Don’t wait for Whitehall

Cornwall voted to leave the EU, so how can we create a more self-reliant future?


by Robert Woolf

Archive for July, 2016

Don’t wait for Whitehall

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The official response of Cornwall & IOS LEP to the EU referendum provides an insight into the thinking of political and economic development leaders in Cornwall at the moment, and elsewhere in England. Whilst I agree that Cornwall needs clarification on EU funding, I believe the people of Cornwall have spoken and we therefore need to consider alternative approaches to creating a sustainable future.

The essence of the LEP’s response is contained within these three sentences: “Our view is unambiguous. The UK Government must guarantee that we receive our full allocation of EU investment, even if that money is no longer provided by the EU post-exit. The loss of this support would severely impede the growth of one of the UK and Europe’s poorest regions at a time when it is critical to maintain investment and business confidence.”

I understand why we have asked the UK Government to guarantee our full allocation of EU investment, and I certainly agree that Cornwall needs investment, but I’m not sure we should rely upon this course of action. Nor do I feel it will resolve the underlying issues in Cornwall. In fact, dare I say it, I think it’s time we had something of a reality check.

Tough to swallow as it was, Cornwall DID vote to leave the EU by 56.5% to 43.5%. It’s understandable that some commentators have suggested we can’t “have our cake and eat it”. Will replacing one set of funding with another do Cornwall good in the long term? I’m not sure. I believe we must now embrace the consequences of our decision to leave the EU, and quickly set out defining some alternative actions that will help us to become less reliant on external funding.

Here are my thoughts on how we might achieve this:

I believe we should enter into a phase of what’s known as subsidiarity – where external funds supports only those tasks which are deemed critical to social and economic growth, and which cannot be performed effectively at a local level.

This would mean revisiting all committed spend in the next programme and prioritising what is truly essential to Cornwall’s continued growth. In short, nothing should be ring fenced. We already have a helpful decision making template on this: an independent audit found there was “significant under-performance of the Convergence programme in achieving its target results regarding jobs, Gross Value Added and private sector investment”.

This isn’t a perfect way to prioritise decisions as we know that the benefits of EU investments can take time to materialise. We ourselves were in receipt of a small EU funded grant two years ago that is only now beginning to pay dividends. Nevertheless, my suggestion is to canvas the opinions of communities and businesses around the value, perceived or otherwise, of investments being proposed; and prioritise according to what did and didn’t work last time.

There are other benefits to this. EU funding into Cornwall has always been to stimulate growth in areas where the collective actions or funds of our local or national governments has been insufficient. By asking ourselves: “what are we capable of doing ourselves with less external support?”, we will be advocating a principle that Cornwall already supports – devolution.

Cornwall is the first rural authority in England to agree a devolution deal with UK government. Devolution refers to the restructuring or reorganisation of authority so that there is a system of co-responsibility between institutions of governance at the central, local and parish levels. Devolution has not only an administrative value but a civic value too, since it increases the opportunities for local people to shape their own communities according to what’s important to them.

By embracing a future where less external support is available, we will be forcing ourselves to cut the umbilical cord of dependency that continual external funding does little to change. Perhaps now is our chance to test a blended model of ‘frugal innovation’ (doing more with less)? Perhaps a reformed system for allocating funds would enable us to focus more on improving peoples’ quality of life as well as improving our economy?

In summary, Cornwall has been in receipt of EU funds for many years and yet this has done little to change the hearts and minds of many local people. I do not believe it is sensible to assume that the UK government will invest at the same level. What we need to do now is build the capacity and capabilities of local people to manage their own future. Scale is not critical here but skills and leadership are. Whilst, in general terms, I feel very saddened that our country has voted to leave the EU, I also believe that now is the time for Cornwall to be more innovative and more self-sufficient than ever before. I find it hard to see that we will encourage innovation or sustainability on the basis that Cornwall presses “for our full investment programme to be honoured”. Perhaps if we change the way we think about this problem we might look back in ten years time and say this was greatest catalyst for change we could have had.