Overpriced fish and chips

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Cornwall’s future, as an increasingly commodified playground for people who choose to have their real lives elsewhere, looks bleak. In the post-coronavirus, climate-emergency world, we have to dream better, argues Catrina Davies.

I grew up in Cornwall doing low-pay, low-status jobs and being obediently grateful for tourism. Mining was finished; fishing and farming in decline. Without tourism there’d be no jobs at all. I left Cornwall for university.

Of the four girls in my year at primary school, I’m the only one who came back. I have a good degree. In summer I clean houses and clear tables for money. In winter I have little or no work. Now, as my nephews and nieces head in and out of their teens, I’m convinced Cornwall needs more tourism like a hostage needs another kick in the teeth.

The Visit Cornwall Tourism Summit 2020 included a presentation by CEO and marketing director, Malcolm Bell. One slide, comparing previous forecasts for 2030 with revised forecasts, was especially striking. Staying Visitor Trips, earlier predicted to increase by 510,000, had been revised upwards to 800,000. Staying Visitor Nights, which had been predicted to increase by one million, had been doubled to two million. (At the last census, Cornwall’s population was 549,400.) Forecast increase in visitor spend was up from £521m to £750m.

The only thing not expected to increase is employment. However much the other measures are revised upwards, there seems to be no expectation of any extra jobs, let alone well-paid jobs that last longer than three months.

At the end is a summary of what Cornwall’s tourist economy might look like in 2030:

Total Visitors 5m+

Total Value £2.7bn

61,000 jobs.

Figures from Cornwall Council show this is less than one job for every four people in the active workforce. Total Value includes money spent at supermarkets, service stations and other non-local outlets. VAT generated in Cornwall goes to Westminster. The Cornish neighbourhoods numbering amongst the most deprived in England jumped from 33 in 2010 to 44 in 2015. In the year 2018-19, the Isles of Scilly saw the biggest increase in the proportion of children living in poverty in the whole of the UK.

Ollie Monks, Conservative councillor for Newquay, recently sent an email urging his Tory colleagues to “attack, attack, destroy” the council’s leading Cabinet members, who were asking people not to visit the county this summer because of concerns about coronavirus. (Cornwall has an ageing population and just 15 critical care beds.) 

“Our industry and economy thrive on visitors” fumed Mr Monks, “and I find it an outrageous position for a Cabinet member to say stay away. It shows a lack of understanding about how business and enterprise works.”

There are winners and losers in every game, and some people for whom tourism is working very well. Many are Cornish and/or live in Cornwall. These beneficiaries of the status quo tend to control the narrative, making it difficult for alternative ideas to gain traction. It’s a familiar story. Those who benefit from structural inequality, through acquiring or (more probably) inheriting property, seek to undermine efforts to address this inequality. This fits into a wider system of greed and oppression that literally hands out trophies to those who maximise their profits at the expense of other people and the environment.

Some beneficiaries of tourism are not Cornish and don’t live in Cornwall. Many register their holiday homes as small businesses to avoid paying council tax, a so-called ‘seaside loophole’ introduced by the coalition government in 2013. This loophole typically costs Cornwall Council £11m a year. Shockingly, of the £177m in £10,000 coronavirus grants handed out to small businesses by Cornwall Council, £71m went to the owners of holiday homes who have opted out of paying council tax, and more than £41m of that went straight out of the county.

However much you dress it up as enterprise, greed is not success. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and sins have consequences. Just as private companies suck the value out of public assets and funnel it offshore, leading to hollowed-out city centres, polluted rivers, and zero affordable housing, the dominant economic growth model strips the tourist pound out of local communities. It even ruins tourism for tourists, who increasingly spend much of their holiday sitting in traffic jams on the way to the beach.

Like most people, I bought into the objectified image of Cornwall as a helpless pretty face, with nothing to offer but scenery. Sticking out into the Atlantic and surrounded on three sides by sea, it’s true Cornwall is not best placed to capitalise on industry requiring easy access to markets. It does, however, have strategic value, dating all the way back to prehistoric times, when it was easier to travel by boat than overland.

In 1870, the first ever Indo-European telecommunications cable came ashore in the village where I grew up. Six fibre-optic cables still come ashore here, terminating in a purpose-built hub just up the road from the shed that I’ve made my home. At primary school I had friends from Bahrain, Yemen and Trinidad, children of students at the Cable and Wireless Engineering College. Thirty miles away, on the Lizard Peninsula, Goonhilly Earth Station was the largest satellite earth station in the world. We went there on school trips, and sent each other faxes on some of the world’s first prototype fax machines.

With its well-established telecommunications infrastructure and strategic location, Cornwall could be part of a growth industry in environmental research and monitoring. We could invest in businesses like Nick Tregenza’s in Mousehole which produces equipment that diverts dolphins away from fishing nets, and provides survey and tracking services globally. According to the 2020 Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Industrial Strategy (not yet published), which uses data from the ONS, marine jobs are three times more valuable to the local economy than tourism jobs. 

When the Cable and Wireless Engineering College closed in 1993, most of the college buildings were converted into second homes and holiday flats. The last time I visited Goonhilly, in 2018, I found ravens nesting in the satellites and a Segway track running through the derelict grounds.

Cornwall’s unique geography also means we’re perfectly placed to capitalise on a large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending into the sea to the south and west of the county. An EEZ is a sea zone prescribed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. A sovereign state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources in an EEZ, including energy production from water and wind. ONS data suggests thatenergy jobs are six times more valuable than tourism jobs to the local economy.

We need a Cornish Green New Deal, prioritising the needs of local people and the environment. As well as attracting funding for environmental research and green energy production, we could place a congestion charge on all cars crossing the Tamar, and use the money to electrify and subsidise local public transport. We could encourage low-impact, community-led, sustainable tourism. We could close the seaside loophole and use the money to feed hungry children. We could turn empty houses into homes for local families.

But first we might have to learn to be a little less grateful to celebrity chefs for employing us on a seasonal basis, usually at minimum wage, to sell overpriced fish and chips.