Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Localism enough slogans already, what will happen? and what will it cost?

There is a lot of talk by government MPs about their coveted localism and what good it will do to Cornwall. But I don't know what they mean. I understand the concept don't get me wrong, I've heard the slogans of 'power to the townhall' in fact I'm sick of hearing them. We know localism has introduced directly elected mayors to English cities and been rejected by voters in others. But what does it actually mean for Cornwall? what does power to the townhall mean?  Is it a credible alternative to a 'costly' Cornish assembly as George Eustice and Sarah Newton claim? Here's my thoughts...

Firstly and foremostly, I have to say I hate the word localism, I think it means devolution to local government but there's no clear simple definition. Why the real widely used word devolution could not have been used is beyond me. There is nothing local about the invention of localism, localism is not local councils demanding more power it is about the centre offering more power to the periphery. Localism is the idea of central government, imposed upon local government. The devolution of powers is something I welcome don't get me wrong, but I fear that central government inventing and dictating what localism is and isn't to local government, is a deeply flawed beginning to the whole process.

Outlining their localist versus nationalist agenda in an article titled Devolution is defunct Sarah Newton and George Eustice Conservative MP, (formerly of UKIP) roundly condemn the assembly campaign :

Instead of clinging to this defunct devolution agenda, Cornwall must embrace a forward-looking approach. Rather than espousing the politics of victimhood and isolationism, our agenda must project Cornwall as a distinct, self-confident but outward-looking and enthusiastic part of the UK.

Other than depicting the ideas of devolutionists such as Mebyon Kernow in a meaningless way, they portray their ideas as positive and ours as negative. Which is a cheap political trick, they're bad we're good, they offer poverty and sadness, we offer wealth and happiness blah blah blah. I'm not interested in their sound bite critique of other parties and groups. What does interest me is what localism is and what it actually means. From my perspective it is clear that there is a clearly made case for a Cornish assembly, the petition pictured above outlines some powers. The Mebyon Kernow website clearly explains MK's position and ideas and the Cornish Constitutional Convention website offers research and publications outlining how an assembly would work. We might not know the exact details but we can be clear that plans for a Cornish assembly offer legislation to be written in Cornwall, for services -and importantly jobs- to be devolved to a Cornwall but for us to remain distinctly part of the UK, leaving some powers vested with central Westminster.

What does localism offer? how will a 'localist' Cornwall Council deliver the Conservative promises of 'distinct, self-confident but outward looking and enthusiastic part of the UK'. There are so many questions yet to be answered:

What powers will be devolved?
How will Cornwall be distinct?
How will these powers makes us 'self confident'?
Does Cornwall have a self confidence problem?
Will people in Cornwall make the decisions?
What decisions will Westminster make?
Will quangos, departments and bureaucrats be devolved to Cornwall?
Or will jobs and administration remain in London?
Will council tax pay for services previously supplied by central government?
When will the locals get a say in localism?

All these things are abundantly unclear, I would imagine the 'distinct' aspect of the benefits of localism is an out and out fabrication. It is impossible for everywhere to be under the same uniform Westminster localism policy and yet be distinct in any meaningful way.

One of the Tory arguments against a Cornish assembly deserves some mention and indeed merit, the old refrain it will cost taxpayers more, this is an effective political argument these days and they deploy it well:
"This should be less about paying for more politicians in a costly assembly and more about giving those councillors we already have a greater say."
So the simplistic logic an assembly would cost more, indeed it can not be denied. The reorganisation of government is a costly process whether it be devolution or umm localism (you say potato). If the accusation is that a Cornish assembly would be expensive what then is the true cost of all these unannounced policies of localism? Call me a cynic if you will, but no one can do more for less. If Cornwall Council is to do more, to take control of services and to make more decisions, this will cost more. Councillors salaries, civil servants wages, consultants fees (it is Cornwall Council after all), rental on buildings, electricity, fuel etc. If we are to argue costs of devolution, we should consider costs for both localism and an assembly. We should also consider plans for an assembly include devolution of tax payers money to Cornwall from the Treasury. Localism however is ambiguous, whether council tax will be raided or the Treasury for these extra cost of localist local government is as clear as mud.

The Conservative MPs for Camborne and Redruth, Truro and Falmouth can criticise the assembly campaign that is their right to do so, they can brush aside the 50,000 signatories (albeit ten years ago), if they want. But if a man elected by less than 16,000 people and a woman elected by less than 21,000 can hope to hold authority on the subject, will they please inform the general public of what their ideas actually are? And how these grand promises of a better future can be both realised and paid for? The cross party campaign for a Cornish Assembly has clear well researched ideas of how to implement devolution, our cards are on the table, but when will the government reveal its hand?