Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cornwall Devolution Debate

Tonight at 10.30 the BBC are screening a devolution debate: More powers for England, more powers for the South West and/or more powers for Cornwall?

One might think  that everybody would be in favour of English votes for English laws.  But some panelists simply did not care.  They are only interested in Cornwall in isolation to the rest of the UK.   Others, like Andrew George MP, were concerned that it would give rise to two classes of MP at Westminster, as if that was somehow important.

Very few of us wanted to see the South West become a region (again) for administrative purposes although it must make sense to work together where it is beneficial,  for example, on some transport issues.

Most (including me) were in favour of more powers for Cornwall.  I would argue for more powers on a case by case basis, where it makes sense for decisions to be made in Cornwall.   For example, a power to design a service to improve bus transport in rural areas.  Recently, the Government has accepted Cornwall's bid to be a pilot scheme for a new rural bus service, although the Leader of the Council seemed unaware of this.

But new powers do not come without new responsibilities and without risk.   The Silk Commission has recently recommended that Wales move away from the situation where Wales gets a block grant from Central Government  to one where it raises more tax locally so that it is more 'on risk' and more accountable to the people of Wales.

More powers to tax people in Cornwall, as most panelists, including the Leader of the Council, appeared to want, would be a very poor substitute for a better deal on Government funding for Cornwall.

Local taxation powers would leave Cornwall competing with richer regions, which would have the means to raise more tax.  Average council tax in Cornwall is already above the national average. That does not seem fair to Cornwall.   Before the Government capped council tax it rose at between 5 and 10 per cent a year. That is what the future would look like under this administration at County Hall.   Even UKIP, who claim to be low tax party, has voted to consider a 6 per cent rise in council tax.

Some local taxes may seem like 'no brainers',  such as a levy on out of town supermarkets.  But Scotland recently said they will abandon their supermarket levy.   It is reducing inward investment into Scotland.

In Wales the economy has fallen more behind England since devolution.   Also, education standards are behind England and the Health Service in Wales is not in a good state.   Unlike England, Wales has not protected spending on the health service in real terms.

To minimise risk you would end up needing more expensive advisers to support more expensive politicians. The Leader of Wales is paid about the same as the prime minister- approximately £140,000 a year plus office expenses.    The Leader of Cornwall receives approximately  £32,000.   So it would certainly be bonanza time for local politicians and we would doubtless see the same old faces in the 'souped up' role.  People in Cornwall must make sure that hey are getting value for money from local government. Only a third think so now.

We should proceed cautiously with devolution in Cornwall.  There are risks around taking more responsibility for the failure of local services and the local economy.

Any change to the democratic administration of Cornwall should be one occasion when a referendum is needed.   The debate should be had and the people of Cornwall should decide the future not those with a vested personal interest.

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