Devolution needs to be seen as a system approach

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 16

John Pollard, leader of Cornwall Council, talks about the progress made in the first year of Cornwall’s devolution deal, and why the process needs to be seen as a system approach.

Devolution suits Cornwall. We have a strong sense of our cultural identity and place, coupled with a long history of partnership working across a distinct geographic region. This has enabled Cornwall to develop a clear vision for what we want to achieve, highlighting opportunities and areas where more work needs to be done. Cornwall is ambitious, with a real desire to increase the prosperity of its residents, invest in our infrastructure, improve our health, and transform our public services so that they are sustainable and responsive to real life. 

It is within this context that I pushed so hard for Cornwall to become the first rural local authority area to achieve a devolution deal, a feat that we achieved in July 2015. Our devolution deal was shaped around our priorities and vision, and nearly one year on we are starting to see the positive impacts of this deal that have been enabled through greater local control and influence; and most importantly, having the freedom to be more responsive to local need. 

At the start of this journey, Cornwall had many of the building blocks in place to enable devolution to work both from a governance and functional perspective. As a unitary authority with a coterminous local enterprise partnership (LEP) and NHS clinical commissioning group (CCG), we have shared administrative boundaries that, over the years, have encouraged joined-up working and thinking. 

In late 2014 the council agreed an ambitious strategy to overcome Cornwall’s fundamental challenges, not least a funding formula which fails to recognise that we provide services to a population dispersed across the length and breadth of Cornwall – the same distance as Birmingham to Manchester. 

Following the Scottish Referendum, with the spotlight on devolution, the council supported my call to take advantage of a small window of opportunity to mitigate the impact of the funding deficit by realising our wider ambitions for greater autonomy. 

Case for Cornwall 

We were determined to develop a well-defined, compelling and realistic set of proposals that could form a devolution deal. This was not a wish list; we wanted freedoms and responsibilities to manage decision-making for Cornwall in Cornwall. Equally, this was not a ‘power grab’ by Cornwall Council – but about the authority working with partners to make a real difference. We adopted a collaborative approach throughout, with Cornwall’s CCG and LEP co-signatories to the deal. 

We held a number of public consultations and promoted a social media campaign, #standupforcornwall, which stimulated interest in the proposals, and engaged with civil servants to ensure Cornwall’s aspirations for a devolution deal were known within Whitehall. 

Our ‘Case for Cornwall’ focused on a broad range of themes to enable us to deliver a better service to our communities. The themes reflect what local people told us needed improving, including better public transport, more affordable homes for local people, and more and better job opportunities, matched by the right skills and training opportunities. 

Double devolution 

We also wanted to achieve ‘double devolution’ so our partners, including our colleagues in town and parish councils and the voluntary sector, could benefit from the transfer of powers from London to Cornwall.

We deliberately avoided a protracted debate over governance, focusing instead on the powers and functions that would enable us to deliver against our aspirations. Although mayor Pollard has a certain ring to it, there is no appetite in Cornwall for an elected mayor. There are demands for some form of devolved assembly – something for future debate. 

After significant negotiation the Cornwall Deal was agreed in July 2015, and it focused on key areas such as health, transport, employment and skills and public estate. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but one year on we have seen significant progress. We now have agreed devolved transport budgets, we are about to become a designated intermediate body for European funding, we are making significant progress on our One Public Estate programme, and we are about to receive a devolved budget of £15m to take forward our aspirations for the low carbon economy. 

However, it is important to recognise that nearly one year on, we are only really at the start of the journey. Devolution is multi-faceted and needs to be seen as a system approach; it is about devolution of powers and budgets, but it is also about working to strengthen our partnerships, and rethinking how we can do things better that over time may lead to more autonomy. Most important of all, it is about being more reflective of the places that we live. 

There is still a long way to go, but I remain excited and proud at what we have achieved to date, and I’m convinced that Cornwall will continue to embrace devolution and deliver what is right.

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