Jane Wills, ‘The geo-constitution and responses to austerity: Institutional entrepreneurship, switching and re-scaling in the United Kingdom’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (2020), pp.1-16.
Jane Wills, a geography professor at Tremough, proposes here that town councils in Cornwall have played a vital role in moderating the impact of austerity since 2010. This is, for her, an example of an evolving ‘geo-constitution’, restoring relevance to a level of governance that had declined in importance during the decades of technocratic centralism in the mid-twentieth century. Basically, the presence of town councils in Cornwall enabled Cornwall Council to ‘asset-switch’, handing over loss-making services such as libraries, parks and toilets to the larger town councils, who now raise the money to maintain them.
Wills takes this example of asset-switching in Cornwall to make a wider point. Its possibility depends on the pre-existing ’supply architecture’, or the institutions of local government that are available. In Cornwall town and parish councils allow asset-switching to occur; in metropolitan areas with no such accountable lower-tier institutions, responding to austerity in this way is more difficult. When it happens, it is an example of ‘re-scaling’ as governance responsibilities shift from one spatial level to another.
The article puts this re-scaling in context. English local authorities received cuts averaging 50 per cent in real terms during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government of 2010-15. This occurred at a time when multi-level governance was reconfiguring the role of the nation-state. A de-facto global constitution now binds states to marketisation, so much so, we might observe, that the end of human life on this planet is now easier to imagine than the end of capitalism.
States have generally shrunk in capacity (or at least seemed to do so in the pre-covid era) as citizens’ entitlement to welfare support and services funded through taxation were cut back. At the same time, there was some decentralisation to sub-state institutions. What this article seems to be claiming is that this hollowing-out of the central state has been echoed by a similar hollowing-out of the local state as institutions like Cornwall Council divest their portfolios and shed their assets.
The cut in local government budgets was an example of ‘scalar dumping’ whereby central government shifted the blame for cuts onto local councils. Local councils responded not by resistance but with pragmatism and innovation. This involved a range of options – partnerships, outsourcing, privatisation, asset sales, risky financial instruments, investing and so on.
In Cornwall, one response of Cornwall Council was to transfer assets to the larger town councils while it focused on its core responsibilities, such as social care. Most of the asset-transfer has involved the 20 or so councils with the largest population. Toilets, libraries, parks and community centres have been transferred, ’saving almost all’ from closure. As a result, town councils have increased their staff. Falmouth Town Council for example now employs 40 staff compared to just five in 2011. They have also raised their precept, sometimes by over 100 per cent. Town councillors, although suspicious at first that Cornwall Council was ‘passing the buck’, have generally accepted the transfer.
In doing so, Jane Wills claims, this asset-transfer is ‘underwritten by a new social contract with the local citizens who have to pay more for the service’. It is here that the argument becomes more questionable. This ‘social contract’ is built on extremely shaky foundations. Town and parish council elections attract appallingly low levels of interest and derisory turnouts. Most people are ignorant of the details of local government responsibilities and have only the vaguest grasp of the breakdown of council tax between Cornwall Council and their parish council. Asset-switching will need to be combined with a much more vigorous re-democratisation of local councils to avoid the inevitable turn to simplistic populism once people are alerted to growing parish council spending.
Asset-transfer to the current, haphazardly constructed, architecture of town and parish councils also carries the danger, as this article points out, of growing spatial unevenness in costs and benefits. Town council taxpayers have to pay the growing costs, yet those in the rural hinterlands will also use the services transferred. This could yet lead to conflict.
Moving beyond this article, Cornwall Council is also energetically pursuing another agenda, which we might term ‘developer-mimicry’. This involves speculative housebuilding in order to raise finances. The resulting de-facto population growth strategy and ongoing destruction of natural resources is likely to further undermine the ‘social contract’ between Cornwall Council and Cornish residents. It might therefore be simpler to get rid of this tier of local government entirely.
What about abolishing Cornwall Council and replacing it with a streamlined, strategic regional assembly based on the territory of Cornwall, with a re-vamped series of ‘community councils’, built on the architecture of Cornwall’s town councils but including their hinterlands?