Monday, 29 October 2007

A unitary council for Cornwall?

Last Wednesday (24th October), the House of Commons agreed all Lords amendments to the Local Government and Public Involvement Bill and passed it back to the Upper House for Royal Assent, which is scheduled for Tuesday 30th October. This bill includes the measures to set up unitary authorities.

Mebyon Kernow has already written to Cornish MPs calling on them to seek an early meeting with Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State, to demand that she does not allow the County Council bid for unitary status to proceed. I have also written to Ms Blears and hope that many others will do likewise. Her address is the Department of Communities and Local Government, Eland House, Bressenden Place, London SW1E 5DU.

My own letter was as follows:

Dear Ms Blears


I am writing to appeal to you to not allow Cornwall County Council’s bid for a single unitary council to be implemented. Earlier this year, you told Cornwall County Council that you were "minded” to implement their proposal but would take the “final decisions as to which unitary proposals are to be implemented” if and when the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is enacted.

Before you take this next step, I hope that you will be able to find some time to reflect on whether the Cornish bid should actually proceed. As a democrat I hope that you will consider the following points.

· One of the criteria for judging whether a unitary bid should be successful was ‘public support.’ In Cornwall, opposition to the plan came from all six district councils, the majority of town and parish councils as well as a range of other organisations and bodies.

· Four district councils carried out postal polls in which a total of 71,722 residents voted – 58,087 were opposed to the unitary proposal while only 13,281 were in favour. In Caradon, 81.6% of valid votes opposed a single unitary authority, in Carrick the opposition stood at 75.9%, in Kerrier 79.3% and in Penwith the level of opposition was a massive 89.1%. North Cornwall District Council had meanwhile surveyed 6,000 residents and found that 82% of respondents were against a single unitary authority. It is wrong that such strong expressions of public opinion should be ignored.

· By contrast, on Tuesday 19th June Cornwall County Council debated whether to proceed with their bid. The Council voted to continue by 32 votes to 28 – a majority of only four. There was one abstention while 21 members were absent from the vote. This means that the proposal was only supported by 39% of county councillors and an unacceptable 25% of members were not even present at the meeting to cast a vote. This is hardly a basis on which to allow a single council to be imposed on the people of Cornwall.

· Towards the end of the Government consultation period, the County Council submitted a ‘supplementary submission’ to your department, which blatantly used spin to fabricate a ‘broad cross section of support’ for their proposal. It claimed that it sought the views of the public through a MORI poll, focus groups and the distribution of information leaflets. It failed however to inform central government that the poll had been carried out in advance of the details for their bid actually being worked up and that 91% of those surveyed stated that “they would like more information on any proposal before making up their mind.” The document also failed to include the full facts about the County Council’s disastrous leaflet consultation which did not even reach most homes and were returned by only 665 households. Interestingly, their incredibly biased leaflet still generated more opposition to the proposal than support for it. But rather than acknowledge such widespread opposition, their submission preferred to note that “the feedback we have received suggests that many people have not fully understood our proposals.” Such misinformation should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

· I understand that the support of Cornish MPs was always a significant factor in allowing Cornwall County Council’s bid to get this far but, in the last few days, one of these MPs (Andrew George) has made a public statement expressing his opposition to the Local Government Bill.

I would appeal to you to look again, in more detail, at Cornwall County Council’s bid and the nature of the representations from Cornwall before you come to your final decision on the proposal. It is our hope that your view will reflect public opinion in Cornwall and consign the proposal of a unitary council to the dustbin.

There can be no denying that the vast majority of people in Cornwall remain opposed to the bid and there is no evidence that a single unitary authority would command a broad cross-section of support.

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