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Localism Bill could open the door to Cornish devolution

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 18, 2011

Greg Clark

Greg Clark

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Devon and Cornwall's cities and towns could be empowered to dictate transport spending and tackle benefit dependency after flagship legislation was passed.

Greg Clark, the minister charged with stripping Whitehall of responsibilities, insists the region will not miss out from "the biggest transfer of power" in a generation.

The Tory minister added the era of a greater South West local government structure that "handicapped" communities in Devon and Cornwall was over.

A central plank of the Localism Act, which received Royal Assent this week, is to give major cities a range of powers that currently rest with civil servants in London.

Mr Clark is negotiating transfers with eight "core" English cities, including Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. But this is not "exclusive", he said.

Early talks have thrown up the prospect of giving local authorities a share of Department for Transport cash and taking charge of the Department for Work and Pensions. welfare-to-work programmes.

Campaigners in the region want powers devolved to a Cornish Assembly, given the Duchy's history and heritage, while Exeter has pushed for a single council. With a population of 535,300, Cornwall is England's biggest "unitary" authority, and Plymouth's 258,700-strong population gives the city a strong case for taking on more power.

Asked by the Western Morning News whether a Cornish Assembly could result from the Act, Mr Clark said: "The direction we are going is to get powers out of Whitehall and into local communities, wherever they are. Although this part of the Act was drafted in conjunction with the leaders of the core cities group, in fact it applies to everybody.

"If there are good ideas and good proposals made by authorities of whatever geographical position or scale, then I'm up for them making use of the powers available in this Act."

The Act includes a slew of measures, including more directly elected mayors, local referendums on excessive council tax rises and ditching bin taxes. Plans that would have allowed people to trigger referendums on any local issue were dropped during the Bill's passage through Parliament.

The transfer will not lead to powers vested in authorities akin to the 19th century, when local politicians ran policing, utilities and the health service, Mr Clark said.

But he said the Localism Act will licence "far more local differences" that were being "suppressed" under Labour.

The minister added the great failure of Labour's South West region – "stretching from Poole in Dorset to the Isles of Scilly" – was to "underplay" the "distinctive characteristics" throughout.

Mr Clark praised the Local Enterprise Partnership in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, a coalition of business and politicians, which the Government sanctioned.

"There's real drive and ambition there that was handicapped when it was subsumed into its very amorphous regional structure," he said.

This week, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who is overseeing the Government's constitutional reform agenda, agreed to open talks with a delegation from Cornwall about the prospect of powers being devolved.

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