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...