If ever Covid is tamed, Boris Johnson’s government will presumably refocus its attention on the huge differences in living standards across the UK. The “levelling up” agenda is ultimately a story about the geographically “left behind”. The Prime Minister hopes that, having escaped from the European Union, he will have the legislative freedom to narrow the gap between those regions populated by the “haves” and those inhabited by the “have nots”.
It’s no surprise, then, that Cornwall has been singled out for special G7 treatment this year. Alongside the Tees Valley, outer east London, west Wales and southern Scotland, it’s one of the poorest parts of the UK. By hosting the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, Johnson thinks he’ll be able to attract investment to Britain’s south western extremity.
It’s a laudable ambition. A visitor from Mars would be tempted to think that Cornwall had once been part of Eastern Europe, held back from economic opportunity thanks to the negative impact of the Iron Curtain all those years ago. Yet whereas some parts of Eastern Europe have made astounding progress, Cornwall has not. Latest data suggest that Cornwall’s incomes per capita are only 71 per cent of the European average, down from 76 per cent a decade earlier. This is not a region merely poorer than others. It’s a region in danger of being left behind.
It turns out that Cornwall’s economy has quite a lot in common with Europe’s other geographical “extremities”: its living standards are on a par with Sicily, Puglia and Calabria (southern Italy), the Peloponnese (southern Greece) and Andalucía (southern Spain), all regions that have lost ground economically. Like the others, Cornwall is a major tourist destination and tourism is — almost by definition — seasonal. Meanwhile, compared with the rest of the UK, Cornwall is unusually dependent on agriculture and food production, two areas which, on the whole, have never offered an easy path to riches.
Cornwall is also rather disconnected logistically. A train from London to Penzance will take around two and a half hours to travel the 178 miles to Exeter but a further two and a half to three hours to travel the 109 miles from Exeter to Penzance. It’s a long way from the nearest major international airport. And, if you happen to be caught in the summer traffic on the A30 between Carland Cross and Chiverton Cross, you might think Cornwall is further away than you had imagined: that particular part of Cornwall’s motoring “spine” still lacks a dual carriageway.
Admittedly, comparisons involving income per head may not be the best way to illustrate differences in living standards. London’s West End may have riches galore but it doesn’t have, for example, Cornwall’s stunning coastline. The plan to “level up” hopefully won’t involve Canary Wharf-style high rises or vast Japanese car factories on Bodmin Moor. Cornwall’s residents, meanwhile, are not exactly geared up for shovel-ready infrastructure projects: over 31 per cent of its citizens are over the age of 65 compared with fewer than 20 per cent in Westminster.
Put another way, Cornwall may be relatively poor but it is also a haven for those who prioritise natural beauty over material comfort. Those looking for work opportunities can flock to the bright lights further east. And efforts to make Cornwall richer may only create wealthy enclaves (Rock, for example) without much of a “trickle down” effect across the county as a whole.
Even a G7 Summit may make little difference. The first such gathering took place in 1975 (to be precise, it was a G6 summit because Canada was overlooked). Since then, summits have often been held in rather predictable locations: London, Paris, Venice, Toronto, Munich. Sometimes, however, nations decide to “do a Cornwall”, with summits held in locations that could do with a bit of extra investment. Did the summits make any difference? Campania, Liguria, Abruzzo and Sicily are four Italian-hosted G7 locations. Relative to Europe as a whole, they’re all poorer than they once were.
From Cornwall’s perspective, at least there’s a complete A30 dual carriageway in the offing, finally removing the Carland to Chiverton bottleneck. Whether the 56 per cent of Cornish voters who opted for Brexit knew that it would be partly funded by the European Commission’s Regional Development Fund is another matter altogether.
Stephen King is HSBC’s senior economic adviser and author of Grave New World