In my experience insight springs most easily when two or three trends of which you’re aware overlap and you’re forced into seeing the similarities. I recently had occasion to give a presentation on what I thought the major challenges facing Cornwall and the charity sector in particular are. In writing the presentation I found myself being persuaded that a lot of the really obvious challenges are merely symptoms of a greater problem, one which I’ll admit I have been sceptical of before but which is one which has come back to the fore this week.

The surprising prominence of Cornwall in this week’s announcement about the significant rise in ‘junk food’ takeaways got my attention There is a fairly well known correlation between  economically deprived areas greater numbers of takeaway food outlets. Typically this correlation prompts a cause and effect discussion around whether economically deprived areas are making ‘bad’ decisions about their nutrition more often, or whether if you have £3 to feed yourself and a child before heading off for your second job in the evening anyone can really begrudge you the indisputable satisfaction of deep fried starchy carbs. Greater minds than mine haven’t unpicked that one yet and that’s not really the debate I want to join. The second point which is normally wheeled out in such discussions is around ‘nutrition deserts’, that is areas where the only viable option for purchasing food locally is junk food. People’s options and opportunities being limited by where they live and a lack of transport is something anyone involved in Community Transport cares deeply about.

Cornwall’s surprising prominence in the recent study, to me anyway, spoke to something slightly different to the national picture though. The detailed map of areas of higher numbers of takeaways per capita did not reflect what we think of as the deprivation map of Cornwall. The hotspots were Polzeath/Rock, Padstow, Newquay, St Ives, The Lizard, Mevagissey, and Looe. I would hazard a guess that their prominence reflects a combination of smaller numbers of residents due to holiday home ownership, and a corresponding higher proportion of food outlets serving holiday makers. They are also areas where house prices have been turbo charged over the last 20 years and where long standing residents can be in a very different economic cohort to their neighbours. Those areas in particular, but it applies right across Cornwall, are areas where there is an increasing disconnect between the Cornwall where people come on holiday, and the Cornwall that people live in, and that I think is the bigger problem.

Rising house prices, hollowed out communities, and a lack of ‘good’ jobs which are year round, are all very real issues facing Cornwall but they are all symptoms of Cornwall becoming increasingly a playground for people visiting (full disclosure, I’m something of a ‘blow in’ myself, albeit I had the good fortune and sense to marry a Cornish lady). More and more of the economic activity in Cornwall caters, understandably enough, to the bigger and less cautiously managed budgets of holiday makers and second home owners, with less attention going to the needs of the people here year round, the people working behind those fryers and operating those coffee machines. The ‘invisible hand of the market’ following demand simply fails to entirely cope with such polarisation and it gravitates ever closer to those holiday makers with deeper pockets and more willingness to spend. As more businesses cater to holiday makers there are less businesses catering to the more prosaic needs of locals. Unless I am incredibly superficial and completely out of touch with other Cornwall residents (which is a possibility I concede) it is difficult to imagine that the proliferation of shops selling tasteful prints and watercolours in the various former fishing ports are catering more to locals than to visitors. I’m just not sure Cornish people can possibly eat that much fudge.

Where this polarisation occurs there does tend to be an increasing presumption of car ownership. Every fashionable coffee shop, every outlet of local chains which are themselves a fantastic success story for the region, every tastefully modern locally sourced chippy is an opportunity lost for a greengrocer or butcher serving locals and visitors alike, or a hardware store, or any one of the necessary retailers which make life viable for people without a car. Leisure focussed businesses can only exist while their clientele can somehow get to a supermarket several miles inland in order to buy their bin bags and kitchen roll. I do not subscribe to a vision of banishing tourists from our county, I am proud to live somewhere that people across the country save up all year to visit and I don’t begrudge visitors the facilities to enjoy their hard earned holiday here, nor do I begrudge the local entrepreneur making the understandable decision that focussing on holiday makers is the better business proposition. These things do have an effect though on the viability of communities and sadly more and more residents are finding themselves caught on the wrong side of that gap if they don’t have access to a car. 

Volunteer drivers live out in communities where this gap is widening, they see the limits that it imposes on their neighbours and they’re doing something about it. They offer a low cost way of engaging with services which are withdrawing from the holiday maker centred coastal towns and by doing so they make everyday life more viable there. Every day we arrange countless journeys from these outlying areas into the bigger towns. These problems are not unique to Cornwall but Cornwall has been feeling them longer and more acutely than other areas. I’m very proud to work alongside the dedicated volunteers and staff who try to make it that little bit better for their neighbours. Ultimately that is the only thing that we, as the population, can do; to find those areas where our neighbours need something we have the ability to give them. Through the sharing of social capital in this way the more harmful side effects of our unique economy can be offset.