What the hell is going on at Cornwall Council? On those extremely rare occasions when people think about local government they probably have a hazy notion that councils provide public services paid for out of our rates and taxes. Decisions are made by councillors, who we elect, and officers loyally carry out those decisions.
Reality is not so straightforward. In the local elections last year, to our eternal shame, the Great Cornish Electorate returned basically the same crew of councillors. Since then councillors have been surprisingly quiet as Cornwall Council’s leadership takes them forward into its own brave new world of private sector local (?) government.
While most councillors were busy practicing their impressions of startled rabbits paralysed by the headlights of the oncoming privatisation train, the Council’s ‘Delivering Homes, Jobs and Communities Task and Finish Group’ was meeting. This was set up to assess the Council’s ‘appetite for risk’. It was also supposed to weigh up financial outcomes and commercial opportunities against social and environmental objectives, although the minutes, which are well worth a read, betray a predictably narrow definition of society and environment.
Then there was a lot of silly, macho posturing in the media about a spaceport based at Newquay airport. The Council tells us that this is the fastest growing airport in the UK, although this isn’t too difficult to achieve as for several years it was the fastest declining airport in the UK. That was followed up by a fanfare of self-congratulation and boisterous back-slapping as the Council announced it was again building council houses. On closer inspection however, these turned out to be council houses that no-one would recognise as council houses. In fact, they seemed suspiciously identical to private developers’ housing. Which wasn’t surprising as the Council had in the meantime mutated into a private developer.
While it was doing that, the Council, using a definition of democracy hitherto unknown, had hived off responsibility for strategic decision-making to a shadowy Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board. This was apparently a ‘key strategic partnership’ but also conveniently makes the decision-making process in Cornwall even more opaque. It removes it to a safe arms-length distance, remote from any possible taint of popular control.
Most recently, we’ve seen the public relations disaster of council officers rushing off eagerly to taste the fleshpots of Cannes in order to prostrate themselves before international investors, hoping to sell Cornwall to them. Suffice it to say that those Tory MPs who were quick to condemn the Lib Dem/Indie leadership for this jaunt were quickly exposed as cynical hypocrites. It turns out they’re up to their neck in the same slimy cesspit of ideological effluent.
Let’s draw a curtain over that distasteful scene. Overall, we now have a widening gulf of perceptions in Cornwall. From inside the leadership bunker the Council is a gleaming beacon of efficiency. They really do seem to believe that the rest of UK local government looks toward Truro with open-mouthed awe, inspired by its go-getting innovative approach and jealous of the way it’s loved and respected by all its residents. Outside the bunker, the word on the street is that Cornwall Council engages in fake consultations, is crap at communicating its ideas, couldn’t organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery, is in bed with developers and is determined to destroy the Cornishness of Cornwall while trampling over its environment. Someone is deluded, that’s for sure.
The Council does have a predicament. To explain its direction of travel we have to first understand how this predicament has arisen. As we shall see, changes in financing local government have combined with a lack of vision, failures of communication (and listening) and a reluctance to abandon 50-year old policy follies to produce the present sad situation. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why Cornwall Council has made the choices it has.