“You make your own weather,” according to Kate Kennally. For the chief executive of Cornwall Council, challenges and difficulties are not just things to overcome, but opportunities that have yet to be turned around.
And the challenges facing Cornwall are stark. Following almost 60 years of economic hardship, the county is the only English area defined as a ‘less developed’ region by the European Union. With Britain’s exit from the EU expected in 2019, £60m of European funding every year will be lost from 2020.
“The past 60 years have been difficult for Cornwall but that doesn’t mean to say that it will always be difficult for Cornwall,” Ms Kennally, who joined the south-west county in 2016, told LGC.
“Actually, instead of our geography being a problem, it could end up becoming one of our biggest advantages in the future. We need to be optimistic.”
Just over one quarter of Cornwall is an area of outstanding natural beauty and the council said this remains one of its “key economic assets”. It is also the UK’s number one tourist destination, creating what Ms Kennally described as a “fabulous shop window” for prospective business owners who might want to relocate to a place of extreme beauty.
Another solution to the removal of EU funding could lie in additional investment from the council itself. Council voted in November to create a £600m investment fund for housing and economic development, sourced through borrowing.
“We’re making that commitment because it’s the right thing to do and we’ve got the strength in the balance sheet to do it,” Ms Kennally said, adding: “we’re in a resilient position.”
At a time when the head of the County Councils Network has warned that top-tier councils are facing a funding gap to the best part of a billion pounds, Ms Kennally said the 2009 simplification of the county’s structure into a unitary could benefit other areas.
“There’s no doubt that Cornwall has a significant dividend that came from bringing seven councils into one unitary council. Like all councils, we’ve been having to deal with the impact of reduced spending and increased demand but we’re now in a place where members can feel confident enough to make an additional investment of £600m,” Ms Kennally said.
And contrary to the notion that unitary councils can be too far removed from local communities, Cornwall believes it has cannily increased localism.
“It is [two-tier government], but it is not without its challenges. We’ve been doing this work in doubling devolution down to local councillors on town and parish councils. We have had to pay real attention to how we engage with local communities and counter fears over the loss of districts,” she said.
But the unitary county has not always got it right.
“We initially had some networks that were just Cornwall Council talking to town and parish councils. We didn’t engage people or really work with business and community groups. We’ve changed that now to the correct policy by devolving a range of our council services to town and parish councils.”
Following these changes, a significant number of services have been handed over to the more local tier. Falmouth Town Council, for example, now employs over 100 staff running a range of community services usually run by districts, such as parks maintenance, libraries and community centres.
This “place leadership”, as Ms Kennally refers to it, is central to her leadership approach.
“I’ve got 9,000 people to engage with to ask if we are doing the right thing for Cornwall. To ask: Are we doing the right thing in your hometown? That question breaks down hierarchy and silos between services because everyone’s voice counts. If you can have a place-based discussion with staff then they will feel important.”
Ms Kennally said the overall “place-based approach” has a parallel in combined authorities which sit above existing local government structures. But using a comparison with Cambridgshire & Peterborough CA, which is partially two-tier, she said her county’s structure comes without the “confusing” overlap that existing councils can create.
“You’ve created another level of governance [in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA], with a combined authority and a mayor on top. So what you’ve really got is a county and districts and the unitary [Peterborough City Council, as well as the combined authority] – it’s pretty confusing that way to the public. Our unitary option completely simplifies it.”
Continuing the comparison with the East of England CA, which LGC revealed earlier this month was experiencing “political squabbling”, Ms Kennally said that Cornwall operating as one unitary council meant it could speak “much more clearly with one voice”.
“In an area that is geographically some way from London, being able to do that is really important in terms of our leadership,” she said.