Devolution is defunct – Cornwall must embrace its role in the UK
Cornwall Conservative MPs George Eustice and Sarah Newton believe Cornwall is best served by remaining a unique and dynamic part of the UK, not attempting to go it alone.
During the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Royal Barge leading the flotilla of boats up the Thames flew five flags relevant to the United Kingdom: England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and, yes, Cornwall. You only have to look at the number of St Piran’s flags on display in the county to realise that Cornwall has a very strong sense of identity and pride.
Cornwall has always had a special place within the United Kingdom and has historically derived its real power through being enthusiastically British. During the industrial revolution, Cornwall was home to some of Britain’s most successful inventors. The key symbol of Cornwall, the shield with fifteen gold “bezants”, is said to represent the money raised by Cornish towns and villages to pay the ransom needed to free the Duke of Cornwall as long ago as the Crusades in the 12th century. It is from this legend that the motto, “One and all” comes and, even today, this Cornish emblem simultaneously represents both Cornish self confidence and our unwavering commitment to the United Kingdom.
Recognising the historical context of Cornwall’s special place within the UK matters if we are serious about giving it modern meaning. It is time to let go of the failed and divisive “assembly” agenda of the 1990s and focus instead on a forward-looking approach.
Fifteen years ago, Tony Blair argued for a whole new tier of costly and bureaucratic government in Britain which envisaged regional assemblies across the UK which would then deal directly with the European Union and bypass Westminster.
The idea was never popular. Wales only voted for more politicians by the narrowest of margins and the first big test came in 2004 when John Prescott tried to introduce a regional assembly in the North East. . A well organised, people’s campaign inflicted a crushing defeat on the idea with nNearly 80 percent of people said “no” to more politicians and that was the end of the assembly agenda.
Instead of clinging to this defunct devolution agenda, Cornwall must embrace a forward-looking approach. 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. 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.
The new Localism Act provides a great vehicle for local communities in Cornwall to take over responsibilities from central government. It has also created a new “general power of competence” for all local authorities so that, rather than having to wait to be given permission to do anything by Whitehall bureaucrats, Cornwall Council can step up to the plate and come forward with innovative solutions to local problems and pitch for central funding to take control in new areas such as transport, housing and further education. It is good to see Cornwall Council rising to this challenge.
However, power must pass downwards at all levels: from Brussels to Whitehall, from Whitehall to Cornwall Council and from Cornwall Council to our parish and town councils. The formation of a unitary authority for the whole of Cornwall three years ago was always going to create a challenge for local accountability which was recognised at the time and was the reason that “community networks” were introduced. Longer term, we need to see more powers and a larger budget transferred to parish and town councils. While Cornwall Council has made a start handing over new powers to local councils there is more to do.
In ancient times, Cornwall had its own “Stannary Parliament” which performed a scrutiny role on the tax policies of the day. It fell into abeyance during the early 18th century but the principle might have a modern application within Cornwall. One idea would be to create a modern day “Stannary Chamber” made up of the Chairmen of all the parish and town councils to perform a scrutiny role at County Hall on local issues. The areas over which parish and town councils could have authority is already set out in detail in the 1972 Local Government Act but, in practice, Cornwall Council continues to take responsibility in many of these. You could even introduce the principle of “co-decision” when it comes to spending certain funds like the New Homes Bonus and the Community Infrastructure Levy where the agreement of both Cornwall Council and the parish council is required before funds can be spent. This would make the parish and town councils partners rather than mere stakeholders.
These are exciting times for Cornwall and we must take greater ownership of our destiny but without the divisive, political agenda of those who seek to undermine our place in the UK.
George Eustice is MP for Camborne and Redruth. Sarah Newton is MP for Truro and Falmouth