Primed for Success? Cornwall Council dreams of growth

Cornwall Council earlier this year commissioned a ‘governance review’, asking four external experts to examine its ‘governance arrangements’ with a view to recommending what governance should look like in 2021 ‘to help Cornwall achieve its ambitions’. In reality of course, this last should have read ‘to help Cornwall Council achieve its ambitions’.

The resulting report, optimistically entitled Primed for Success, is well-meaning, but predictable, uninspiring and fundamentally flawed. It’s touchingly naive or silent about the structural challenges Cornwall faces, apparently unaware of Cornish claims to special treatment in terms of government, narrow and timid in its recommendations and thoroughly wedded to dominant ideological dogma. Which may be what Cornwall Council’s leadership wanted.

On the other hand, that leadership won’t be so keen on a major disjunction that the report highlights, although one passed over without mention in the Council’s own gushing press release. In their ‘vision of Cornwall in 2021’, the Governance Review Group looks forward to a time when ‘the majority of residents feel that they can inform local decision making and satisfaction with the Council is above the national average and increasing year by year’ (p.4). Achieving this in just five years might seem a tad ambitious when placed alongside the findings of the report.

For example, there was a ‘poor public perception’ of the Council (p.6). ‘We witnessed members of the public and town and parish councillors being highly vocal in their criticism of the Council’ (p.9). There was a ‘deep rooted opinion that the Council does not care about its communities, that it makes decisions in its best interests rather than for the wider good’ (p.9). ‘Communities do not feel listened to’, while ‘public consultation is little more than a box-ticking exercise’ and there was a ‘perceived arrogance’ in Cornwall Council’s dealings with local communities (p.12). Even the Council’s ‘partners’ were unenthusiastic, with a ‘strong perception … that the Council only took their views at a late stage of policy development or decision making’ (p.6).

The reaction of councillors and officers to this only reinforces the impression of remote arrogance. ‘We heard many times some puzzlement from councillors and officers that the Council was not as highly regarded as they would expect’ (p.6). Which perfectly illustrates how hopelessly out of touch they are with opinion in the grassroots in Cornwall.

The contrast between the councillors’ and officers’ perceptions and community views is blamed in part by the Review Group on a lack of ‘professional communications’ (p.6). (Which might be expected given that its Chair is a ‘communications professional’ and another member of the group worked in the media.) Another part of the blame is assigned to councillors who lack ‘corporate loyalty’ (p.10). Members were sometimes openly critical of the Council, something the Review Group was ‘surprised’ at. Echoing the peer review hatchet job performed on the Strategic Planning Committee by the Local Government Association last November, the Review authors called for a changed role for councillors. They need to ‘be part of a shared vision for Cornwall, the strategic position on issues such as growth and commercialisation will have implications for their communities for which they need to serve as advocates’ (p.11). It’s a little unclear from this whether they should be advocates for their communities or advocates for the strategic position. The implication is the latter, as it was in the planning peer review last year.

What is it about the word ‘representative’ in the phrase ‘representative democracy’ that these people don’t understand? Call me old-fashioned but I thought that in a representative democracy we voted for representatives who are then accountable to, although not mandated by, those who elect them. Now, it seems the primary role of those we elect is to represent the interests of the institution they are elected to back to their voters, rather than represent our interests in the decision-making of that institution.

The underlying agenda of both this report and the planning peer review seems to be to muzzle even further councillors’ ability or desire to represent their electorates. Councillors are no longer a sounding board for democratic opinion, a bridge between sovereign voters and institutions of government; they have become an inconvenient barrier to executive strategy.

Rather naively, the Review Group felt that those who told them ‘the Council takes the side of developers over communities’ merely had a ‘perception’ this was so (p.9). No, this is no unfounded or trivial ‘perception’. The Council’s Housing Devolution Bid, irresponsibly adding houses to an already bloated housing target; the close relationships between planning officers and developers; the words of Head of Planning Phil Mason that ‘although there is a perception in Cornwall that development is a bad thing, our joint role is all about making people’s lives better through development’ (Planning Agents Forum meeting, October 2015) are surely enough to convince anyone beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Council is most definitely taking ‘the side of developers over communities’.

If this is the case then councillors are being told to become advocates for a ‘vision’ which boils down merely to more population and housing growth sweetened by vague promises of ‘jobs’ and a higher GVA. This sits strangely with another recommendation of the Review Group that councillors should cease to see their role as unqualified social workers but should ‘develop community resilience’ (p.30). How they’re supposed to do this at the same time as justifying the growth agenda and exposing their communities to massive population growth pressures is unexplained.

Cornwall Council's 'vision'; our nightmare

Cornwall Council’s ‘vision’; our nightmare

One thing the Review Group calls for that we can all agree on is the ‘need for a unified vision and strategy for Cornwall’ (p.10). But whose ‘vision’? The implicit vision in this document seems to be the same tired old business-as-usual, never-ending-growth scenario. The authors of the Review have plainly never read Tim Jackson’s call for a stable state economy (Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, 2009), which makes a powerful case against an illogical growth economy that is destroying our planet. Or if they have read it they don’t understand it. Instead, growth is taken for granted and the anodyne vision is merely that ‘all places and communities … share in the benefit of growth’ (p.7). The Review Group even uncritically repeats the bizarre assertion made by the planning peer review last November that ‘some in the private sector (believe) that Cornwall is not ‘open for business’, due to a resistance to growth’ (p.10).

But this isn’t just any old growth. This is neo-liberal growth, private sector-led growth. The Review Group’s ‘vision’ therefore includes an enhanced role for business. Cornwall Council should ‘set the economic, environmental and social agenda for Cornwall with the business community’ (p.7). The ‘private sector will increasingly be funding public services’ (p.11), they say, meekly accepting the sell-off of public assets that hides behind the rhetoric of austerity politics and neo-liberal dogma. ‘This will necessitate a much stronger voice for the business community in local decision making’ (p.11).

While business is given a privileged place in the ‘vision’ the Review Group maps out for Cornwall Council, local communities have a much more passive role. The word ‘democracy’ is mentioned just once in the 37 pages of the main text. ‘Deliberative local democracy’ whatever that is, should be developed, but even then as part of ‘effective’ decision making, not as a value or goal in its own right.

Meanwhile, what about the Cornish Assembly? This is dismissed in one short paragraph. The report states that ‘the model was described as more outward-looking, able to promote and sell Cornwall’ (p.22). However, by not commenting directly on it, it resisted drawing attention to this alternative to an unfit for purpose Cornwall Council.

Primed for Success was drawn up by an external review group. External in one sense perhaps, in that only one of its four members lived in Cornwall. But the group was hardly external in another, being embedded in that shadowy quango-world of the project class, with only an arms-length relationship to the concept of democratic accountability. The Chair, Jacqui McKinlay, is Chief Executive of the London-based Centre for Policy Scrutiny and describes herself as a communications professional. Before that, she spent several years in local government. Andrew Campbell is Associate Director at the Local Government Association and spent much of his career as a Whitehall bureaucrat. Jane McCloskey is a business consultant with a background in media management. Oliver Baines is Chief Executive of the Cornwall Community Foundation.

All have, or had, close relations with the world of local government. Perhaps a review group more external to that world might have come up with some more innovative solutions and realised that Cornwall Council and its ‘growth vision’ is actually most of the problem, not the solution.

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