As a proud Cornishman I was delighted earlier this month to be chatting to a young American fashion designer who excitedly told me about his growing label. 'We’ve just taken on two students from Foolmoof, that’s how you say it right?' I think he meant Falmouth whose university - specialising in creative industries - has been one of the recent success stories in Cornwall. I’ve also come across graphics designers for Pixar in the badlands west of Penzance. They have been using the superfast broadband network to pass their animations back and forth with LA.
For all its Doc Martin appeal, Cornwall is not a parochial backwater, and thanks to European Union investment, stories like the ones above are becoming more commonplace. Unfortunately that is where the success of this European largesse ends. This week the FT asked why, after receiving so many millions from the EU (I count at least £1 billion since the year 2000 but estimates vary wildly which is perhaps indicative of the problem), Cornish folk are so overwhelmingly behind Brexit. The answer is that for all the stories like the ones above, most of the money is often spent in appalling ways. Add to that the fact that the EU was undeniably responsible for Cornish joblessness, which led Cornwall to qualify for development funding in the first place, and you start to see why the idea of Brexit is popular.
While Falmouth University and BT have certainly received plenty of cash, much of the £392 million over the last funding period has gone on less successful projects. For instance Serco, one of the government's favourite outsourcing companies, has received £14.6 million for among other things 'raising awareness with both public and private sector procurement managers about the benefits of social enterprises in the supply chain'. Some of the money has also gone into developing office space and industrial estates. One development near me, Hallenbeagle Estates, has rebranded itself as the Cornwall Bio Park, which sounds nice until you discover it is a rubbish dump where they plan to burn waste and at some point try and recycle some of the heat into energy. The land has sat vacant for decades. Unsurprisingly, no one has seemed keen to take on the advertised office space next to a proposed rubbish dump. This is despite Hallenbeagle receiving £4 million in EU funding.
These sorts of projects are what sit in place of Cornwall’s traditional industries of fishing and farming. Cornwall’s fishing industry has been devastated by the Common Fisheries Policy. In places like St Ives - which used to have the largest fishing fleet on the north coast - there are now estimated to be only 30 to 35 fishermen left. A look at the EU quota system for the nearby Celtic Sea suggests why, with the UK being given 834 tonnes of cod to land compared to France’s 5,500.
The Common Agricultural Policy is also cited as another example where Cornwall benefits from EU funding, but again this has problems. EU farming diktats have led to farmers being denied funding and even investigated for failing to fill in forms correctly. Pro-Brexit farming minister George Eustice has described the CAP as being dumped on UK farmers from on high. He is banking on Brexit as a means of getting more targeted funding to British farmers in an attempt to reverse the situation that despite all the EU’s millions, the UK is still a net importer of food.
It all goes to show that this type of helicopter funding does little to promote growth. The Taxpayers' Alliance noted that during a £465 million round of EU funding, the program had only created 3557 jobs. This is a whopping six times more expensive than the Department for Communities and Local Government own estimates on how much public sector funding they would use to create jobs. At the same time, poor seaside towns such as St Ives look to places outside the EU - such as Norway - which still have a viable fishing fleet. Is it any wonder the idea of Brexit appeals? All the investment in low-carbon buildings and 'raising awareness' about social enterprise advice won’t change this.