Cornwall Council’s choice: Place-shaping, privatisation and policy follies

To understand what might otherwise appear to be the collective insanity gripping a power-crazed elite at Truro we need to set it in the context of major reductions in the revenue support grant central government gives to local government. These amount to a 77% cut in the five years from 2015 and the end of local government grants entirely by 2020. But we need to cast the net even wider to fully grasp what’s going on.

Local government cuts have had two useful benefits for central government. The first is to obfuscate the austerity programme, making local government undertake the most savage cuts. This meant that blame could be neatly diverted from the Tory/Lib Dem and then Tory Government to hapless local councillors. This was made even easier in cases like Cornwall Council where the Council rolled over and refused to criticise government policy openly. It’s also abysmally failed to communicate its problems to the people, preferring to act as a relatively willing handmaiden of the central state.

The second effect was to create panic and paralysis in the corridors of local government, softening it up for the broader privatisation agenda of the Government. This is a perfect example of Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’. In her view crises, whether economic, environmental or political, have been seized upon as opportunities by neo-liberal ideologues to impose their dogma (and in the process make themselves and their mates very, very rich.)

In a context of declining future revenue, Cornwall Council has had to look at how it might weather the coming financial blizzard. As a result, it’s slipped from being the representative and champion of Cornish communities (if it ever was – I’ll leave that one open to debate) to being principally concerned with saving its own institutional skin. This explains the cosying up to developers and the return to a housing and population-led strategy (more houses and more people mean a higher tax base). It also explains the desperate search for ‘partners’, as the Council seeks to spread risk (and blame). It makes sense of the various projects to outsource services or privatise them outright, blurring the line between public and private and in the process conveniently making accountability even more obscure.

It also helps to explain the growing secretiveness of the leadership bunker. As in the Cannes public relations fiasco, the bunker now refuses even its own councillors a say on its strategic direction. Fearful of having its strategy questioned and (God forbid) changed, as it can envisage no alternative, it desperately pleads to councillors to put loyalty to the institution before their loyalty to those who elected them. This is why senior officers are probably supremely relaxed about the prospect of Cornwall’s elected representatives soon suffering a cull on a scale unprecedented in the history of ‘English’ local government. The fewer there are, the more remote becomes the terrifying prospect of effective criticism from within the institution.

Meanwhile, proclamations to the public are marked by a growing air of unreality. Anodyne visions are robotically unveiled. Crocodile tears are copiously shed for the less fortunate even as the services they get are shredded mercilessly. Ridiculously over-ambitious claims are made that the Council is the best in the land and glowing peer reviews carried out by other councils are flourished with pride. Although these are greeted with amused incredulity, irritation and contempt in towns and villages across Cornwall. Arrogant threats to silence critics are made as the Council over-reacts badly to local campaigners. All this comes on top of the long-familiar disingenuous and casual misuse of selected statistics and evidence that has been business as usual for so long. It’s hardly surprising that the gulf between the Council’s leadership and the mass of the public – disillusioned, dispirited and disbelieving or angry, astonished and amazed in turn – widens by the day.

To sum up, Cornwall Council’s leadership clique has determined that the only way it can survive is to resort to the poacher turned gamekeeper strategy. Thoroughly captured by corporate interests, it acts like a corporation. Prevented from regulating developers by changes in the planning laws, it becomes a developer itself. From representing communities, the Council turns to transforming and re-engineering communities, or ‘place-shaping’ in the jargon it prefers. This turns what should happen on its head. Instead of communities being in control of their destiny and shaping their political representatives to achieve their real needs, we have the political superstructure shaping communities to suit its need and the interests of developers, central government and better-off visitors (both permanent and temporary).

Come back tomorrow to find out what Cornwall Council’s big idea is. (No prizes for guessing.)

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