Growing local councils in Cornwall
AUTHOR: PROFESSOR JANE WILLS, CENTRE FOR GEOGRAPHY AND ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
There has been little to celebrate in the world of local government in recent years. Severe budget cuts have hit local authorities very hard and the associated headlines have been all about service cuts, job losses and even bankruptcy.
However, on the western edge of England, in Cornwall’s towns and parishes, a rather unexpected counter-trend has been underway, largely under the radar of debate.
In Cornwall there are a number of local councils that have grown dramatically; they have increased their budgets, staffing and responsibilities many times over in a very short space of time. The larger towns and parishes (voting population between 6 and 17 thousand) have taken over public assets like toilets, parks and playgrounds, with the staff to service them and in some cases, they have moved contracts in-house.
A town like St Austell whose council was only created in 2009 (when the unitary status was granted to Cornwall) now has a team of parks staff, driving shiny new vans branded with the town logo, who look after all the green spaces in the community. The library staff are similarly employed by the council and they provide a much-improved service. Further west, in Camborne, the council has undertaken an ambitious refurbishment of its library building and now has a flagship venue and service in the heart of the town. To the south, in Falmouth, the town council now has pioneering art, culture and community service.
A new research report documents the way that a prior commitment to devolution, evident in the pledges made for unitary status in 2009 and when Cornwall signed a devolution deal with the national government in 2015, came into its own when Cornwall Council was faced with the need to make drastic cuts in its budget. Having already started to develop closer working relationships with its 213 parishes, Cornwall moved to transfer buildings and services, saving money without having to shut down the provision. The research captures the sometimes difficult journey that has taken place via protracted negotiations over important and often much loved local facilities and provision. While respondents from the local councils argued that they sometimes felt ‘dumped upon’ in the early days of the talks, their relationships had improved over time. Rather than assuming that all the expertise was to be found in the larger council, it was increasingly evident that the clerks, staff and councillors had a great deal to offer; parish people had risen to the challenges demanded of them.
As a result of what one respondent said was ‘doing the right thing’, the councils were taking on much greater risks and responsibilities than they had in the past. As a result, there was a lot more at stake in serving or being elected to the local council that had been the case for a very long time. The research highlighted the implications of this for understanding and appreciating the role of the clerks who now had a much broader remit on which to deliver; for sharing expertise across the sector in Cornwall and further afield; for training and inducting new councillors so that they could continue the work; for engaging with the public so that they would be willing to pay more for newly rebranded and improved services; and for potential changes in the boundaries of parishes as the larger towns expanded their roles.
The research found an ambition to deliver for the community that in future could involve the councils acting more as hubs around which a local network of public, private and voluntary sector organisation would coalesce. Clerks and councillors could identify opportunities to support new initiatives and engage people around the environment, youth services, activities for older people and economic development.