How democratic is Cornwall? There are three simple tests of democratic health. First, how often can we vote for our representatives? Second, how easy is it to make our views known and influence representatives between elections? Third, how well-informed are we about our representatives, their opinions and their actions?
Local democracy in Cornwall was sadly diminished in 2009 by the imposition of unitary local government by a cabal of a London Labour Government and Truro Liberal Democrat leadership. Instead of voting for local councillors every two years, as was the case before, we’re now only allowed to vote every four years. Even if we take into account other types of elections the Cornish voter has fewer opportunities to vote than most other places. Amazingly, in the towns we now have fewer than half the opportunities our great-grandfathers had over a century ago.
Opportunities to vote in a twenty year cycle (all levels)
|English metropolitan districts||23|
|Cornwall 1895-1914 (boroughs)||31|
|Cornwall 1895-1914 (rural)||21|
Meanwhile, in 2009 the number of local councillors was drastically slashed, from 329 to 123. The impending boundary review is set to reduce this even further, perhaps as low as 75. So, as our population spirals, the number of elected representatives falls. The fewer the number of councillors, the easier it is for council officers and external lobbyists to manage and influence them and the more difficult it becomes for local community groups.
Moreover, the democratic infrastructure has decayed faster in Cornwall than in most other regions of the UK. Here’s the current situation. After the boundary review the number of people per councillor, now at around 4,500, could be as high as 7,300. The UK average is around 3,000 people per councillor. Compare that with 1,700 in the Netherlands, 600 or so in Italy and Spain, 420 in Germany and just 120 in France, where the powers of communes would be the envy of our impotent parish councils.
Turning to the second of our criteria for democratic health, we only have to observe the way Cornwall Council regularly dismisses community concerns about hyper-development and prioritises developers’ profits over community wishes to see how poorly we fare in this respect. The Council has not only tamely rolled over to allow Cornwall to become a developers’ paradise where more houses are built pro-rata than in any English or Welsh county. It has actively collaborated to produce that outcome.
Yet next May, many of the current councillors will be standing for re-election in local elections. As anger and dismay over the transformation of Cornwall mounts, expect a torrent of soothing assurances from candidates of all parties. Of course they sturdily oppose hyper-development, obviously they favour local needs housing above second houses, plainly they hate being saddled with such an excessive housing target.
But how do we know? This is where the third measure of democratic health should come into play. Don’t accept what the councillors say, look at what they’ve done. Which councillors have consistently voted for mass housing ‘developments’ across our land? Which have raised their voices against such building and for a rational housing policy? In the next blog I’ll try to lift the veil a little. It’s time to name some names.