It is not realistic to believe that Governments will let Cornwall carry on forever with virtually no power and two layers totalling 331 councillors.
At some stage responsible politicians have to face up to the challenges and opportunities of difficult decisions about the future of Government structure here. However, before being able to deal with this, it is my unenviable task to respond to the predictably misleading comments from Tory councillors and supporters (and their “Independent” allies) which have been given prominence in recent weeks. Therefore, those who, like me, prefer to avoid tiresome Party tribalism and yahboo point scoring should look away now (and come back after the next sub-heading)!
The Inconvenient Truth: Cornwall deserves political leaders who can put their party differences aside and take Cornwall’s concerns to Government rather than squabble themselves to a standstill. It is therefore regrettable that a succession of mainly Tory councillors have engaged in a campaign of brazen dishonesty. Misinformation has to be corrected before we can move on and face up to the new challenges in Cornish local government. So I begin with (for them) a few inconvenient facts:
• Tory, Independent and other councillors voted for the abolition of Penwith, Kerrier, etc, councils and for a Single Unitary Authority earlier this year. I have not voted for such a proposal.
• There were two bids for a Single Unitary Authority: the County Council version which had 82 members (same as County Council) and 16 area bodies; and the District Councils’ Single Unitary which proposed a Council of 249 councillors (same as number of district councillors) and 6 sub-area bodies.
• The Government (not local MPs) decided which option should go forward.
• I opposed the County Council’s view that it should operate with only 82 councillors.
• I objected to any suggestion that the boundaries of local decision-making bodies should be drawn up in Truro rather than by local people and I reflected the concerns that both proposals may mean local communities would be micromanaged from Truro.
• I criticised both bids for being timid and failing to show ambition to draw down powers from unelected quangos and agencies based in Bristol and elsewhere in the Government zone of the South West.
• I have made clear to Government Ministers that before any changes they must clearly set out the extent, route-map and timetable for the devolution of powers to Cornwall; and
• This is a Labour Government initiative, by the way. Though, Cornish local authorities were not forced to respond to the “invitation” they were asked by Government (rather menacingly) do you want to lead the reform or be reformed by us?
The Tories spent much of their time in Government taking powers away from local authorities such that they have become little more than Agents of Central Government. Now they accuse me of being responsible for the Government’s reform. They voted for a Single Unitary Authority. I didn’t. Labour councillors have, of course, attacked what is a Labour Government initiative. And Johnny-come-lately “Cornish Assembly campaigners” have, of course, joined in the opportunistic criticisms, but won’t tell us by what realistic route they intend to achieve their claimed objective. The dairy industry would collapse with all this butter not melting in their collective mouths…Cornwall has the opportunity to create a new strong tier of government and to strengthen the ability of local communities to make decisions themselves (on planning, neighbourhood matters, local environment, etc) or we can allow the same tiresome political tribalism, irresponsible opportunists, etc, to undermine our ability to take the argument to Government rather than squabble amongst ourselves and thus end up with a pigs ear of local government reform as happened in 1974; and which left us with a bizarre legacy of local government which we are having to deal with now.
Where do we go from here? The politically sane are welcome back at this point! So what is needed in a new Government structure in Cornwall? I believe there are two things – first a decisive move towards a Cornish Assembly and, second, the protection of local community interests so that our towns and villages do not find themselves “run from Truro”.
Devolution: First, we should note that many decisions which affect Cornwall are taken by people appointed by Government to run quangos in the Government zone of the South West. Wouldn’t it be better if those decisions were taken by locally accountable, directly elected representatives who have the best interests of Cornwall – rather than their paymasters in Whitehall – at heart?Let’s be honest. Who do you think should decide:
• whether we should build the equivalent of five new Penzance’s in the next 15 years?
• how many of the homes to be built should be affordable to “local” people?
• how much taxpayer’s money should be spent in private rather than local NHS hospitals?, etc.
Government appointed agents based in Bristol or elsewhere (as at present) or by representatives elected to a Cornish body? There is no justification for these matters to be taken out of the hands of locals. That’s why energies should be concentrated on working together to achieve that.
Locally run: Secondly we should apply a simple principle: that those decisions which affect only one community should be taken by people in that community and not by people outside. For example, there is no reason why residents in Penzance should have their neighbourhood parking arrangements decided by elected representatives from Saltash and Bude. It is not right for the County or District Council to pre-determine that there should be 6, 12, 16 or whatever local community decision-making and public service delivery bodies. The building blocks of our local democracy are parish and town councils and it is up to them to determine where their local community boundaries lie. Local councils with vision, ambition and ability should be given the opportunity to take on a much greater role and resources to run local services and if they wish to form a cluster of local councils to achieve a greater economy of scale that is up to them, not up to desk officers in Truro. It is unlikely that the “status quo” in local government would have continued for many more years, but it is important that the tribal squabbling is put to one side and that responsible and constructive politicians now work for the best outcome for Cornwall and for our local communities.
Andrew George MP31st July 2007