Thursday, 23 July 2015

the Cornwall Devolution Deal and the continuing centralisation to Cornwall Council

With the Cornwall Devolution Deal announced last week, we must ask what about powers within Cornwall. The fact is Cornwall is one of the most centralised local government areas anywhere in the UK. Lacking the middle tier of local government in districts and boroughs. Although there is lots of talk of localism and 'double devolution', what does this all actually mean? What do the current plans entail?

To turn first to the Case for Cornwall, as readers are probably aware this is the document put together by Cornwall Council asking the government for more powers. (available here). This is where the term double devolution comes from as the document explains:

"Together the Case for Cornwall and the Council’s continuing ambition to devolve embrace the notion of double devolution. Getting powers and responsibilities devolved to as low a level as possible, subject to sound governance and delivery arrangements being in place, demonstrates the common commitment of the Government and the Council to empower communities and ensure true local ownership and accountability." p.18/19

Here there is a great deal on principle and mighty fine it is too. There isn't a clear commitment to address the issue of centralisation in Cornwall and to take some of the powers and facilities and bring them back to local control. 

Nailing down what this actually means is harder to find. There are few mentions of town and parish councils in the document. They overwhelmingly talk about towns and parishes in reference to the council tax referendum cap. Which was placed on principle local authorities by the government to force a referendum if they sought to raise council tax by more than 2%. Interestingly it also includes police authorities, so far Bedfordshire police has been the only authority of any kind to call a referendum, lost overwhelmingly 69.5% against. The reason other authorities haven't is they obviously fear this result, so the coalition government effectively created a block on council tax rises.

However towns and parishes have not, so far, been included in the cap. Which allowed Penzance Town council for example, to raise the precept by 5% for the last year and 35.53% for this year. This is quite common in Cornwall and elsewhere as a result of budget cuts the principal authorities have shed services due to budget cuts and towns and parishes have taken on services and raised their precept to pay for it. Although this is a huge issue and leaving towns and parishes out of the referendum cap and I can understand why Cornwall Council included it in the Case for Cornwall.

However it is the only mention of towns and parishes in any substance in the whole of the Case for Cornwall document. I can understand to an extent that devolution should be bottom up not top down that it shouldn't be Cornwall Council's role to dictate devolution, I still feel it doesn't bode well for how seriously devolution within Cornwall is taken.

As we know the Case for Cornwall was not accepted by government and instead we now have the Cornwall Devolution Deal. If we can criticise the Cornwall Council devolution ideas for not considering devolution downwards then the government's announcement is deplorable. It doesn't even mention town and parish councils.

It does seem like we now will have devolution that gives more power to Cornwall Council. That takes more decisions and puts them in fewer hands. Although I firmly remain in favour of devolution it does trouble me that the Cornwall Devolution Deal does not deliver on 'double devolution'. In 2009 local government was centralised into Cornwall Council and it seems this process of concentrating power and decision making has picked up pace...




Thursday, 16 July 2015

Devolution for Cornwall a nod in the right direction


Today David Cameron will come to Cornwall and outline a devolution deal for Cornwall (Council). As always the devil will be in the detail and we have to be cautious of what is said and what actually comes to pass.

However it would be churlish of me to dismiss the deal out of hand. I've written before and spoke at hustings earlier this year, about freeing Cornwall from the dead hand of Westminster. Allowing us to be free from policies that don't suit Cornwall. Although there is much progress talked about in the media, there is still work to do. As much as it gladdens me that Cornwall will gain back control of European funding, be free to develop renewable energy, integrate and join up hospitals and health care, to make public transport make more sense by aligning bus and train times. 

My criticisms are about what it does not include. Planning and housing are not included, the promise of being able to develop a Cornish planning policy framework and redefining affordable housing to mean something to people on local wages are sorely lacking. As is powers to define here what housing numbers are needed and of course the option to limit second homes. In all these areas one size fits all policies from Westminster will continue to reign. Housing and planning is just one area and there are similar comments to be made about others.

I do think it was a grave mistake for the government's deal to not be debated in the public realm. It falls well short of Cornwall Council's Case for Cornwall, although many such as Bernard Deacon have criticised it's lack of public engagement. It is at least a great deal more than the government's deal which hasn't even had the pretence of public consultation and wasn't even discussed by Cornwall Councillors in public session. 

Fundamentally it must be said it means giving Cornwall Council more powers. It is already the largest unitary authority in the 'country'. I still do not feel that the centralisation of local government to Truro was a process that was completed satisfactorily and that the unitary authority ever really found it's feet. What makes the Cornish devolution deal a landmark case is not the fact that it is the first "rural area" i.e. non city, it is the fact that it is devolution without any new structures or institutions. Wales got an assembly as did London, Scotland got a parliament, various cities got new mayors. It looks as though Cornwall Council will be given a whole raft of powers without anything new, no new politicians and no elections. 

As anyone that's ever read my blog before will know I am wholly in favour of a Cornish assembly. Devolving power to a new body with a strategic focus and the ability to set funding priorities and make new laws. Underneath that having local government to do what local government does. My fundamental criticism is that the Cornwall Council deal will be a fudge of both being neither a national strategic government nor a local administrative one. Perhaps I will be proved wrong, I wait with baited breath... 

Over all though this must be welcomed as a step in the right direction, even for it's flaws. A brief chink in the armour of the overly centralised state in which we live. I sincerely hope the freedoms that are given to Cornwall Councillors are utilised to the best possible advantage. The Welsh politician Ron Davies said that "devolution was a process not an event" I think we have to see this in that context and hope it is true in our case...

See also the Mebyon Kernow press release on the devolution deal here

A breath of fresh air at Penzance Town Council

The election has certainly rung a great many changes at Penzance Town Council. There are now 12 brand new councillors (although Simon Reed...