(This an extended version of a submission to be sent to the Local Government Boundary Commission, which is reviewing electoral arrangements for Cornwall Council, to be implemented in 2021)
A myth haunts the corridors of south-west media outlets. It’s one that many politicians and journalists have periodically fostered over the past seven years since the abolition of the district tier of local government in Cornwall. The myth is that Cornwall has too many councillors. When comparison is made with governing institutions in other places the implication is that we have too many elected representatives and that the Cornish voter is somehow over-represented compared to those other places, with a vast train of elected hangers-on leeching off the public purse.
On closer inspection the myth turns out to be nonsense. Those transmitting it are either deliberately seeking to reduce the level of democratic representation in Cornwall, are utterly ignorant about the way local government works in the UK or are confusing the quantity of representatives with the quality of representation.
The former BBC journalist Graham Smith had a particular bee in his bonnet about the number of councillors in Cornwall. In 2010 he told us that Cornwall Council had ‘ten times as many councillors per head of population as Scotland and Wales have AMs and MSPs’. In a similar vein, the Western Morning News in 2011 was pointing out that Cornwall Council was ‘twice the size of the Welsh Assembly [actually it’s three times], despite having far less power’. Not content with that, the newspaper, in a display of confusion that exceeded even its own high standards in that regard, went on to compare Cornwall Council with Devon County Council which at the time had 62 councillors, comparing this number with Cornwall’s 123.
This Tory leaning newspaper was backed up by Labour’s sole Cornwall Councillor, Jude Robinson, who thought that the number of councillors could be shrunk by 20%, or around 25. Tory MP George Eustice also went on record as saying in 2012 that Cornwall Council was too large and should ‘consider cutting the number of councillors’. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem group leader at the time, Jeremy Rowe, asked ‘Is the Council bloated?’ and replied ‘I think so’.
It is the case that Cornwall Council is one of the largest local authorities in the UK. Only the unitary authorities of County Durham, at 126 councillors, and Birmingham, with 120, are of similar size. Yet comparisons with the Welsh Assembly or Devon County Council are absurd and completely miss the point. In Wales there is a tier of unitary local government underneath the regional level of the Assembly. Most of Devon (outside Plymouth and Torbay) retains two tiers of local government. In fact in both Wales and Devon, there are 1,960 adults for every councillor. In Cornwall there are 3,580. Cornwall Council is a local government body and should be compared with local government, not with regional assemblies, of which we have none.
Let’s go beyond the myth for a moment and compare local and regional government representation in Cornwall with that of other places at four different levels, national, county, local authority and unitary authority.
1) National comparisons
The Cornish are recognised as a national minority in the UK, along with the Scots, Welsh, Irish and other groups, under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which the Government signed up to in 2014. Its levels of representation must logically therefore be compared with those other nations.
Table 1: National levels of local and regional government representation
||Adults per councillor (2014)
||Devolved institution members
||Adults per total sub-state elected representatives
Even if we restrict our attention to the local government level, we can see that in Cornwall there are fewer elected representatives in relation to population than in any other country in the UK. It will be noted that this is the case even in Northern Ireland, where a process of local government reform was completed in 2015 that reduced the number of local authorities from 26 to 11. Only councillors in Scotland represent a similar number of voters as in Cornwall. But Scotland also has a Parliament. If we take into account the devolved institutions at regional/national level then the disparities between the other Celtic countries and Cornwall widen.
2) County comparisons
Uniquely among the UK’s national minorities the Cornish are administered only within a county structure and Cornwall Council is a local government body. The level of representation in Cornwall can be compared with the 1973 base counties of England and Wales in the map below.
Map 1: Number of adults per cllr (County areas)
Most county areas have more councillors in relation to their resident population than does Cornwall. Moreover, only in the three metropolitan counties of the West Midlands, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire, plus the rural county of Northumberland do we find fewer councillors in relation to population. Even in Greater London, the number of adults per councillor, at 3,510, is slightly below that of Cornwall, even though the population of London has been rising faster than elsewhere in recent years.
3) Local authority comparisons
If we compare all local authorities (at district and unitary level) with Cornwall, we find that in England 41 (13%) have more adults per councillor than Cornwall while 281 or 87% have fewer. In Wales, only Cardiff has fewer councillors per head of population. By the criterion of quantitative representation therefore Cornish citizens are in the top sextile of the least represented.
4) Unitary authorities
Areas of two-tier local government in England might be expected to have better levels of representation than Cornwall. But if we restrict the comparison to other unitary local government authorities we find that in Wales 21 of 22 have more councillors per electorate. In England more than 70% of unitary authorities have fewer voters per councillor than Cornwall, while even in London more boroughs have a better rate than Cornwall than a worse one.
Table 2: Number of adults per councillor, unitary authorities 2014
||Number of unitary authorities
||More adults pre councillor than Cornwall
||Fewer adults per councillor than Cornwall
Here’s a list of those English unitaries with a higher number of adults per elected representative than Cornwall. I’ve also added their population density.
Table 3: Unitary authorities outside London with higher number of adults per councillor than Cornwall
||Adults per councillor
||Persons per hectare
It will be seen that virtually all those authorities with fewer elected representatives in relation to population than Cornwall are urban. Only three rural authorities have a higher number of voters per councillor than Cornwall – Wiltshire, East Riding and Northumberland. Furthermore, if we focus on the nine unitary authorities in England with a population density similar to that of Cornwall (less than 3 persons per hectare) the median number of adults per councillor is 3,368, compared with 3,581 in Cornwall. The lowest is found in Rutland with only 1,167 and the highest in the East Riding, at 4,089. If the size of the unitary authority in Cornwall was set at the East Riding level we would still have 108 councillors; at the Rutland level we’d have 377! At the median level we would be looking at 131 councillors.
The conclusion therefore is that Cornwall is not that far out of line with similar rural unitary authorities in England in terms of the size of the democratic element of its local government. All these of course have far fewer representatives in relation to population than do the remaining two-tier rural districts (and even the majority of urban unitary single-tier authorities). In addition, in comparison with Wales, we have very many fewer councillors.
Technical issues surrounding the size of Cornwall Council must be put into their context. Cornwall has been at the cutting edge of the quiet reformation of local government that is accompanying the neoliberal political consensus. Neoliberalism does not value democracy, which it assesses in simple terms of costs, while transferring functions (and assets) from the public to the private sector (see Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On neoliberal society, Verso, London, 2013. See also Cornish devolution and neo-liberalism). As part of the neoliberal project, the size of local authorities is being gradually whittled down by the Local Government Boundary Commission (LGBC).
While Cornwall is not the only territory bearing the brunt of this process (other rural areas in the north-east of England and Wiltshire have also experienced it), this is the context for central government taking the opportunity of the so-called ‘devolution deal’ with Cornwall Council in July 2015 to demand a council boundary review. This was bluntly ‘expected to reduce the number of local councillors’. Cornwall’s democratic deficit in terms of elected representatives in relation to voters is set to become even greater if the LGBC heeds this command and allows the Government to suborn their independence in this blatant way.
Any further reduction in the number of elected representatives in Cornwall will be especially stark when we note that recent boundary reviews for Devon County Council and Dorset County Council made little change to council size. In Devon numbers were cut by two, to 60, while in Dorset the number of councillors has unusually been increased, by one to 46. Other county council boundary reviews since the last round of elections in 2013 are
- Kent – cut by 3 to 81
- Hertfordshire – increased by 1 to 78
- Cambridgeshire – cut by 8 to 61
- Leicestershire – no change
- Warwickshire – cut by 5 to 57
- Nottinghamshire – cut by 1 to 66
- Lancashire – no change
If these are any sort of precedent then we might expect the Boundary Commission to cut the number of councillors in Cornwall merely by two or three.
Cornwall’s double democratic deficit
At the same time it would be naive not to recognise that we have a deficit of representation in Cornwall or admit that Cornwall Council has come under severe criticism. However, while the authority itself may arguably not be fit for purpose, it has yet to be proven that this relates somehow to the number of elected representatives it contains. What we can say is that, contrary to media impressions, as we have seen above the territory is one of the least well represented in the UK in terms of pure numbers of elected representatives in relation to the electorate.
Moreover, we also have a deficit of electoral opportunity. Put simply, opportunities to vote for representatives – a key factor in the health of political parties and the vibrancy of the democratic system – are in Cornwall among the lowest in the UK (and after Brexit even lower). Table 4 below shows the number of elections to be expected in each 20 year cycle for the various types of local government territory in England, Wales and Cornwall.
Table 4: Elections in a 20 year cycle
|All-out two tier
|Scotland & Wales
|Two tier by halves
|Two tier by thirds
Bridging the democratic deficit
As we have seen, Cornish voters are among the least well represented in the UK either in terms of number of elected representatives per head or opportunities to vote. One key factor in Cornwall’s double deficit is institutional. It lies in the abolition of a tier of local government and its amalgamation into a unitary local authority in 2009 by the Labour Government with the support of a Liberal Democratic County Council. This experiment, because of the size of the territory, has resulted in a large and apparently unwieldy institution where lines of democratic accountability are blurred and levels of responsiveness to local communities are widely found wanting. In this sense, it can indeed be accused of being ‘bloated’.
With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that occupying the Cornish territorial level with a local government body dealt the prospects of a devolved strategic regional assembly based on the national region of Cornwall a formidable blow. Despite the abolition of the County Council it paradoxically reinforced Cornwall’s status as a county, a major factor in the inability of central government to understand or accommodate Cornwall’s unique heritage and claims to devolution. The decision to establish a unitary authority was seriously flawed. It turned out to be another policy folly, similar to the preference for Devon and Cornwall institutions in the 1980s and 1990s. That policy consensus was later accepted as counter-productive for Cornwall. The elite consensus in favour of unitary local government body is now coming to be viewed in the same way. In order to restore a more responsive local government and establish more strategic regional government therefore, the answer is plain.
First, restore a level of genuinely local government. This might be based on the former six districts, perhaps combining them into three unitary councils, one for the west (Penwith and Kerrier), one for mid (Carrick and Restormel) and one for east Cornwall. If these authorities were to reflect the levels of electoral representation of the average unitary local authority in rural areas they should each have around 45 councillors.
Second, establish a streamlined strategic regional authority in Cornwall to manage powers devolved from Westminster (and from Europe after Brexit). This would be directed by at least 30 elected members.
This more democratic and responsive structure would increase representation in Cornwall to a fairer level as well as offer more opportunities for voter input into the system. Ideally, it would be combined with modernisation of the voting system, as in the other devolved institutions and Scottish local government. This would involve the introduction of either an additional member system or preferably, as in Northern Ireland, the single transferable vote in order to ensure minority voices obtain a voice in our governing institutions.