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