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Cornwall's new structure will have to do better

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 22, 2012

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Unlike the confrontational in-your-face House of Commons, most modern council chambers have been built in an almost complete circle. This is supposed to inspire feelings of consensus and we're-all-in-this-together. To avoid distraction and perhaps to keep their deliberations perfectly hidden, they also tend to avoid natural light. In theory this should produce a concentrated atmosphere of mutual deliberation and considered action. In fact it all too often produces an arena, a bull-ring, a Roman amphitheatre in which brutal bloody things occur, in which might is right, and innocence is all too often sacrificed. And in which, once in a while, revolutions come from nowhere.

What makes people want to be councillors in an organisation like Cornwall Council? It won't be the allowance. £12,128.40 isn't a big basic wage even by Cornish standards for a job with infinite meetings, ten tons of paperwork to read, and no set hours. With a few extra responsibilities adding a few extra thousands, it's a useful add-on if you're on a good pension or if your career is sufficiently flexible. If you're at all diligent you'll earn every pound. If you rise to Cabinet level, basically a full-time job, the allowance rises by an extra £16,000-£20,000 plus travel and subsistence.

What about job satisfaction? There you rub up against human nature.

We ordinary mortals regard functioning public services as the status quo, the default setting, and we don't want to know the how and why.

So if a councillor is doing a good job you won't notice. Even if it's been a mighty struggle, who cares? Gratitude is conspicuously rare. On the other hand the reverse is far from true. Half the point of democracy, though no-one teaches this in British Citizenship courses, is having someone to bitch at. The road's closed? The street-lamp's out? The rubbish hasn't been collected? Cue your local Aunt Sally whose postbag and email inbox will fill with fury and bile.

So unlike many commentators I tend to give councillors the benefit of the doubt. Especially now as they twist and turn, the meat in the sandwich between the incessant demands of their electors and the mindless heel of central government which presses on them with more and more responsibilities.

Sadly, another fact of human nature; power corrupts. The history of local government is littered with those for whom power, even some sad little minor parochial power, subverted their initial good intentions. Some were literally corrupt, but in the great majority the process was less venal and more stealthy, from zeal to responsibility, from responsibility to power, from power to impatience with delay and dissent, and from there to the highlands of control. I'm not of course suggesting that any of the above generalisations apply to the recent Cornwall Council anschluss. The outbreak of councillor-power wasn't due to anything sinister going on but something far simpler and sadder – the basic inability to listen, or if listening, to care.

The cabinet system itself encourages siege mentality, encourages impatience not only with the public's complaints but with the conflicting demands of ordinary councillors. This was always the basic weakness of the unitary authority, to think that one forum, let alone a body the size of a standard jury, could properly represent a county so widely stretched. I confidently expect the return of some form of district council system within five years.

Not that the cabinet has exactly helped the situation. Its list of cloth-eared misjudgments ranges from the pointlessly petty – the unbelievable tilt at our last remaining industry by closing public toilets and Tourist Information Centres – to the massively wasteful, viz the incinerator, Penzance Harbour, to the abject, such as the privatisation scheme which finally broke the camel's back.

Cornwall Council came in on a solemn promise that its size would not lead to less local democratic input – more, even – and the cynical way it immediately abandoned that in favour of we-know-best was a tragedy in which we've all been losers. Can the new regime do better? Its very structure gives little cause for optimism. But judging by recent events, it had better...

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