Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset all earmarked for low-regulation ‘investment zones’

But who’s consulting local residents on whether they want their areas turned into free-fire zones for developers and predatory corporations, asks Tom Scott.

The government says that it is in discussions with 38 local authorities that have expressed an interest in having so-called  ‘investment zones’, as announced in Kwasi Kwarteng’s special fiscal operation on 23 September. Among these are Cornwall Council, Dorset Council, Plymouth City Council and the West of England Combined Authority, which includes North East Somerset. All of these are Tory-controlled or have Tory mayors.

In Cornwall, Falmouth Docks & Truro’s Langarth Garden Village are reportedly among the first locations identified for these low-tax, deregulated zones. The MP for Truro and Falmouth, Cherilyn Mackrory, has expressed herself “delighted” by this prospect, which she claims will make it easier for “business to invest, grow, and create well paid, high-skilled jobs for local people”.

But who has identified these locations? This is far from clear, and Cornwall Council leader Linda Taylor is not giving anything away, saying only: “Clearly the process is in its early stages, but I look forward to discussions with government about how we can further unlock Cornwall’s potential.”

The prospect of investment zones in Cornwall has not been debated or voted on by Cornwall Council and it remains to be seen whether any vote will be taken. Taylor was certainly not speaking for many other elected members of the Council.

One thing is for sure: local residents have not been consulted as to whether they wish their areas to become free-fire zones for developers and tax-dodging companies.

Will they be asked at any stage? Again, this is as clear as ditch-water. The government has said that the development of these zones will depend on “local consent” but has not spelled out what it means by this. My guess is that it means a Tory-controlled local authority or mayor saying “yes please”.

The introduction of such zones clearly has big implications for planning. Essentially, it would mean normal planning regulations and environmental protections being overridden by whatever corporations or housing developers might wish to inflict on local communities in the name of profit.

It will also have big implications for council budgets. As David Pendlebury of the New Economics Foundation commented: 

“Cutting regulations to roll out ‘investment zones’ will likely lead to the opposite of ‘levelling up’. Cuts to the rules that protect local areas are no substitute for strategic investments and reducing how local authorities raise money from new developments will mean less money going to local services like libraries, hospitals and parks.”

What would this mean for Neighbourhood Development Plans, painstakingly developed over years to reflect the needs and wishes of local communities, and then approved by local referenda? It looks as if these will simply become null and void for people ‘lucky’ enough to be living in one of Kwarteng’s low-regulation tax havens.

Environmental charities are horrified at the potential impacts on the natural environment in these areas and are saying so in unusually straight terms. The RSPB tweeted:

“We are entering uncharted territory. As of today, from Cornwall to Cumbria, Norfolk to Nottingham wildlife is facing one of the greatest threats it’s faced in decades. What the Government has proposed in today’s mini-budget on top of yesterday’s announcements potentially tears up the most fundamental legal protections our remaining wildlife has […]

“And it doesn’t stop there – the new Retained EU Laws Bill could see the end of basic protections known as the Habitat Regulations. Laws that protect our birds and animals, everywhere from forests to our coasts. Where you live, the wildlife and places you love, from the shires to the cities – all under threat from bulldozers, from concrete.”

None of this was on any manifesto either at national or local elections. Like the announced lifting of the ban on fracking, it runs directly counter to what the 2019 Conservative manifesto promised on taxation and environmental protection, including the line that “major multinational companies should pay their fair share of tax”, and the promise that a Conservative government would “protect and restore our natural environment”.

Liz Truss & Kwasi Kwarteng have no mandate to suspend national laws in parts of the UK in ways that deprive local communities of income to spend on public services and damage their natural environment. Nor do Linda Taylor of Cornwall Council or Cherilyn Mackrory MP have any such mandate.

If they intended Cornwall to become part of a reckless experiment in extreme free-market ideology and discredited trickle-down economics, they should have told us so when standing for election.