“There’s a huge amount of active, pissed off, determined people who are trying to deliver all sorts of change within Cornwall. So I think that’s where the hope is”
As one of very few sources of tin in the ancient world, Cornwall was the furnace of bronze age Europe. And for centuries, its mines – along with its geography – gave the peninsula both wealth and a degree of independence from the rest of these islands, with its own language, culture, and even, until 1753, its own “stannery” courts and parliament, based around the mines.
In 1497, the people of Cornwall rose up in a rebellion against paying taxes to fund England’s war against Scotland, with their troops getting as far as London. In 1535, the Italian historian Polydore Vergil described Britain as consisting of four countries: “whereof the one is inhabited of Englishmen, the other of Scottes, the third of Wallshemen, [and] the fowerthe of Cornishe people”. But in 1998, Cornwall’s last tin mine shut, and the century-long collapse in UK fish stocks has gutted the Duchy’s other iconic industry.
Fourteen percent of people described their national identity as “Cornish” in the last census, meaning that including it in our inquiry into civil society in England is a controversial move: for some, Cornwall is no more English than Scotland. But West Cornwall is, along with West Wales and the Valleys, the most impoverished corner of Northern Europe. And so it’s a vital voice to hear, whichever country we think it is.
Perhaps the first thing to say about our Civil Society Futures workshop there is that for those who came, Penzance is largely experienced as a good place to live. It’s got a vibrant cultural scene with community arts projects and live music, surrounded by the sort of natural environment you never tire of. There’s a strong sense of local identity and people have organised effectively to challenge threats, whether to their health services, or to the local environment.
However, many felt that the growing number of second homes was thinning out this vibrant local culture: whether for protests or parties, it’s hard to mobilise a neighbourhood when so many people are only there part-time. And this isn’t the only challenge that the Penzance faces as a result of the shift it’s made from mining and fishing community to seaside town.
The suicide rate among over 75s is significantly higher than the UK average. As one person explained, “people move down here thinking it’s a beautiful place to live and don’t think about the fact that their family lives 300 miles away and they have no support. So loneliness and isolation is a massive one”. As a result, a huge amount of community energy goes into looking after elderly people: “‘So we have volunteer drivers, for example, who take people to their renal and oncology appointments, heart operations in London. We do all of that and we have befrienders, advocates who go out to people’s homes,” the same person said.
Similarly, growing up in Penzance can be tough. As one conversation went:
Sally: “So for example, in terms of tourism, huge tourism in Cornwall… but there are some extraordinary figures where you’ve got over 40% of kids under 10, in some of the housing estates not far from here, have never been to the beach, because they don’t see the beach as theirs to go to.”
Ann: “Yeah, I can’t get my head round that. What on earth went wrong with people?”
Sandra: “It’s actually a social infrastructure which has gone. An entire social infrastructure has been dismantled since then.”
If young people do want to go onto university, their options in Cornwall are very limited and most leave. As Michael says:
“I have got a 20 year old now, he is in uni up in Bristol and where he goes from there, he doesn’t know. It’s probably, it’s like everyone else. He isn’t likely to take a step back and coming back to his community. He has lived here since he was born.”
Watch: young people in Penzance talk about their fears and frustrations, by local filmmaker Callum Mitchell
The sense of distance from decision makers also permeates much of what people had to say: the train journey to London is as long from Penzance as it is from Dundee (and it’s quicker to get from Newcastle to London than it is from Penzance to Bristol). Similarly, town councils have been worn away, and their powers transferred to the Cornwall and Isle of Scilly County Council whose concrete headquarters in Truro are an hour and a half round trip on the train away for those in central Penzance, and much more if you live in one of the surrounding villages.
This distance doesn’t help decision makers deal with subtle differences of place. As one participant put it:
“The institutions as a whole are locked into this concrete mudge of just ticking a box, with the imagination of a lamppost and the social skills of a traffic bollard.”
For many, this sense that decisions are made far away combines potently with the impact of austerity on the local community to produce in many a deep-seated rage. As one participant said:
“I have a fear of civic breakdown – people are so angry and people get so angry about politics, they make irrational decisions, that to them are completely rational”.
But, while people had plenty of ire for government – whether ‘local’, national or European, they didn’t hold back when it came to civil society either.
“For large organisations… It’s like we all know, we all know common sense, we all know what we can do to improve things and then they send in consultants for hundreds of thousands of pounds to tell us the bleeding obvious. It’s like, thanks, but just give us the money and we would have done that 10 years ago.”
Another pointed out that, so often, it’s distant funders who set the agenda for what gets done, rather than the people who know the area best: “Who are the architects of the process?”, she asked.
Similarly, there was frustration that a lot of the EU’s structural funds came through the university of Exeter (which is over the Tamar in Devon), but at least some participants felt that, in reality, getting people from the university to come out to West Cornwall was “like getting blood from a stone”.
In the midst of all of this anger, though, there is a wealth of mutual aid. As one person said:
“There’s huge numbers of community activists on the ground in Cornwall, that are dealing with street homelessness, street food project(s). Environmental programmes are looking at different economic models, they’ve done that in Penzance…
That’s a huge amount of active, pissed off, determined people who are trying to deliver all sorts of change within Cornwall. So I think that’s where the hope is, that the people are hopefully getting ticked off enough that they’re actually starting to do something about it… There’s a whole slew of brilliant examples, if we care to look for them.”
Names and genders have been changed to maintain people’s anonymity