Cornwall would thrive as a 'state government'
The shire counties are home to nearly half of England's population and have experienced the highest levels of growth in England over the past decade.
Devolving and supporting greater governance across these areas and mirroring the focus and investment that has gone into the cities has the potential to make real contributions to improving England's economic prospects. With growth proving elusive, it is vital that the government should look beyond the major cities and recognise the potential to make a similar, if not greater contribution to transforming the fortunes of the nation.
Over the past decade, Cornwall has shown that it can grow at a faster rate compared with other areas of the UK. European funding has played a big part in developments over this time, but support from the local public sector and particularly the private sector have been critical in this achieving this level of growth. The other elements have been aspiration, leadership and partnership. As a result, Cornwall's economic growth has surpassed expectation – achieving a GDP per capita increase of some 8% in the past ten years. This level of growth has been bettered only by the city of London.
Like many counties, we still have some way to go to transform our fortunes completely, but our dependency on funding from Whitehall makes us far too vulnerable to reductions in grant from the government. Radical change is required.
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In Cornwall, we have done better than most because we anticipated the initial reductions and dealt with them head-on, but repeating that trick again will not be enough. With challenges come opportunities, however, and we are calling on the coalition government to demonstrate its commitment to localism and devolution by granting Cornwall the chance to negotiate a bespoke "county deal" that would allow us the chance to fulfil our potential and ambition without any new money.
If you accept the view that the status quo for the operation of local government isn't an option but radical reform is negotiated rather than imposed, the idea of a "county deal" would provide an exciting opportunity for a number of areas to test new models of governance, organisational delivery and even funding mechanisms.
The idea of shire counties operating as small but perfectly formed state governments may sound fanciful on first reading, but in reality the roll-out of initiatives such as "whole place" public sector budgets are providing further stimulus to explore radical changes in governance that go beyond the current debate between mayoral, cabinet and committee models.
There are numerous examples beyond our shores that already point to how the public sector could work far more effectively to solve the unprecedented challenges that we currently face, but we need to confront the issue of organisational sovereignty in order to overcome these challenges.
The decision to create a unitary council in Cornwall in 2009, although unpopular in some quarters at the time and fuelled by the fear of change, enabled the council to absorb a 30% reduction in funding without impacting on frontline services. Where appropriate, we have transferred the operation of services to our wholly owned companies or to external organisations such as charitable trusts – this has enabled them to focus on service delivery and, in some cases trade, reducing the scale of budget reductions that the council faced.
More recently the introduction of a single Clinical Commissioning Group, the Local Enterprise Partnership and a Voluntary Sector Board, all with co-terminus boundaries, has provided a golden opportunity to go much further and either align and even bind the public, private and voluntary sector together in Cornwall. We are increasingly working hand in hand with local people and other stakeholders on understanding the needs of customers, developing a single vision for Cornwall and jointly determining budget priorities to deliver our collective ambition.
Add to the mix the soon-to-be elected police and crime commissioners and the argument for transferring additional powers and freedoms to the shires as part of "county deals" becomes even more attractive. I am convinced that greater independence from the centre, coupled with further alignment of public sector, and where appropriate the involvement of the private sector, is the only way in which the country will move from austerity to prosperity.
There are numerous examples of local authorities leading the way in developing innovative new approaches to public service delivery and generating economic growth. Places like Cornwall are both confident and capable of doing so much more, but, having pushed the envelope, there are legislative and bureaucratic barriers that are stymieing our progress.
Take European funding as an example. We know that development works best when it is locally delivered and designed, but we are constrained by a number of our ring-fenced funding streams being managed outside Cornwall. By truly embracing the principle of localism and freeing places like Cornwall from central control the Government will empower councils and communities to take responsibility for their own economic future. Only this way can we unlock their innovative capacity, local knowledge and experience to ensure a smart, sustainable and fully inclusive economy fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
I am convinced that a new blueprint for the delivery of public sector services and economic growth can emerge from the counties, but our potential will truly be realised only if government looks beyond the major cities.