get wise men from the east to tell us how poor we are or we wouldn’t know it, would we?
Hang on though. Hold the front page. Or even the inside page. How ‘real’ is the New Statesman‘s characterisation of Cornwall, in particular of Camborne-Redruth? Read it carefully; note how few facts appear. There’s an alarming absence of quantitative evidence, apart from the numbers using the food bank at Redruth, where they have to run the gauntlet of the rats running up and down its squalid streets feeding on the bodies that lie in the gutters in various states of drunken stupor.
Yet there’s no comparison of those numbers with anywhere else. No context at all in fact. There’s a few anecdotes, some of which ring true, and several of the regeneration elite are quoted uncritically. George Eustice sounds downbeat, unable to equate the low wage economy he bemoans with the persistent and quaint local custom of electing Tory MPs.
Meanwhile, Oliver Baines of the charity Cornwall Foundation (the giveaway lies in the adjective) asserts wildly that Camborne and Redruth are ‘shunned by the professional classes, with poor educational attainment and low aspirations’. Really? Or is this an easy stereotype recycled by our opinion-formers with those ‘low aspirations’ confined to the stubborn natives, poor dears?
Let’s look at one or two facts rather than resort to insulting stereotypes and patronising comments.
Take the ‘shunning’ of the professional classes. In 2011, was there anyone in Camborne or Redruth with at least NVA level 4 qualifications, higher education appropriate for people working in technical and professional jobs or managing others? Obviously not, if we believe Oliver Baines. Yet the census tells us that 18.1% of people in Camborne and 19.6% in Redruth did have Level 4 or higher qualifications. This wasn’t amazingly lower than the Cornish mean of 25.0% and it was higher than Bodmin, about the same as Torpoint or St Austell and only a little lower than Newquay (Census table ks501ew).
Ah, but Cornwall is poorer than Lithuania or Hungary, the NS tells us. Well, that seems to depend on which statistics you use. If it’s GDP per capita, using standard purchasing power to allow for differential living costs then yes; Cornwall’s GDP per capita is now lower than Lithuania. But it’s still above Hungary. Eastern Europe has been catching up since the crash of 2008 while the UK (and with it Cornwall) has stagnated in terms of GDP per head (Eurostat regional database).
GDP per capita (euros)
(Source: Eurostat regional database)
But is GDP the best measure? A more direct measurement would be the net disposable income available to households – what they have to spend, again allowing for different costs of living. In this respect Cornish households are still a lot better off than those in Lithuania or Hungary. True, the gap is narrowing (and the most recent dataset is not that recent) but at this rate it’ll take Lithuania until around 2025 to catch up with us.
Net disposable household income (euros)
(Source: Eurostat regional database)
The NS quotes Sally Piper of Skoodhya Ltd as saying ‘Camborne, Pool and Redruth areas have some of the highest deprivation in the country’ (presumably meaning England and Cornwall). Let’s not get too excited but put this in perspective. In fact, of the 22 Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in Camborne and Redruth, only four are among the 10% most deprived LSOAs, with another four in the 20% most deprived. The worst ranks 606th out of around 33,000. This is bad, but half of Camborne and Redruth’s LSOAs cluster around the average for England. Indeed, the most deprived LSOA in Cornwall isn’t found in either Camborne or Redruth; it’s in Penzance. (DCLG Multiple Deprivation Index, 2015).
Although the NS has just woken up to it, Cornwall’s relatively poor economic performance is hardly exactly news. Back in May 2014 the local press were headlining that Cornwall was ‘less wealthy’ than Poland, Lithuania or Hungary, citing GDP and wage levels. (There are no Eurostat data for the latter so I haven’t been able to check this, but it seems unlikely that wages in Cornwall are lower than eastern Europe given that the migration flow has been from east to west rather than from Cornwall to Poland and Lithuania.)
At that time the local elite were puzzled, after £1 billion of EU funding had been thrown at the problem. Lib Dem peer Robin Teverson said, ‘we might have to re-think what we are doing‘. Since then of course, there’s been no ‘re-thinking’, something tellingly not mentioned by the NS’s intrepid reporter. For others Objective One grants spent on expanding higher education in Cornwall might never have happened. According to the mayor of Camborne ‘lots of people who go to university tend to stay away’, apparently blissfully unaware of the massive growth of university education in Cornwall since 2000.
It also seems the New Statesman‘s man took a ‘two minute-walk from Camborne station … to the barren old home of CompAir Holman’. The geography of this has to remain part of ‘mysterious Cornwall’. Is the NS defining Tesco Camborne as a barren wasteland? Suppose some might say it is.
Meanwhile, as he totters back to the station to write up his discoveries, he notes the large numbers in Camborne-Redruth ‘engaged in part-time work, such as in agriculture or the declining fishing industry’. Low paid and part-time yes but it’s more likely to be in the normal service sector jobs. It’s been years since I bumped into a fisherman carting his nets up Fore Street, Redruth.
Let’s pull a veil over the New Statesman‘s embarrassment at publishing this shallow, poorly researched piece. Such nonsense can only be explained in two ways. Either the reporter spent a little too much time in Wetherspoons. Or he allowed his preconceptions to overlay any critical approach to the ‘real Cornwall’ with the latest version of the familiar old ‘west Barbary’.
Incidentally, for the NS a ‘basic symptom of neglect’ is the two and a half hours it takes to get from Exeter to Camborne by train. On that measure London must be even more neglected as it takes us nearly five hours to get there.