While we’re all distracted by the slow-motion train crash of Brexit, closer to home Cornwall Council is quietly putting the finishing touches to its place-shaping agenda. In order to understand this we first need some context.
Two elements combined in the 2010s to provide the opportunity to return Cornwall to the failed and discredited strategy of housing and population growth of the 1980s. First, the disastrous unitary authority was foisted on us in 2009 by a combination of Lib Dem County Council and Labour central government. This centralised local power and sharply reduced the influence of elected representatives and through them the people. Second, a decade of austerity from Conservative and Lib Dem Governments has hollowed out local government through massive cuts to their budgets.
But crisis for some becomes opportunity for others. The unitary authority was staffed by chief executives and senior officers who aggressively embraced the privatisation agenda that was being pushed through by central government. PFI contracts saddled schools and other public services with debt for a generation, culminating in the wretched incinerator scheme at St Dennis. This was neither environmentally nor economically efficient, but provided a nice little money-spinner for the French utility firm Suez.
Privatisation went hand in hand with a renewed emphasis on making use of Cornwall’s tourism ‘offer’ to attract housing developers. Demand to consume the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’ meant that Cornwall was lucrative territory for the big housing developers. The more houses were built, the more residents there’d be and the more council tax (and central government bribes to allow developers to build houses) could be hoovered up to fill the gaping black hole appearing in local government finances. Meanwhile, the hope was that by encouraging more unaffordable (for the Cornish) housing, more ‘affordable’ housing would be built and the local housing crisis could be mopped up as a by-product. The latter didn’t happen but housebuilding rates that are, pro rata, higher than anywhere else in the UK, have succeeded in pushing in-migration and population growth rates back to the record levels seen in the 1980s.
But even an aggressive population growth strategy, ‘place-shaping’ Cornwall to fit the Home Counties mould familiar to many of the newly arrived project class who staff its institutions, is insufficient. Income from central government is falling faster than council tax is rising and austerity is really beginning to bite. Faced by a threat to its own future as an institution cue stage two of the ruling clique’s cunning plan.
Now fronted by a chief executive who had fled the shipwreck of Barnet Council’s ‘easy-council’ outsourcing shambles, Cornwall’s ruling class has come up with another idea. This involves borrowing £600 million to spend on housing and infrastructure projects. The point of this is NOT primarily to benefit Cornwall’s communities; it’s to make a profit – return rates of 4-8% have been bandied around – to keep Cornwall Council afloat. In other words, adopting the maxim of ‘if you can’t beat them join them’, Cornwall Council has taken the decision to become a developer and siphon off some of the profit developers are making.
All this might remind us of that American major who said of a village in Vietnam ‘it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it’, except that Cornwall Council is destroying Cornwall in order to save themselves. In a sane universe, if the only elected authority becomes merely another developer, then questions would surely be raised concerning democratic accountability. There are also serious conflicts of interest flowing from the bizarre situation when a developer asks itself for planning permission.
Meanwhile, the people clearly have little say in this process of population-led growth as their place gets ‘shaped’ whether they like it or not. Most Cornish towns now face unprecedented projected growth rates. Opposition to this from the mass of elected councillors has been feeble to say the least. Indeed, the ideal role of elected representatives is reversed, to represent the Council’s actions to their voters rather than channel the wishes of their voters to the Council.
Moreover, to ensure opposition remains feeble Cornwall has been subjected since the 2000s to a steady diminution of representative democracy. Cornish communities already have one of the lowest number of elected representatives in relation to population of anywhere in the UK. This is set to decline even further as councillor numbers are due to be cut from 123 to 87. We might be forgiven for concluding that Cornwall is being singled out for some sort of post-democratic neo-liberal experiment. Note the conclusion of the Local Government Boundary Commission in 2012 when it decided to maintain the size of Durham Council, another unitary authority. It found that its 126 councillors were still required in order to provide ‘efficient and convenient local government’. Now contrast that with its stubborn refusal, despite a number of requests, to tell us why and how Cornwall is different and why the reduction of councillor numbers in Cornwall is on a scale unseen in other local boundary reviews.
All this comes together in the final piece of Cornwall Council’s place-shaping jigsaw. To oversee its population growth agenda and manage its £600 million spending spree, Cornwall Council is now ‘building a team that can bring development expertise from the commercial world to create the blueprint for a new way of living, working and thriving in Cornwall’. It’s seeking a Chair to establish a Cornwall Investment Delivery Company and oversee the spending of the £600 million that it intends to borrow. Job adverts are also out for a managing director and a commercial director as well as an unstated number of non-executive directors. No post specifies a salary, instead offering a ‘remuneration consistent with the challenge’. Revealingly, on the Local Government jobs site all are tagged £100,000+. So that’s probably one of the £600 million accounted for.
What’s the cunning plan? The job specs come littered with the usual, faintly ridiculous testosterone-fuelled hyperbole that these days regularly spews out from the Council’s bunker. Increasingly adrift from reality, the Lilliputians of Lys Kernow ludicrously picture themselves as fearsome colossuses of commerce. Their ‘game-changing plans’ will have an ‘extraordinary and transformative impact on Cornwall’s future’. Yet the real transformation is that of Cornwall Council, from an elected institution of governance funded out of taxation to a provider of services relying on profits and the market.
Unfortunately, the braggadocio deflates rapidly when it comes to the actual plan. The £600 million will be ‘invested in new housing and workspace’. It’s about building even more houses, providing workspace for the incoming residents and the familiar old flannel of ‘mixed-use regeneration schemes’. Ironically, only today it’s being reported that the houses built for the local market will have to be smaller, cheaper and tackier than intended.
In fact, there’s nothing new here at all. A continuing focus on the tried, tested and increasingly stale policy of population-led growth is masked by a scattered detritus of pompous and wordy discourse. Cornwall Council’s ambition turns out to be to become ‘one of the largest developers in the region’.
Its fundamental aim is exposed in its desire to ‘promote the benefits of Cornwall as a great place to live and work.’ This is the quintessential outsider view. Existing residents, native or otherwise, hardly need convincing of those benefits so, stripped of the windy rhetoric, the central aim lies nakedly exposed – attract more people to come and live in Cornwall. The Cornwall Investment Delivery Company, as its name implies, is just the final phase of the colonising project that’s become all too familiar and ever more transparent since the turn of the millennium.
The process of attracting even more people to come to ‘live and work’ in Cornwall begins by appointing people to come and oversee the project. A Cornish connection is no specific advantage for applicants to the posts of managing director or commercial director. We’re also told that ‘whilst the Chair should have direct links with Cornwall or the South West, non-executives need not necessarily have local connections’. It’s just as important, if not more important, that they ‘bring a national [sic] network of contacts’ with them. Even the requirement of the Chair to have such connections dissolves further when we read in the job specification that ‘it may [my emphasis] be beneficial for applicants to have direct links to Cornwall and the South West’.
Lip service is paid to the need for the Chair to be ‘attuned to politics’, which presumably means working closely with the Council’s Cabinet and the LEP, and understanding the ‘uniqueness of Cornwall’, unlikely to go much further than being aware of the unique drag on the Cornish economy imposed by the tourist sector. But the main emphasis is on ‘strong private sector experience’. Applicants should possess a ‘strong development background, real commercial credentials and … entrepreneurial spirit … to spot opportunities, make markets and change the whole mindset about how we approach development in Cornwall’. Those with experience with housing developers, construction companies, property investment, with PFI and with ‘placemaking’ will be especially joyously welcomed. To sum up, the Council is handing over £600 million of public money to people with ‘strong private sector experience ideally from a development background’.
Incidentally, there’s no mention anywhere in this of the Council’s recent declaration of a climate emergency, the genuine ‘game-changer’ that threatens to blow a very large hole in its backward-looking growth agenda.
Righteous anger should be blazing across Cornish communities. We ought to be out in the streets in our thousands complaining about this ongoing coup and the colonisation of our land. Sadly, we’re not. Perhaps dreckly though.