Sunday, 30 March 2014

A disappointing government response to flooding in West Cornwall

Perhaps the title is a little misleading, I certainly could write a great long post on the subject in general. If you haven't seen it already Cllr Andrew Wallis has a great blog post revealing government funding for fishermen is not in fact new at all. Other government announcements have also been tokenistic. I wrote in the Western Morning News  on the budget and the chance it was to realign priorities in general, address the unfairness in budget cuts and funding for Cornwall, I wrote that the Chancellor's budget was high time for Cameron's grand announcement that "money is no object" and government will "pick up the tab" to be turned from empty rhetoric to actual funding. This unfortunately did not happen. This post aims to deal with the response to my letter to the Prime Minister, which I have finally received. Since I wrote that on the 23rd of February, Penzance Town Council unanimously voted to support a letter to the PM roughly saying the same thing and including a call for a break water, hopefully the council gets a better reply.

My email was quickly shuffled from the Prime Minister's office to DEFRA, which I think was disappointing as I had not only addressed the question of flood defences and funding but also Penzance's rail link. If I was disappointed that neither the PM nor the Department of Transport would consider making our rail line more resilient, then that was frame of mind I could keep for the subsequent reply. It soon starts:

"As I am sure you will appreciate, we have received exceptionally high volumes of correspondence relating to the current flooding incidents. Unfortunately it will not be possible to provide a personal response to every letter as we are focusing our efforts on the recovery. However, I hope this information on the Government’s response is useful."

Then goes on to make various generic points about the flooding situation, in what is no doubt a stock reply. Quiet why it took a whole month to get such an identikit email, I'm not sure....

It carries on, explaining about the number of properties and farmland protected from flooding. A quizzical reference: "military personnel are still on standby" (when was that written!?!), government commitments to flood defences and "erosion risk management". It's hard to criticise any of it government pronouncements and government action are often two different things, but until the latter becomes the former, who knows what might happen? But there are a number of absences in the reply. There is not one mention of our rail line or transport infrastructure at all. As we've seen in the last weeks there have been adequate government pronouncements on flood defences, protecting homes but precious little -if anything- on sea defences. Everything is about protecting inland areas (quite rightly) but nothing for the coast.

Despite having two of Cornwall's MPs in DEFRA, this is the level of thought and attention that goes into policy in Cornwall. No thought at all to how extreme weather effects coastal communities. No real intent to think of it either. No flexibility that parts of the UK might need more thinking or perhaps a bespoke solution. Much like the email reply, the government's response to flooding is dated, not really relevant to Cornwall and lacks any desire to address these issues.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The latest periodic Tory press release on Cornish devolution

Ten days ago I wrote on the Liberal Democrat's and a Cornish Assembly . Since then the Cities Minister (urban-centric much?)Greg Clark has come out and said that Cornwall might indeed get devolution, as the Western Morning News title suggests: Minister signals appetite for Cornwall devolution deal. My original thought was to think the same as I did with the Liberal Democrats, in short why now and not before, nearly 4 years of coalition government and nothing so far.

But I thought I'd look into it some more and find out what the Conservative Minister actually wanted. But the details are hard to nail down, as Stephen Richardson wrote of the Lib Dems approach. Both parties have vague pronouncements, despite both being in government, having a small fortune to develop policies and of course armies of bureaucrats to do their bidding, no firm details, no consultation barely a couple of paragraphs of press statements. Unlike Mebyon Kernow with a tiny budget in comparison and no taxpayer paid help to call upon, yet we've developed a comprehensive document at the outset of a consultation process.

I've digressed slightly so I got to looking for Greg Clark and what he thought and I stumbled upon this statement:

"Greg Clark, the minister charged with stripping Whitehall of responsibilities, insists the region will not miss out from "the biggest transfer of power" in a generation."

Which is a statement any one but the staunchest of centralists would welcome. It continues:

"Asked by the Western Morning News whether a Cornish Assembly could result from the Act, Mr Clark said: "The direction we are going is to get powers out of Whitehall and into local communities, wherever they are. Although this part of the Act was drafted in conjunction with the leaders of the core cities group, in fact it applies to everybody."

This guys on our side, but before you all rip up your Mebyon Kernow membership cards and join the Tories. This statement was released in 2011, from a WMN article titled: Localism bill could open the door to Cornish Devolution. So far I don't think the doors been unlocked nor the handle turned let alone the door opening. Three long years for anything, there's a clear pattern of periodic press releases. Perhaps the first was David Cameron in November 2010:

"I think Cornish national identity is very powerful- people feel a great affinity with Cornwall. We're going to devolve a lot of power to Cornwall"

As I said with the Lib Dems I'd love to be wrong, I'd love for Cornwall to get some meaningful devolution to a Cornish Assembly. But there seems little appetite with any of the Westminster parties to make this happen. They know it's a good thing to say, so they say it. But I fear that if any of them truly wanted to give powers to Cornwall they'd have done it already, or a bill would be passing through parliament or something would be happening fact is it's not. Look out for a few similar press releases from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the Euro elections, perhaps one around the end of the year so people don't forget and an increasing frequency up to the polls in 2015.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Cornish Assembly and the Lib Dems

After months of campaigning for a Cornish Assembly by Mebyon Kernow. Liberal Democrats are the first political opponents to break cover and engage with the issue. No word yet from the other political parties, perhaps an idea yet to break into the Westminster bubble. Or perhaps Labour and the Conservatives are waiting to see what the other does.
Days after MK launched the document Towards a National Assembly for Cornwall (pdf link), the Lib Dems voted at conference to make devolution party policy. Allowing Cornwall and other areas to have more say, the exact details are sketchy but not a million miles from my position and indeed Mebyon Kernow's.
But why now? Coming up for 4 years of having Lib Dems in coalition government, 4 years of 3 Cornish Liberal Democrats at "the heart of government", 4 years of policies galore, 4 years of localism. This is the first we hear of it and not in the corridors of power or parliament itself no bills being drafted just a party conference. 4 years of government decades of opportunity and Cornish devolution has only just become party policy. Which kinda contradicts the years of support claimed by Lib Dem press releases.
You might be able to tell at this point that I have some scepticism about this (I feel warranted). So being sceptical how can we explain the push? At the outset it must be said there are some in the party that realise centralised rule has done Cornwall little good. The recent storms, severing of the rail line at Dawlish and the overall lacklustre response from the government has highlighted this. It's not a great surprise then.
But why now and not 4 years ago? I think the answer is simple, it's election tactics. As we've seen with Clegg ruffling Farage's feathers, the Lib Dems are picking weaker opponents. For a number of reasons, firstly it reflects their support and polling they're no longer strong enough to challenge Labour and the Tories. Secondly they want Labour and the Tories to go easy on them in the general election and are hoping to again be peacemakers post 2015. Therefore they don't want to upset red or blue nor do they want to sound too much like them. So rather than challenge the big parties on key issues they're looking to park their tanks on Mebyon Kernow's lawn.
Sound a bit far fetched? Mebyon Kernow an electoral threat to the mighty Liberal Democrats? Consider this before the 2010 election they were polling around 30% of the vote, this worked out in the election as 23% of the vote i.e 59 MPs. These days they're polling around 10% of the vote. In this scenario every single vote counts. Cornish constituencys are all held with single point % majorities, 10% of voters lost equals no LD MPs west of the Tamar.
If polls are correct, half of Lib Dem voters in 2010 won't make that mistake again in 2015, MK are looking to pick up these disenchanted voters and the Lib Dems know it. They know to win in Cornwall they need to win over voters considering switching to MK and stifle our support. They obviously believe sending out press releases and calling meetings is the way to do it. But they are a party of government, for the idea that they are fighting for a better deal in Cornwall to stick. They need to pursue these policies in government.
I'm reminded of Cameron's Minister for Cornwall, an empty pre election promise to take advantage of Cornish disquiet with a distant and uncaring government. I'd love to be wrong, but I'm really sceptical.
In other news Andrew George tweeted triumphantly that Cornish schools will benefit from an extra £3.5 million in funding +1.2%. I asked why Devon was enjoying an extra £16.2 M +4.5%. And the answer was....

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

My speech at the Cornish Assembly document launch

Below is the text of my speech to the launch of Mebyon Kernow- the Party for Cornwall's consultation document "Towards a National Assembly of Cornwall." The document is available online here and we are urging people to have their say and feed back to us. Quotes from my speech have already been featured on the Western Morning News site and on the Mebyon Kernow website. The full text is:

Myttin Da, Good Morning. Gool Peran Lowen. Happy St Piran’s day to you all.
My name is Rob Simmons and I’m here today to talk about the history of Cornwall’s claim to devolution.
I’m basically going to run through some key dates and events. Hopefully in the future this event today, will be added to a future list. The day in which the long held dream and plan of a Cornish assembly, had some flesh added to its bones.

Wishes for the future aside, it’s hard to know where to start in a history of Cornwall’s historical claim.  We could delve back into the annals of history and talk of ancient Celtic kingdoms, pre dating the Roman and Anglo Saxon invasions of Britain and conjuring up names like Dumnonia. We could start with Wessex’s ultimate triumph over the Cornish and the setting of the border at the Tamar in the tenth century. Or indeed of the Earls of Cornwall and the later Dukes or of the ancient Cornish Stannary Parliament. But these are matters for historians.

Today, I want to talk about the modern fight for self-determination for Cornwall. The modern argument and movement that holds the belief that greater political power in this far south western corner of Britain would be beneficial and indeed necessary for change.

By the late 19th century, there was a general cultural revival among the Celtic nations, ancient traditions and of course languages came to be revered and respected like never before. This was evident as much in Cornwall as elsewhere but unlike say Ireland, this pan Celtic cultural renaissance did not immediately manifest into a political home rule movement in Cornwall.

In a time before Mebyon Kernow, it was not from nationalists in the traditional sense, it was liberals that made the first calls for home rule. Then a radical and anti-metropolitan movement, questioning elites and filled with principles (I could go on, but let’s just say, not a lot like today’s Liberal Democrats).

One of the most influential Cornish liberals was the founder and editor of the Cornish Guardian, a man called Alfred Browning Lyne. He wrote in 1912:

"There is another home rule movement on the horizon. Self government for Cornwall will be the next move… The metrolpolis is coming to mean everything, and all the provinces approximate towards the fashion of the centre… We think this is much to be deplored and we do not see why Cornwall should not join in the “regionalist” movement."

Skip forward a few decades and Mebyon Kernow was formed in 1951.  Intially a pressure group, the beginnings were laid for a political thrust toward Cornish devolution. The first chair of MK Helena Charles, standing as an independent in St Day in 1953. Was elected as an independent standing on a platform of decentralisation amongst other things, to quote her election leaflet:

"Until the government of Britain is decentralised, and local government made really responsible, we shall continue the present state of affairs in which an anonymous clerk, in Bristol or London, can make decisions vitally affecting rates in this Urban District."

A decade later in the 60s and Mebyon Kernow was officially contesting elections as a party and growing in numbers. Producing posters that proclaimed:

Campaigning and posters aside the real coherent push for a Cornish Assembly was to come much later. Buoyed by the successful referendums in Scotland and Wales in 1997. Activists in Cornwall looked on with much envy at the creation of the Welsh National Assembly and the reconvened Scottish National Parliament in 1999.

The chance to make the case for a Cornish assembly then came. On St Piran’s day 2000 Mebyon Kernow launched a campaign for a Cornish Assembly and set to collecting signatures to show support for Cornish devolution. Tony Blair’s government had desired to set up regional government, which would have seen Cornwall subsumed in a wider south west region, further centralising decision making and jobs out of Cornwall. But he had issued a caveat. To quote the then Prime Minister:

"No region will be forced to have an elected assembly. But where there is public support for one, we believe people should be given the chance to demonstrate this in a referendum."

The gauntlet had been laid down for Cornish campaigners, here was a prime opportunity to show public support for a Cornish assembly and with hard work and determination we would be rewarded with a referendum and offered the choice to decide our own future.

I was proud to be a  part of a dedicated band of energetic volunteers achieved an amazing feat of collecting over 50,000 signatures supporting a Cornish Assembly, or to be exact 50,546.
Cornish rugby captain Dean Shipton signing

Soon the campaign snowballed, later in 2000 a cross party Cornish Constitutional Convention was set up. An Ipsos Mori poll confirmed the massive groundswell of support from the public. 55% of respondents were in favour of a Cornish Assembly and a massive 70% wanted a referendum on the subject. It was clear what the public thought and their representatives reflected this. Every single one of Cornwall’s MPs backed the campaign for a Cornish assembly.

Cornwall County Council and Carrick District Council passed motions calling for a referendum. Going one better North Cornwall District Council, Restormel Borough Council and Penwith District Council each supported the establishment of an assembly. Added to this 28 town and parish councils from Bude- Stratton in the north to St Just in the west and of course Truro City Council itself, supported either the assembly or a public referendum.

I don’t believe there has been a more unifying political issue in modern times, even campaigns against the hated Devonwall and pasty tax didn’t have this kind of influence and reach in Cornwall

The petitions were delivered to 10 Downing Street and summarily ignored, previous promises to listen to the people and not force through a top down approach went out the window. Mebyon Kernow and other activists continued to keep up pressure. Bert Biscoe chair of the Cornish Constitutional Convention wrote to the then Minister for Communities and Local Government David Miliband. The minister was very clear in his response explaining the Labour government’s stance:

“I recognise that Cornwall has many of the strengths of a natural region, with its strong sense of identity, history and culture. However I am not persuaded that the existing regional boundaries need to be changed or for Cornwall to be given an assembly.”

In a cynical attempt to show they had listened the Labour government in conjunction with the Liberal Democrats. Decided to centralise local government and dress it up as a form of devolution. That in some way the formation of Cornwall Council was equivalent to a Cornish Assembly. This was despite the fact no additional powers were granted to the new body and as a juxtaposition to the assembly campaign, it was widely disliked and seen today, by many, as a failure.

To sum up the history of Cornish devolution is a long one there have been many struggles along the way and no doubt more in the future. There are ideological arguments of a nationalist nature pulling at the heart strings of this proud Celtic people. But there are also practical arguments, about the skewed nature of being on the periphery of a heavily centralised state. But if we look to Wales and Scotland they struggled and struggled but in the end the centre gave in and ceded some of its jealously guarded power. And now to the future, thanks for listening.

The petiton is available to sign online here. And the assembly document is online here.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Pictures: Penzance beach clean up success

A fantastic turn out in wet weather! The beach certainly looks a great deal better for it. The amount of rubbish removed is testament to that. The day was only marred by Cornwall Council's hardy and reliable traffic wardens who ticketed unsuspected beach cleaners.
Below is some of the pictures of the clean up near Wherrytown. A small group of us cleaned up rubbish, dragged tyres, a crab pot and lobster pot off the beach. Also Cornwall Councillor Jim McKenna and myself dragged a large tangle of fishing net also pictured. Goes to show how hard these storms effect our fishing industry.
Wet and cold I trudged back home warmed by the community spirit of this great town. A pleasure to play a small part.