What's next for devolution?

Kate Kennally says widening and deepening devolution should be on the agenda for the next government – giving local leaders the tools to build strong foundations for a fair and prosperous UK.

Cornwall was an early pioneer of devolution, having secured our first deal in 2015, and has more than demonstrated the benefits of giving more powers to local areas. Our deals to date have provided Cornwall with the opportunity to design local policy solutions to meet the specific challenges of rural and remote communities.  

We have been leading a quiet revolution in the use of public transport, using our devolved powers to increase bus patronage and to leverage £17m of private sector investment into the Transport for Cornwall network. Our second devolution deal gives us greater control over skills funding through devolution of the Adult Education Budget, has unlocked stalled affordable housing sites and secured funding support for the Cornish language, heritage and culture. 

So, what's next? Devolution is the main policy lever in efforts to reduce UK regional inequality, enjoying bipartisan support. We have only made a dent in addressing those inequalities. Cornwall's Gross Value Added (GVA) per head is 30% lower than the average for the country, and 17% lower than for the South-West. And the abstract terms of ‘GVA per head' and ‘productivity across regions' translate into real-life hardships for our residents – it's about how much disposable income people have, your life expectancy and the educational attainment of your children.  

Beyond the desperate need to address inequalities, the next Government will have to face the music on how it funds local government. We are seeing demand, eligibility and cost of delivering our public services all increasing and straining Cornwall's budgets. Increased costs are not matched with increases in income. Financial resilience across the sector is currently poor, as we are reliant on limited income sources and exposed to short-term policy changes in Whitehall. This is seen across the country, with the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) warning that a ‘crisis is developing that at some point could mean the sector itself falls over'. And if we fall, it would be felt by those most in need.  

In Cornwall, significant and very specific concerns about the requirement to move to a directly elected mayor to secure a Level 3 Deal stymied our attempts to devolve the investment funding and powers we really need to turn Cornwall's fortunes around. Now, in a ‘Cornwall White Paper', we are setting out a bold new vision for Cornwall to have the means to shape its own destiny with greater autonomy over its political and economic life. We look forward to working on this with the next Government.  

The White Paper sets out the opportunity that Cornwall has to offer – for the region, and for the UK. Despite not being a metro area, we have a straightforward and willing single unitary council structure covering a functional economic area. We have strong place leadership and effective governance to support greater autonomy through the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board and have established a powerful new Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Economic Forum with an independent chair to represent and champion business interests as we reset our growth strategy post Local Enterprise Partnership integration. 

We are being courageous and brave, forging links with other regions and nations of the UK, Europe and the world to build our profile and explore opportunities. This includes historic international agreements such as a collaboration agreement with the Welsh Government and the Declaration of Rennes with the Government of Ireland, the Scottish and Welsh Governments. 

And what a profile we have! Cornwall sits atop a wealth of critical mineral deposits like copper, tungsten and tin, and has one of the largest concentrations of lithium-enriched granite in Europe. Water depth in the Celtic Sea, excellent wind resources, and deep, generational knowledge of marine industry has allowed Cornwall to lead the way with its ambition to progress Floating Offshore Wind (FLOW) as a solution to help achieve the UK's green targets. Cornwall's natural capital and world-leading capabilities are unique. 

The challenges local areas and the UK face are immense – with the potential to detrimentally affect our residents. But we also have so much to offer. Cornwall can help power the UK, feed the UK and be the lungs of the UK. It may be on Britain's leading edge, but Cornwall can be central to the whole country's success. 

What should therefore be on the devolution agenda for a next government? Not just widening, but also deepening devolution. Building on the progress made to really give local leaders the tools (both powers and funding) to lay and build resilient foundations for a fair and prosperous UK. It's about balancing ‘top-down' with ‘bottom-up' – finding what works best for the specific area so that everyone can start well, live well and age well. 

Kate Kennally is chief executive of Cornwall Council. She will be speaking on Devolution – Where Does The UK Go Next? at UK REiif on 23 May.

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