‘It’s all to play for’

By Martin Ford | 24 April 2023

Cornwall has formed part of the vanguard of the Government’s flagship levelling up project, as one of the first nine areas invited to strike a county deal.

Yet, in spite of the region’s appetite for devolution, the process has not been a smooth one, leaving uncertainty hanging over the process.

The council came out of negotiations in December last year with a level three deal, representing the most extensive devolved powers and funding available under the Government’s framework.

But with greater powers come greater accountability, and the deal hinged on the council accepting a directly-elected mayor. It proved hugely controversial with the public, 69% of whom rejected the deal in a public consultation.

Conservative council leader Linda Taylor announced earlier this month they would not pursue the level three deal. She told The MJ: ‘In my opinion, it was a good deal – I think we have missed an opportunity. There was a minority saying we don’t want a mayor even before the details were out.

‘The issues we faced with a change of governance is not uncommon I suspect.’

The disappointment was shared by Cornwall’s officers. Writing in The MJ, chief operating officer and section 151 officer Tracie Langley said they had put in ‘hard work and long hours’ alongside the politicians to thrash out the deal.

She said the decision to abandon the deal was ‘enormously brave and unexpected’ and came with the ‘utmost regret’.

However, the county stands to benefit from some investment that was not dependant on the deal being agreed. It will see £3m for heritage projects, £7m for affordable housing and £1m for nature and climate projects coming to Cornwall.

Last week, a bid was made for the council to pursue a more radical overhaul of government in the county, on the scale of Wales or Scotland.

A motion was tabled by the leader of the Mebyon Kernow party, Dick Cole, to seek ‘meaningful devolution’ and put Cornwall on an ‘equal footing with other Celtic nations’, requesting a meeting between the secretary of state and a cross-party delegation.

It enjoyed support from Lib Dem and Labour members and was only narrowly rejected in a meeting by 38 votes to 36, with one abstention. Cllr Taylor said at the meeting the motion was ‘not helpful to our common aims’ and efforts to negotiate devolution with Westminster would be ‘compromised’.

Following the meeting, Cllr Cole told The MJ: ‘Quite a number of Conservatives made positive noises about what we were saying, while voting against it.

‘We just want discussions about proper devolution, rather than what’s happening at the moment. The term has been devalued, it’s about how you do local government.’

He pointed out the Cornish are recognised as a national minority under the framework convention for the protection of national minorities.

‘Cornwall is a very distinctive place. Treat us like the nation we are, not the English county you wish we were.’

Analysis by Cornwall’s finance team suggested such devolution would potentially entail a move to the Barnett funding model that Cardiff and Holyrood enjoy, substantially boosting local finances.

But the real prize would be a legislative parliament. Instead, Cllr Cole said Cornwall had been ‘presented with gruel’.

Cllr Taylor said: ‘To me, the motion is unclear about what was being asked for. If you don’t know what you are trying to achieve, how can you go to the secretary of state?

‘We will be working together as we progress on our ambitions for a level two deal.’

Looking at the abandoned level three deal, Cllr Cole suggested the deal fell due to the inflexible stance taken by ministers: ‘It was scuppered because it was tied to a mayor. It’s quite short-sighted of the Government.’

He is not alone. Local MP and former cabinet minister George Eustice unsuccessfully attempted to secure an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to get an exemption to the requirement for a mayor.

However, thus far in all its negotiations the Government has stuck to its guns, insisting on ‘the importance of high profile, directly elected local leadership’ as a ‘stronger governance model’.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told the levelling up select committee: ‘High-profile, directly elected leaders such as a mayor will be most effective for levelling up: providing a single point of accountability to local citizens, acting as a champion for their areas and attracting investment and opportunity to their places.’

Chief executive of the Localis think-tank, Jonathan Werran has not been impressed by devolution deals thus far.

He said: ‘Deals haven’t been well negotiated. From their side, local government haven’t been ambitious and set out its case for the transfer of place-based powers. Government officials haven’t got the experience, background or understanding of their opposite numbers or how the ecosystem works.’

The County Councils Network has said that ‘ultimately it is down to individual councils to decide whether these arrangements suit their local needs’.

In the case of Cornwall, it added: ‘The Government should remain flexible on governance arrangements and we will now support the council in securing the most ambitious devolution deal possible.’

Cornwall has now been invited to start negotiations on a level two deal which will not require a mayor, with the council hopeful of salvaging what they can from the level three agreement.

But it has been warned that the £360m Cornwall Investment Fund and the £8.7m to build affordable housing on brownfield land will be off the table.

Cllr Cole expects the agreement to be accepted when the parties emerge from negotiations in September.

‘The powers are so insubstantial, but when it’s not tied to a mayor, then chances are the council would accept it,’ he said. ‘It would be stupid to say no.’

Cllr Taylor is hopeful of securing support for some pilot projects where Cornwall can ‘lead the way’, such as the return of mining, geothermal energy production, and powers to tackle issues around tourism hotspots.

She said: ‘We have another opportunity and we need to work hard to get the best deal. There are elements of the level three deal I want to see if we can negotiate.

‘Until you start negotiating and test the resolve of the other side, you don’t know what you can achieve.’

Mr Werran said: ‘It might be regrettable from a purist stance, but it’s not the end of the road. It’s the least bad solution, and better than nothing.

‘There’s no reason devolution deals have to be the be all and end all. There are other routes to be pursued. It’s all to play for at the start of the next political cycle.’

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