Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending to this series of blogs. Opposition to the increasingly desperate and out-of-touch hyper-growth strategy of our ruling elite is fragmented and weak. Organisation is absent. Although many people are vaguely concerned about the direction the Council and its partners are taking us, levels of disaffection from ‘politics’ and the democratic process work to numb many of them into helpless passivity. If they do get involved they’re all too easily captured by an English/British nationalist populism or celebrity socialism and unable to engage their critical faculties. Are there any silver linings? Maybe one or two, which I’ll return to at the end of this. For now though, let’s just nail the way the Council’s leadership has been cynically complicit in making Cornwall safe from democracy.
Cornwall Council’s self-appointed ‘opinion-formers’ live in a little bubble where nothing is allowed to disrupt their growth plans. The biggest potential hazard they face is democracy. And there is a minority, though growing, collection of cynics and sceptics out there in the real world who harbour one or two doubts about the grand plan. They see their local townscape and environment being irrevocably changed and ask in whose interests this might be happening. Either getting no answer or finding the answers they get unsatisfactory or fatuous, they begin to question the Council’s old-fashioned growth fetish. If that sort of subversive thinking is allowed to get out of hand, the Council’s plans might well go up in smoke, burnt to a crisp by the flames of democracy.
We’ve already seen the de-democratization of local government against the wishes of its people in 2009. Now, we have a further culling of elected representation on the horizon, making Cornish communities the least represented, in quantitative terms, anywhere in the UK. We’ve also had the creeping process of privatisation and PFI contracts. This has the added advantage from the Council leadership’s perspective, of hiding accountability under a veil of commercial confidentiality.
The final piece of the jigsaw comes in removing money and decision-making from elected to unaccountable, non-elected bodies. One such is the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which gained the most out of the first undemocratic ‘devolution deal’. Now, we are seeing a further extension of that process. While focusing on saving its own bacon, Cornwall Council has endeavoured to share the responsibility (and blame) for its unsustainable and irresponsible growth strategy with some fellow-travellers. This was done through establishing the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board, which couples unthinking commitment to a short-sighted market-led growth strategy with immunity from any direct democratic accountability. A clever wheeze indeed. It first met last November. The agendas of its meetings are on the Council website but the minutes, although promised, are missing.
So who’s on this Board? First, there are those who are in theory directly answerable to the people, although strangely reluctant to involve the people of the communities that require more resilience in planning how to become more ‘resilient’. Cornwall Council, the Isles of Scilly Council and the Cornwall Association of Local Councils have seven members. Along with these, we have Cornwall’s six MPs plus the Devonwall Police and Crime Commissioner, all these of course being Conservatives. The second group comprises the chairs of a bunch of quangos – NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group, the Cornwall Health and Welfare Board, Cornwall & IOS Local Nature Partnership and the Cornwall & IOS Local Enterprise Partnership, none of which have any democratic accountability. Finally, neither does the President of the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, who has been brought along to pull the business sector on board.
According to New Frontiers the Board provides ‘the collective leadership we need to increase our environmental, economic and social resilience, and flourish beyond Brexit’ (p.1) One assumes this clique agrees with the ominous promise of the New Frontiers authors that ‘Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is a natural test-bed for new approaches to the grand challenges facing our society’. Watch out, as your community may well soon be in line to be a test-bed for these latter-day Frankensteins intent on giving us a good dose of place-shaping.
For Cornwall’s Leadership Board, a reliance on unsustainable housing and population growth as the tired old core of the Council’s strategic policy is no problem at all. After all, the Council’s New Frontiers bid for a second devolution deal shamefully says not one word about Cornish culture or Cornish heritage, so we can hardly expect assorted quangoites and Conservatives, many of whom have a fairly superficial knowledge of such things, to bring up those embarrassing topics.
The Council and their partners say they have no alternative. But let’s imagine for a moment that Cornwall and Scilly really were test-beds for a genuinely new approach. Then we might see other plans. For example, there might be suggestions of how to create a properly sustainable and balanced stable state economy, or signposts for developing a genuinely democratic, participatory governance structure, or details of the local efforts required to achieve the near 100% cut in greenhouse gas emissions we need by 2040 to have a snowflake’s chance in hell of avoiding dangerous climate change. Such a document might ask central government for serious planning powers to reduce the numbers of second homes rather than powers to compulsorily purchase farmland for population growth. It might propose measures aimed at building a cohesive and self-confident regional identity, or put culture at the centre of its strategy. Then Cornwall and Scilly would really become a test-bed for new approaches, and we’d have a chance of conserving that ‘beautiful and fragile eco-system’, instead of wilfully and complacently destroying it in the name of profit and ‘resilience’.
We can only dream. What we need to make those dreams a reality is some organisation to channel the growing anger. We’ve already seen the collapse of one political party – Ukip – and sooner or later the surge in Labour’s membership will implode under the weight of its own contradictions and the efforts of the press, BBC and a large chunk of its own MPs. Then we’ll have a whole load of people wandering around looking for a home. Are we preparing for it? Is there any mileage in a left populist vehicle that can focus people’s frustration in Cornwall? Or is the answer a catch-all organisation committed to meaningful devolution?