south west

Drop the cynicism – Cornwall’s national minority status should be welcomed

[Cross-posted from my article for OpenDemocracy]

Cornish politics, including nationalist politics, is a strange beast. It ranges from would-be-terrorists who demand English flags be removed, to those who envy the SNP’s success and seek to imitate a progressive patriotism (to steal a phrase from Billy Bragg). But speaking as a ‘naturalised’ Cornishman myself, the news that Cornwall has been given ‘national minority’ status under the Council of Europe’s ‘Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’ is one which, despite some caveats, should be welcomed.

The caveats are worth mentioning, of course. Firstly, Cornwall is one of the most impoverished counties in the country – and famously the only to receive the EU’s ‘Objective One’ funding for ‘undeveloped’ regions. It has one of the highest house price-to wage ratios, a source in itself of much anti-English ‘immigrant’ (or emmet, in Cornish dialect) hostility. This in itself has prompted calls for extra hotel taxes and second-home expropriations.

Policies like the bedroom tax (and austerity in general) have hit Cornwall hard, with 61% of those hit by the policy in the county falling into arrears – prompting the council to send over Christmas thousands of fairly-offensive ‘Pay Your Rent Before It’s Spent’ newsletters. Meanwhile, just 14% of the bedroom tax relief fund has actually been spent.

My own city of Truro – the only Cornish city, by virtue of its Cathedral – is now the third most expensive in the country, while thousands linger on the minimum wage in the county’s main sectors of tourism (when it’s not raining), retail, and hospitality – from pasty shops to pubs and B&Bs. But with little progressive or trade union tradition, there’s scant pressure to radically alter Cornish society – except, perhaps, to abolish the outdated model of the Duchy which grants immense land and inheritance rights to the Duke of Cornwall.

But politics, as always, partly explains the government’s unexpected decision. Cornwall is a firmly Lib Dem/Conservative swing area – there hasn’t had a Labour MP in many years, and only then confined to the deprived Camborne & Redruth constituency. Is the government eying up the three Lib Dem seats – all of which rest on slender majorities? Just 6000 extra votes could bring all three to the Tories. Needless to say, the Lib Dems aren’t too popular in the county at present, despite narrowly taking control of the council in a coalition last year, so an all-Tory Cornwall is a theoretically plausible outcome, while the Tories are desperately trying to see off an insurgent UKIP threat – the party won six seats on the council last year, while left-wing Cornish nationalists Mebyon Kernow sadly won just four (although encouragingly, the Greens won our first ever unitary seat, in St Ives).

The decision to give Cornwall national minority status doesn’t grant it any extra funding, desperately needed both culturally and economically. But it does add gravitas to a welcome £120,000 given to the Cornish Language Partnership recently to promote the on-going revival, while it opens up possibilities for easier grant applications through the EU and other bodies. At the same time, Bewans Kernow, a local charity, has just been granted £40k to increase community cohesion and boost knowledge of Cornish culture.

It’s easy to be cynical, especially about coalition decisions. But, caveats aside, the move should be welcomed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it grants Cornwall an automatic right to consultation over government policies, as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already receive. With all the social problems Cornwall has, this is undoubtedly a positive.

But, more sentimentally, it recognises an identity that is already there and one which, with no real right-wing nationalist grouping in the county, is relatively benign. There’s no real push for separation (even Mebyon Kernow reject independence), but there is a sense of community and uniqueness. 84,000 people declared themselves Cornish in the 2011 census, while thousands celebrate St Piran’s Day (treated as a bank holiday by many organisations in the Duchy), Trevithick’s Day, Flora Day and a whole raft of other festivities. There’s the language – now seeing somewhat of a revival, with Cornish-language nurseries and classes springing up all over – as well as the food, the folk scene, the surfing, the accent and even the tartan, however ugly it might be…

But more than anything, there’s a sense of pride, despite the odds. And although Eric Hobsbawm was right when he said that all national identities are to some extent ‘imagined communities’ rooted in myth, does it really matter? For now, I’m proud to be an adopted member of that imagined community – a collective in an individualistic age, or as the county’s motto goes – ‘Onen hag oll’. One and all.

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Cornwall Council newsletter scandal – the ‘apology’ that never was…

Since writing my blog post on the Cornwall Council Christmas newsletter (which contained the message ‘pay your rent before it’s spent’), the story has sort of…exploded*.

You’d think with so much negative coverage for the council they would just admit that the newsletter was offensive, patronising, in bad taste and poorly timed. My family received it on Christmas eve – not a time when you want to hear that the council will bring the bailiffs in if you don’t cough up, or that you will be evicted. Also not a good time to announce rent rises of £3-£5 a week (hundreds of pounds a year) on the same page, alongside the claim that the government’s benefit ‘reforms’ are not viewed as a valid reason for underpayment.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the whole page perpetuated the myth of council tenants as reckless with spending, poor at budgeting, and the notion that poverty isn’t the cause of things like the bedroom tax and low wages but of the fecklessness and carelessness of the poor. It’s a slap in the face to thousands in Cornwall.

Was there an apology? Well…no. Yesterday the council posted an update on the scandal on its site – presumably to deflect the growing chorus against its actions. It said:

The article was intended to remind tenants of the importance of keeping on top of their rent payments over the festive period…[and] that we no longer give two ‘rent free’ weeks at Christmas.

Referring to homelessness (and implicitly, evictions), it went on to say:

We have seen first hand the consequences of people not budgeting correctly and prioritising their debts.

This is basically just another veiled threat to kick out struggling tenants for under-/non-payment of rent. But the final line is priceless:

It was certainly not our intention to patronise our tenants in any way and we are sorry if some people have interpreted the article in this way.

Basically, they are apologising for their tenants’ supposed misinterpretation of the clearly insulting newsletter. They are apologising for what they see as their residents stupidity. Essentially, ‘we are sorry if you got the wrong end of the stick’. It puts the blame on the tenants rather than the council. It’s not an apology therefore, and I’ll be seeking an actual formal apology and retraction from the council itself – not an apology for their tenants.

In sum, the council’s response continues the patronising attitude of the newsletter – that tenants are idiots to be belittled. It is not much better than the original article itself, and it certainly isn’t a retraction.

How did I hear about the ‘apology’ that never was? Twitter. No formal letter, no visit, no phone call. Instead, the council said:

I told them my family was waiting for a full formal apology. None yet.

What have the actual (Lib Dem/Indy) councillors responsible said? This is from the BBC article:

Liberal Democrat councillor Geoff Brown, cabinet member for housing, said he was sorry if anyone was offended by the newsletter, but the council was trying to help tenants by stressing the importance of people being “very, very careful and managing their money”.

Again, not actually saying sorry, just apologising for tenants’ ostensible myopia. I don’t even need to say how patronising the phrase telling residents to be “very, very careful” at “managing their money” is.

Without wanting to start a new People’s Front of Judea, the response from Labour has also been disappointing, criticising only the timing of the article, not the content or overall message and tone. “The timing of the newsletter was terrible”, said Labour councillor Michael Bunney.

But the story is kicking off. Let’s hope Cornwall Council see sense and do the right thing. Better than an apology though would be a pledge not to evict tenants hit by the bedroom tax and a pledge not to raise rents. People cannot afford the housing & council benefit cuts, and hundreds of pounds extra in rent a year.

Feel free to write to comments@cornwall.gov.uk if you have any thoughts for them!

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*It’s the most viewed article on the blog with nearly 500 views in around a week, and it has sparked national coverage in the Morning Star (in print), BBC News Online (here), BBC Spotlight, and the Cornish Guardian (next week – with a news piece, plus  a short comment by me).

Here’s the full message:

Cornwall Council tenant newsletter

‘How the cuts will hurt you – and how to fight them’

Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance are hosting a public meeting on the 28th April about the effect the cuts in Cornwall will have on our communities. As the name implies, the event will also aim at building the campaign in Cornwall against these cuts. We’ve seen in recent months news of hundreds of job losses at Treliske, the near closure of the youth centre in Mullion, around 700 jobs to be lost at Cornwall Council and dozens of other cases of ordinary people being made to pay for a crisis they didn’t cause.

Several local trade union leaders will be speaking, as well as local students. That includes myself (no, I’m not asking you to come because of that!); Lynsey Smith from Tremough Campus will be talking about the cuts to Higher Education, and I’ll be talking about  cuts to Further Education nationally. The meeting is the first of its sort in Cornwall (aside from the recent Academy debate in Falmouth) so should be an interesting start to the campaign. Perhaps there is even that demonstration in the pipe-line.

Please let your colleagues, comrades, student mates, councillors, friends and family know about this. It’s not one to miss. If you’re oppose to the cuts, this is a good chance to hear some prominent voices in the local anti-cuts movement and get involved in building it yourself.

It will take place at the Hall for Cornwall (Assembly Rooms), on Thursday 28th April at 7.30pm.

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I should be putting up a Facebook link for it soon. In the meantime, the details are below (from the Cornwall Anti-Cuts website) –

The meeting is being sponsored by the Cornwall branches of the CWU, NUT and PCS. The theme of the meeting is “HOW THE CUTS WILL HURT YOU AND HOW TO FIGHT THEM”, and speakers from the platform to date are: representatives from the Communication Workers Union, the National Union of Teachers (CORNWALL AND ISLES OF SCILLY BRANCH) ,the PCS UNION, GMB, as well as lecturers from around Cornwall. Other speakers will represent students from Truro College and Exeter University (Tremough Campus). There will also be a speaker from Save Our NHS (Cornwall).

Cornwall ACA will happily welcome other organisations opposed to the cuts to join in. Contact Secretary Chris Gibson for more information on 01872 560 483, or c.mccarther@sky.com

The national movement made local – updates for action in Cornwall

There are a few events taking place over the next coming of months which might not be worth missing. The recent Supporting People demonstration outside County Hall showed that more and more are willing to actively oppose the cuts – but there’s a lot more on its way.

Firstly, the increasing activity on the anti-cuts front in Cornwall. With the NHS consultation touring the area – and apparently hoping no one turns up – a perfect opportunity is offered for those who oppose the insidious privatisation of health-care. People will be out on the streets leafletting all over the county before March 26th to encourage as many as possible to come to the huge March for the Alternative in London this month. If you can help with leafletting, send Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance an email at canticall@gmx.co.uk

UK Uncut has been off the radar in Cornwall recently, but the next day of action (whenever that is) should see some interesting actions in Truro, or potentially spreading to Penzance, Camborne, Redruth. Who knows. A library in Bodmin was occupied recently in opposition to library funding cuts, so there are people in most towns willing to put on some form of light-hearted dissent. There will be more intense rebellion in other quarters of the coalition of resistance.

The student movement, for a start. Since 15,000 people took to the streets on January 29th, the movement has become more localised and has manifested itself in a revived occupation season. Glasgow was occupied, and then several others followed suit. I’m sure, with the momentum, Falmouth University compatriots will be willing to enter that exciting status – ‘occupation’ – at some point again. This time, perhaps a lecture theatre would be better than a large cafeteria. Still, tents are better than no tents.

Slightly less radical but no less important is the half-day seminar on the Equality Act at the Eden Project on the 10th May, hosted by Equality South West. Something to look out for no doubt. Also: Take Part Cornwall (where have all these groups come from?) are organising a community citizenship session on the 9th of March on how to campaign effectively and ‘get your voice heard’. There probably won’t be direct action workshops  – but the free lunch looks tempting. Anyway. Back to the important stuff.

Two pieces of new today alone show that there is more than student fees to fight though. Cornwall Council are shutting down recycling facilities at all Sainsbury’s supermarkets in Cornwall, and scrapping £200k of funding for recycling schemes. Instead, private companies will be ‘contracted’ to offer limited facilities in out-of-town areas. Progress? I’m sure this will go a long way to reducing Britain’s waste problem. So with the Unitary Council opting out of green initiatives like this, central government meanwhile are being shunned by South Western Ambulance Service, which is becoming a foundation trust. It will be given more ‘financial flexibility’, but exactly what that means is unclear. Flexibility to lay of more staff or cut wages, perhaps. Or, like the council, to pull in even more private contractors to our vital public services.

And the prospect of a double-dip recession looks ever more likely.

By the way:

Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance is undergoing big changes, with plans to launch into a mass, democratic body over the next few weeks. Trade unions are being linked up with as well as local community groups. Updates will be on the Canticall site as soon as possible.

South West Students to Lobby MPs to Save EMA

On Wednesday students from across the South West, including Devon and Cornwall, will be travelling up to Parliament to lobby their MPs not to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance. The vote to decide the fate of EMAs, put forward by Labour MPs, will be on the day, and will coincide with protests in London and Manchester. The marches, though they have proven divisive, are expected to attract large turnouts as students put the French saying into action – ‘what government does, the streets can undo’.

The UCU in the South West are organising coaches up to London alongside the NUS, though the NUS have decided, to the anger of many, not to support the protests on the day.

Students in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset who wish to lobby MPs in Parliament on Wednesday can contact the regional UCU officer Philippa Davey on pdavey@ucu.org.uk.

And for those who aren’t convinced by the arguments to save the EMA, here’s a video of David Cameron pledging not to scrap it last year –

Plymouth economics professor believes cuts could ‘dislocate’ local economy

A respected economics professor from the University of Plymouth visited Truro College on Friday, and described damningly the dangerous gamble Cameron and Osbourne are taking by inflicting the biggest cuts upon the public sector since the 1930s.

 

Professor Peter Gripaios said the cuts, which failed to fix the British economy then, are unlikely to restore our economy now, and that going ‘cold turkey’ on public spending could lead to ‘stagnation’ and a possible free-fall in the housing market. The cuts ‘assume the best year for export growth since 1974’, which in the global economy’s current state we certainly won’t see.

 

Cutting jobs (over 1,000,000 according to a recent CIPD estimate) means the government receives less in tax receipts, the number of people relying on benefits skyrockets, and since jobless people cannot spend as much, businesses struggle and the economy will not be stimulated. Austerity measures have failed in Japan, and now Ireland (which is currently seeking an EU bailout). Only growth measures will get us out of this ‘mess’ – otherwise, unemployment will increase further and it end up taking decades for the economy to recover.

 

The most prescient part of the presentation was his analysis of how the cuts will affect the South West. The Severn Barrage is being scrapped, which would have created hundreds of jobs and up to 5% of our energy needs. The decision to scrap it is immensely short-sighted and makes the shift from coal and gas to renewables significantly harder.

 

Halving the 24-hour search and rescue service run by the MOD at Chivener in Bristol will mean a huge area of the South West (as the service covers much of Devon and Cornwall too) could lead to a more dangerous coastline, especially around the Bristol Channel. Furthermore, MOD cuts in Bath put around 3,000 jobs at risk. There have already been protests, but once the cuts hits, the region will take a great deal of action – strikes, protests and other demonstrations are yet to come.

 

Unison estimate that Exeter could see up to 12,000 workers losing their jobs. Almost 40% of workers in the area are employed in public admin, health and education: key areas under attack in the Spending Review.

 

Devonport, which employs around 4,000 workers (after employing tens of thousands before the Thatcher years), is set to face millions in cuts. Osbourne is starting again where Thatcher left off.

 

Unions such as Unison, Unite and the PCS must organise wide-scale action in the South West. The should be a one day general strike nationwide to defend working people and their livelihoods. Communities can also organise to work with unions on this, along with those on the left in the Labour party and other organisations.

 

Peter Gripaios, no left-winger (he seems to believe most people receiving benefits are ‘scroungers’), outlined in his lecture the dramatic decline in tourism, Cornwall’s primary income source, caused by the VAT rise (less disposable income) and job losses. But as a CND member, it was also refreshing to hear Professor Gripaios speak out against Trident, believing it should be cut and explaining that the UK is trying to ‘punch above its weight’ by having a nuclear weapons system which costs billions of pounds every year to upkeep.

 

The lecture therefore showed me that the concerns many have about the coalition’s economic butchery are more mainstream than I thought, and that academics are now accepting the Con-Dem savagery does indeed represent a massive threat to the future of the British economy.

The Cuts in Cornwall

Though the cuts outlined in the coalition’s spending review have not yet taken hold, it will not be long before many people in Cornwall are adversely affected by this assault on the public sector. Debate seems almost theoretical at present – who will get hit hardest, where and what percentage the cuts are going to be and how local councils will deal with a highly constrained budget. But once the cuts start to bite, opposition, even among Conservatives, will steadily grow. Already, the majority of the public think the cuts are too much, too fast. In Cornwall this view is no doubt even more widely held, where reliance on the public sector and welfare is high due to limited job opportunities and poverty levels relatively more severe than in other parts of the UK. Despite unemployment being around 6% in the South West, fairly low when compared with unemployment in the North East, it will inevitably rise dramatically in a few months time. The false assurances that the private sector will magically and immediately absorb public job losses may not materialise, and Ed Milliband is right to say Osbourne is taking a massive gamble with people’s livelihoods for the sake of pursuing a right-wing monetarist ideology. But how will this affect myself and other students in Cornwall? The potential scrapping of EMA will prevent many in rural parts of Cornwall being able to even attend higher education, with EMA covering, or at least helping with, many students’ food, transport and studying costs. The increase in university fees, which is now being supported by Liberal Democrats, all of whom pledged to the NUS they would oppose any rise (3 of whom represent Cornish constituencies), will not only put off many students from poorer households, but will also create a dangerous market in education – where price of course becomes the main concern for students, instead of choosing the course which they want the most. Along with the £4.2 billion university cuts and therefore fewer places, this will mean universities once again become the refuge of the rich and effectively exclude struggling young people whose parents may not be able to help them out financially over their time at university. Vulnerable families will lose out in Cornwall when it comes to social housing too. With a current affordable housing shortage in the region, the plans to cut funding for social housing by over 50% and increase rent to near market levels will leave even more people without a home, and push those who can only just afford the new rates deeper into debt and hard times. Do we merely ask what will be cut – the library, the local school, infrastructure development, or staff at the hospital or the Post Office, soon to be effectively sold off? Or do we stand up and say people in Cornwall deserve better, and that the bankers and speculators who caused the financial crisis should take the burden, not those who can already barely afford to get through each week? The cuts will devastate our region and the nation as a whole unless we engage to defend working people, women, the disabled and students who will be worst hit by the government’s offensive. Investment, not cuts, will boost the economy and allow young people to have a fair future.
[This letter appeared in the West Briton in October]