It’s rare to find a politician who appears to be universally liked and admired across all parties in Cornwall Council’s chamber. It’s even rarer to find one who tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to criticise his own ruling Conservative party.

However, in interview with David Harris – Cornwall Council’s deputy leader and its portfolio holder for resources – appears to be that politician.

He hit the headlines recently after sending a letter to Secretary of State for Levelling Up Michael Gove – one that he admits himself was “pretty strong” – asking in no uncertain terms for more money from central government to ensure Cornwall Council avoids going bankrupt like Birmingham City Council and other local authorities.

Cllr Harris has previously said the council is on a financial precipice and fairer funding is essential for our part of the country, which is rural, has an older population and gets a massive injection of population in the summer months.

Speaking in his office at New County Hall / Lys Kernow in Truro, Cllr Harris said: “We have been a financially well-managed council for years. We, as the administration, have done our best in the last three years to maintain that and get tighter.

"We’ve not had the fairer funding that we’ve been asking for for a long time. Government grants have gone down and, at the same time, demands for those services that we have a statutory obligation to provide have increased, and the cost of those services has increased as well, by more than inflation.

“Unless we get something decent in the next couple of years, we will be in the same pile as everywhere else. I refuse to believe that central government of whatever colour would let that happen because if it happens to us it happens to every council.”

Overspend forecast

Cornwall’s children and family services is forecasting an overspend of £12.2m this year and there still remains a risk that by the end of the financial year that overspend will have increased. Home to school transport services is forecasting an overspend of £7.4m, which is also likely to increase, while temporary and emergency accommodation is likely to see an overspend of £11.5m.

The council recently agreed to increase council tax by the maximum 4.99 per cent for the second year running as part of a net budget for 2024/25 of £769m. There was also the more welcome move that from April 1, 2025 second home owners and any dwellings occupied periodically are charged a 100 per cent council tax premium – a double council tax payment, basically.

Cllr Harris, who represents Gloweth, Malabar and Shortlanesend in the Truro area, stressed it’s the core services which the council has a duty to provide which are proving crippling.

Showing his frustration, he said: “It’s not that people don’t know what we do, but – and I’m trying to get the right word – they don’t appreciate the level of what we do in terms of adult social care, children with special educational needs (SEN) and emergency housing. The costs there are horrendous.”

Falmouth Packet: David Harris is respected across all political parties in CornwallDavid Harris is respected across all political parties in Cornwall (Image: Lee Trewhela)

After a lifetime in global business – which included being thrown out of Donald Trump’s office by the man himself (more about that later) – Cllr Harris is able to roll out the figures.

In 2022/23 there were seven high cost SEN packages for the year. In 2021/22 there were only three.

“These support packages can cost up to £63,000 per week. The Local Government Association recently reported that most councils’ high cost support packages ranged from £10,000 to £32,000 a week. What’s £32,000 times 50? £1.6 million. You get your number of people with that demand going up, you can see where it goes.

“Adult social care has always been a pressure. We’re looking at building extra care homes. That department has done really well since we came into power... I hate that expression because in the end we’re all batting for the same outcome, which is what I try and say in the chamber. Then you get pee’d off when people have a go at you.”

Looking for savings

During the recent budget speech at full council, Penzance’s Independent councillor and former Labour member Tim Dwelly said: “Cllr Harris has just stood up and made the most marvellous anti-Government speech” after the deputy leader again stated that the Tory government needed to do more to help Cornwall.

“It was a great comment, I did like that one,” admitted Cllr Harris with a laugh.

He continued outlining the areas that are draining the council’s coffers: “Those without somewhere to live, people who have been thrown out of private rented accommodation, that’s a fortune. Officers are doing their best – you don’t want to be paying a hotel chain summertime rates in winter, but they try it on.

“We are looking at savings everywhere. I was asked about home to school transport in the budget meeting and was able to say we’re making real movement in that area. We’ve engaged consultants – ‘nasty consultants’ the opposition will say – but I’ve seen the draft report and it’s brilliant. We’re going to bring it to Cabinet, hopefully in May, and there are some real savings in there.”

He added: “This is part of the problem we have. If you’re the London borough of Lambeth, your home to school transport is two miles. If you’re Cornwall it can be 30 miles each way. Then you’ve got the issue as well of the drivers getting a good deal.

"I will not say ‘screwing the council’ because I don’t know, but if you can get more competitive tendering and more drivers involved then logic says your cost will come down. I’m not in a position to point and say, 'We’re getting ripped off.' If I was, I’d say it, but I’m not able to say it.

“We’re going to have a look again at savings this year. Officers have budgets which were approved two years ago and therefore they think they can spend it. No. Stop and look, and say ‘do I really need to spend that today – can I defer it?’ That’s come down from on high.”

Will services be cut?

Residents of Cornwall will want to know which of their services are likely to be cut. The LRR service asked Cllr Harris – whose wife is from Newlyn and is the daughter of the late renowned Cornish journalist Douglas Williams – which areas are likely to suffer.

“I really hope that we won’t have to cut services. That’s not what we’re looking at. The expression is ‘demand management strategies’. Can we manage demand rather than cutting supply. Can we deliver better?

"We’ve got an organisational transformation project going on that will take some time and cost some money as well, but will deliver efficiencies. There’s a difference in my book between efficiencies and cuts.

“Don’t forget, the big spending services: children, adults, school transport, housing – they’re all mandatory services. You can’t cut them. It’s difficult to see how you could cut without being outside the law.”

On his fight for more money from central government, he said the recent cash injection of £6.5m is “nice to have”, adding: “It means the draw from reserves next year is £14m rather than £20m. This is back to ‘please Mr Gove, can we have 1. a long-term settlement, 2. can we have fairer funding as we have been asking for years and years and years’.

“The formula under which we are paid instantly concentrates on the cities. It takes no account of the rurality of Cornwall. It takes no account of our increased population between May and September. There’s no credit given to that at all. It takes no account of our older population. The percentage of old people, like me, is a lot bigger than the rest of the country.”

Second homes

What about the savings that should come from the council tax premium on second homes?

“There are various figures being thrown about on what it might generate. If you just take the bold numbers of the number of second homes and double the council tax it’s £25m. My own estimate is a lot nearer to £20m. We’ve still not had the regulations for this from central government.

“When I saw Gove in St Agnes last month, I asked him if I could have a word as he was leaving. ‘I’m David Harris, that chap who wrote you that slightly stiff letter. Thank you for the money, but we need more and we need these regulations on second homes’. He said he would get straight on to it – his reaction was almost like ‘Haven’t they done that yet?’.”

Ideally, with long-term funding, what would get us out of this mess?

“About £30m a year. Simple as that.”

Budget to rise

The council’s budget is estimated to rise by £212m over the next three years. Even with the reduction from the council tax premium on second homes, which could take it down to around £150m, Mr Harris says “we ain’t got that in any shape or form in usable reserves”.

“That’s why I’ve said if nothing happens we will be bust in two years. It is as simple as that. There’s no point in gilding the lily. And this is a well-run council. Look at Birmingham with a 21 per cent council tax increase over the next two years. Ridiculous stuff. Woking is eight per cent a year.”

Is that likely to happen in Cornwall if we don’t get any help?

“I really wouldn’t want to predict, but my own personal opinion is you cannot ask people to bridge those gaps. It does upset me that I can’t say there’s an answer, because there isn’t an answer. It’s frustrating.”

Opposition parties will say, and have said, that the current Conservative administration has caused the financial frailty. What would Cllr Harris say to that?

“I don’t think we’ve screwed our finances, we’ve been screwed by the demand on our finances. That’s the problem. We have no control over the spend over those big areas like adult social care.

“It’s very easy to have a go. I’ve been a councillor for seven years and for four of those I sat on the other side and I was digging and having a go. I will welcome any sensible suggestions – I will listen and I will talk. No one put an alternative budget up, because there isn’t an alternative to put up. Hence Cllr Dwelly’s comment – ‘what a marvellous speech, it’s just odd coming from a Conservative’. It was a great comment.”

Looking to the future

What does he think the Conservatives’ chances are at the next council election?

“I’ve no idea. We are the first within the unitary period to have a majority one-party rule. Previously it’s always been coalitions, so logic would say you’d end up with a coalition next time as well – God knows who’d be in it. Next May’s a long time away.

“One scenario – there’s a General Election in May this year, Starmer comes into power and within a year he’s ruined [a printable version of the word Cllr Harris used] the economy. Well, that’s it we’re back in. That’s not impossible at all if he comes out with a Liz Truss-like budget.”

Unlike many politicians, Cllr Harris knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the council’s resources as he was in global finance all his working life, running a financial services company on the Isle of Man for the best part of 20 years as well as working for a big accountancy firm in Jersey and Guernsey, specialising in corporate work.

He left there in 2012 for Geneva and a job as director of corporate affairs for a company involved in natural resources and infrastructure in Africa, ensuring the work met European standards.

That run-in with Trump

Right at the end of the chat, Cllr Harris dropped this bombshell. “I met Donald Trump a couple of times – he threw me out of his office.” What?!

The council’s deputy leader was working for a client in relation to the Empire State Building’s lease. “Trump came on board – ‘I can get a deal’. I met him, interesting guy.

"You walk in his office, all around the walls are pictures of Trump. It’s the ‘I Am’ wall. His chair was higher than my chair, I didn’t care, I just leaned back and put my feet up.

“The next time I met Trump, we’d got a deal on the building. He’s being obnoxious about how much he wants from the deal.

"I told him: ‘Donald, I’ve been thinking about this. It only works if we get X and you get Y’ and he went ballistic. ‘How dare you come in my office and try and chisel me, don’t you realise I’m the greatest real estate person in New York?’ I was thrown out.”

That would suggest if anyone can take on Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak in getting a fairer deal for Cornwall, then it’s David Harris.