Consuming Cornwall: Pasties, poverty, economics beyond growth

Lovely Cornwall

Pasties, poverty, economics beyond growth

Cornwall is one of the nicest places in the world. It’s not only often spellbindingly beautiful, friendly, enigmatically Celtic and unusually progressive for provincial England, it invented the greatest pastry product in human history, the meat-and-potato-based colossus that is the Cornish pasty. It’s a culinary legacy that will live on long after the county gets swallowed by the rising Atlantic and its bakeries are only frequented by pilchards and deep-sea divers.

Upsettingly, though, Cornwall is also the poorest place in the UK. When people talk about the North/South divide, it’s fairly insulting to the perennially neglected West Country. The popular perception that there’s nothing but cows, fields and rich shire Tories south-west of Bristol is only almost completely accurate. At Parliamentary and local government level, at least – as if that’s an accurate representation of diverse local opinion under an electoral system as dismal as First Past The Post – it is mostly Blue, although the still-lingering Paddy Ashdown effect means there are patches of Yellow left over from when the then-Lib Dem leader was MP for Yeovil. It is, pretty indisputably, very rural too. But rural doesn’t always have to mean rich and agricultural.

Farming has always dominated. But for centuries, the West Country was home to industry, with manual labour employing thousands. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, this intensified, in Cornwall especially. People had been mining tin and copper in the area for 4,000 years, but the sector boomed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fuelled by the country’s galloping industrialisation. The resulting hubs of industry were small, microscopic compared to the sprawling factory-cities of the North, but they shaped a distinct way of life and sustained communities for generations. By the middle 1800s, Cornwall could boast the richest square mile anywhere outside London, and the capital was the only place that registered more patents. Local ingenuity bore world-changing fruit – it was Cornish mining engineer Richard Trevithick who built the first full-sized steam locomotive.

Fast-forward a century or so, and Cornwall is the only part of Britain poor enough to qualify for the EU’s structural funding programme. At European level, it ranks alongside the likes of Slovakia and Slovenia, countries that staggered out of the Eastern Bloc only to find their much-anticipated independence plagued with corruption in business and government. Average Cornish income lags 17% behind the national average – in towns like Bude and Padstow, people bring in around £6,000 less than their compatriots over the border, and about 18,000 Cornish children are officially impoverished.

But this isn’t to romanticise Cornwall’s industrial heyday. The wealth created by the nineteenth century boom went overwhelmingly to those at the top. At the bottom, entrenched social disadvantage was the least of people’s problems, Victorian-era poverty being more about starving to death in the gutter than struggling with this month’s bills. The lives of the miners themselves were often brutally curtailed by cave-ins and suffocations, or ended with them miserably hacking up the soot and dust and toxins they’d ingested over decades spent underground. But conditions improved over time, and, at very least, the sector provided thousands of stable jobs paid decently enough to support whole families, as dangerous and life-limiting as they sometimes were. It’s almost unbelievable to think back on today, but by the 1950s Cornwall had achieved full employment.

Large-scale British industry didn’t end on its own – it was ended, and messily at that. In just three years in the early 1980s, Britain’s industrial capacity fell by a quarter. Mining and manufacturing were hit the hardest, and in the years that followed, Cornwall found itself in the same needless, government-engineered predicament as other industrialised parts of the country – kids whose parents and parents’ parents had built their lives on heavy industry now came of age in devastated communities that had seen their economic foundations ripped out from under them. With the continued decline of fishing, its other staple source of income, the county only really had one thing left to flog – itself.

Tourism is more crucial than ever to Cornwall’s economy. It’s thought to account for about 25% of all jobs, employing over 60,000 people. In towns, the figure is far higher – about 40% work in restaurants and hotels, cafés and gift shops, almost double the English average of 23%. In 2011, 18 million tourists poured an estimated £1.8bn into the county’s coffers. And, ultimately, it’s fantastic that so many come to visit England’s loveliest appendage. Who could deny anyone a mooch around Megavissey or a pint and a pasty at the Jamaica Inn?

But, unfortunately, tourism is a distinctly rubbish foundation to build stable livelihoods on. It’s a simple, unavoidable fact – the fish-and-chips, bucket-and-spade economy doesn’t provide anywhere near as many jobs as the labour-intensive workshops and mines did. Tourism might employ 60,000 people, but over 45,000 of those jobs are part-time. Many are only seasonal, too. The majority are low-paid and unskilled, providing little or no training, and as such, it’s no surprise that an economy dominated by tourism has left so many living on the breadline. It’s also placed Cornwall completely at the mercy of the elements and the fickleness of holiday-makers. A bad summer can be disastrous – sinking some small businesses, imperilling others. In both cases, jobs are lost, and because the whole sector suffers, it’s incredibly difficult to find work anywhere else.

Wrenching poverty wouldn’t feature very highly in any national poll of things people associate with Cornwall. Completely understandably, it’s sold to the public on the back of the beaches, the coves, Tintagel, the Eden Project and the pseudo-mystical Arthurian otherness. But this has come with a significant downside. Fed on this rosy, romanticised Cornwallian ideal, the population at large doesn’t realise the level of disadvantage that exists amid all the sea-side loveliness. As such, thousands of people suffer in silence.

Demographic changes have piled more misery on the Cornish precariat. Over the last decade, the rich got scandalously richer while the poorest saw their already meagre share of the national income shrink. One of many grim side-effects of this flabbergasting injustice was that there were lots more overly wealthy individuals swooshing around the fancier bits of the country with money to burn. Some of them came to Cornwall, liked it, and decided they wanted a piece of it for themselves. The result was a wave of loaded metropolitans buying second or third homes in particularly gorgeous parts of the county. By 2014, 5% of Cornwall’s 260,000 houses weren’t their owners’ primary residence.

If they had too much money, who wouldn’t want to do a Richard and Judy and buy their own Cornish bolthole? Unfortunately, though, it was a far from victimless trend. It meant that houses prices county-wide skyrocketed. Twelve years ago, the average cost of a Cornish house stood at £53,700. Today, the average cost is £210,300, or over eight times the average local income. In just two years between 2002 and 2004, prices leapt by 50%. And the result, unsurprisingly, was that thousands of local people, particularly those already struggling at the bottom of the pile, just couldn’t afford to live in the county anymore. Many were forced to leave.

The effects have been devastating for many communities – like a pasty or an alluringly flaked 99, Cornwall has just become something to be consumed. Most second home-owners just want to shuttle out West for the sunniest months of the year then retreat back up the M5 when they’ve had their fill. Where these properties were once occupied by people who lived, worked and spent money in the area for twelve months a year, contributing to the community as well as the economy, now they’re only inhabited for six months at a time at most – three, two, sometimes just one month a year is more common. Shops, small businesses and other vital local amenities have been forced to close as takings have slumped.

As many as half of the properties in some especially desirable villages are second homes – in very rare cases, you hear of ones where the figure is closer to three-quarters. In places like these, the flighty second-homers have seriously dented the local quality of life. They’re ghost towns in bad weather, making the bleak Cornish winters even bleaker, and the dwindling community spirit attests to the fact that these places have been radically changed for the worse.

Finally, Cornwall County Council acted against the second home phenomenon in late 2012. Owned houses left empty for over two years are now subject to a punishing 150% levy, while council tax discounts on secondary residences have finally been scrapped. If bowling the system over and reorganising society from scratch isn’t on the cards any time soon, then second home ownership needs to be made much harder to achieve, if not banned altogether except in cases of proven need.

What about the county’s predicament as a whole? The solution dreamt up by local government apparatchiks is predictably uninspiring and neoliberal-friendly. Cornwall needs to become a knowledge economy, apparently, drawing in ‘creative’ and ‘dynamic’ migrants from more creative and dynamics part of the country. Using their ingenuity, these degree-toting fairy godmothers will be able to increase competitiveness and productivity throughout the county, and boost economic growth.

It’s a buzzword-riddled strategy that snubs the entire Cornish population – rather than being given the investment, resources, and opportunities to become ‘dynamic’ themselves, they have to move aside while talent is parachuted in from where it’s assumed to be more naturally plentiful.

What’s more, it’s geared around our disastrously short-sighted modern definition of what makes a healthy economy – an increase in the total amount of wealth produced within a country’s, or, in this case, a county’s, borders, regardless of how it’s distributed. If one already-vast company makes astronomical profits while everyone else’s living standards decline, as long as the area’s total wealth is up on the year before, it’s treated as a resounding victory.

Unfortunately, orthodox economics doesn’t look in much danger of being radically inverted any time soon. That’s a shame, because it’s what needed if we’re going to ever see an economic settlement that prioritises the needs of the majority, rather than leaving them to be half-served as a side-effect of the dash for private profit.

Click here for part two.