Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Out of the ashes, the phoenix of the parish rises again

By Jane Wills, University of Exeter, UK

The arrival of the coronavirus has brutally revealed the importance of having good government. Our lives now depend upon the readiness, capacity, and leadership of our political institutions, at all spatial scales. 

The geographical distribution, roles, and responsibilities of these institutions – what I call the geo-constitution – makes a tremendous difference to our ability to respond to the crisis. Although national politicians are most visible in providing this response, local politicians and community activists are also organising on the ground. In rural areas of England, this includes town and parish councillors and clerks who are deploying the army of volunteers that have come forward to shop and care for their neighbours.

Although, this parish-scale government, where it exists, has been limited in its role, new research, just published in Transactions, highlights its potential for renewal, outlining its revival in the county of Cornwall, South West England.

The revival of local government

Map of Cornwall: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cornwall_UK_mainland_parish_map_(blank).svg#/media/File:Cornwall_UK_mainland_parish_map_(blank).svg

In line with the rest of the country, the civil parishes of Cornwall had been in decline for almost 200 years. The nineteenth century saw the need for, and capacity of, government increase, meaning national government took over and expanded many of the tasks that had long been delivered by amateurs at the scale of the parish. Drawing on oft repeated tropes about efficiency, standards, and universality, the professional centre tidied up the messiness of local government. Parishes lost most of their functions and many disappeared altogether under the tide of urban and industrial change.

But parishes are currently undergoing something of a renaissance in Cornwall, with the councils in the larger towns and parishes (population less than 30,000), having grown dramatically in staffing, income, expenditure, and responsibilities in a short space of time. This change is driven by the combined impact of a commitment to devolution and the onset of austerity, which has propelled Cornwall Council to develop a new relationship with the 213 local councils in Cornwall.

A town like St Austell whose council was only created in 2009 (when unitary status was granted to Cornwall) now has a team of parks staff who look after all the green spaces in the community, driving round in vans branded with the new town logo. The library staff are similarly employed by the council and they provide a much-improved service. Further west, in Camborne, the council has undertaken an ambitious refurbishment of its library building and now has a flagship venue and service in the heart of the town. To the south, in Falmouth, the town council now has a pioneering arts, culture and community service.

This new settlement has established a division of labour whereby Cornwall Council focuses attention on the statutory services provided to individuals, such as support for children in care and service provision for disabled adults, while also delivering important county-wide services like waste and planning. The town and parish councils look after the public realm and shared spaces of much of the county. 

The impacts of this are significant. Whereas in other parts of the country austerity has forced local authorities to close, sell, or privatise important community infrastructure, Cornwall has kept almost all of its public toilets and libraries, and has been able to actually improve these and many of the public parks. It has done this through a radical process of ‘institutional switching’: devolving assets, their management and service delivery from Cornwall Council to local town and parish councils. 

The geo-constitutional inheritance has facilitated a new geography of local government in Cornwall as the two layers of government have recalibrated their relationships with each other and the public, creating a new ‘social contract’. Yet this has not always been easy, with tensions between these layers of government and between town and rural parish councils themselves. The towns now have residents paying a higher precept for services that are often used by those living in the rural fringes around them, who are paying much less. Such issues now urgently need redress but in so doing, they will likely further increase the relative power of the towns over their peripheral fringes.

Lessons from Cornwall

Through documenting the scale and impact of this institutional switching in Cornwall, the research offers key lessons for other parts of the country, particularly those that no longer have parish-scale government structures. 

It is important to have local political institutions with tax raising powers, and a recognised role in government, to take on this work at a time of austerity. It is also crucial to have officers and elected politicians who are able and willing to take up new tasks and to innovate in building new relationships with each other and local residents. These lessons have been shared via Locality’s Commission on the Future of Localism. The Commission has taken evidence and conducted action research in four areas of the country to identify the foundations for better partnerships at the local scale. The research in Cornwall contributed to this national policy work, bringing the pioneering experience developed in the South West to a wider audience.

Prior to the current pandemic, there was strong and rising enthusiasm for constitutional reform within England. This research – and the experience of Cornish local government – demonstrates the potential for the lowest or first tier of government to play a much greater role in good governance in England in future. 


About the author: Professor Jane Wills is Professor of Geography at the Centre for Geography and Environmental Science (CGES) and Director of the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) at the University of Exeter in Cornwall, UK. Her research interests focus on the changing geopolitical economy of work and regional economic development, new forms of urban political alliances including community organizing and living wage campaigns, and the politics and practice of localism in the UK.

This article is based on the recent publication: Wills, J. (2020) The geo-constitution and responses to austerity: Institutional entrepreneurship, switching and re-scaling in the United Kingdom. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12387

3 comments

  1. There appears to be an unfortunate typo in paragraph 9 – surely ‘social contact’ should read ‘social contract’? The concept of social contract goes to the nub of the legitimacy of Parish and Town Councils, which has ebbed over the past 50 years in England.

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