Cornwall is home to this weekend’s G7 Summit. It’s also a petri-dish for British inequality
Cornwall is one of England’s natural jewels. Located on the south west of Britain, the county is home to 300 beaches, where waves can reach as high as 30 feet, and idyllic towns and resorts overlook sun swept cliffs. This weekend, this remote corner of the U.K. will also be home to the G7 summit.
At a luxury hotel in Carbis Bay, the leaders of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy will meet to discuss everything from staving off climate disaster, to figuring out how to vaccinate the world, instituting a minimum global corporate tax, resolving trade disputes and sorting out Northern Ireland’s borders. The original 47th G7 Summit was cancelled in 2020 due to lockdown restrictions.
The meeting will also represent a flash point for discontent from activists and locals alike. G7 meetings have a long history of highlighting inequality and the dark side of globalization in the small and idyllic locations where the summits are frequently held.
In Genoa in 2001, anti-globalization protests drew around 200,000 demonstrators, two of which were killed. Since then, the summit has been held at remote and idyllic locations, from Biarritz in France in 2019 and Taormina in Sicily in 2017, allowing for a prettier backdrop to discuss the heavy topics.
Cornwall is no different, even if some of the complaints feel, well, idiosyncratically Cornish.
“They cancelled the farmers market,” says an outraged local.
The market’s location, a quay in a town 25 miles from the G7 Summit’s location, was earmarked by local police as a location for protests.
But disgruntled locals hadn’t planned to protest the Summit there. Instead, they launched a splinter protest demanding the return of the farmers’ market.
The police quickly buckled. G7 or not, Truro’s farmers market will go ahead.
Rich and poor
Cornwall is famed as a beloved British vacation spot. In the brief and temperate English summer, affluent vacationers flock to the coast for a domestic holiday—over the latest public holiday in the U.K., about 400,000 visitors flooded into the region, nearly doubling the county’s population.
The influx isn’t totally welcome. Out of towners—never mind foreign leaders—can often be met with an icy response.
Farmers’ market protests and Cornwall’s idyllic reputation aside, the county is also a petri-dish of inequality: the richest and poorest people in England, existing side-by-side.
Long home to vacation homes, the county has attracted increasing numbers of well-to-do Londoners, in the age of remote working. Since the start of the pandemic, house prices in Cornwall have risen by 10%, or £37,000 ($52,000), according to the Office of National Statistics.
Yet almost a third of children are living in poverty in the region, according to the End Child Poverty coalition. That number is well above the bar set out in the U.K.’s Child Poverty Act, which was put in place in 2010 to reduce the proportion of children in poverty to 10% by 2020. That effort was scrapped in 2016 by the ruling Conservative Party.
In 2019, Cornwall had more homeless people than in any other county in the U.K.. During the pandemic, many of those people were housed in local hotel rooms, while a report from a local homeless charity found that some of those residents had been pushed out to make room for G7 attendees.
Cornwall used to have flourishing fishing and mining industries, but that has steadily declined. As a result, a quarter of Cornwall’s GDP comes from tourism, which results in seasonal, zero-hour work contracts with low wages. That has helped fuel political divisions, too. In 2016, Cornwall voted in favor of the U.K. leaving the EU.
In Cornwall, much of the local plans for protest look likely to focus on an issue at the center of this year’s Summit: climate change.
The U.K. has pledged to hit net-zero emissions by 2050; and will host the COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year.
The Cornwall Climate Action Network have been recruiting on Facebook for volunteers who can provide first aid and de-escalation roles; while the local branch of climate protest group Extinction Rebellion calls the location of the event a “double-edged blade.”
The Summit causes a lot of disruption in “what has already been a difficult year,” says local spokesperson Christ Bird. But now that the heads of state are here, “we’re quite pleased to have this opportunity to get this message across.”
Elements of the conference have already drawn local mockery, including British prime minister Boris Johnson’s flight to Cornwall—a journey that activists pointed out was both carbon-intensive, and unnecessary. Even most visitors from London usually take a five-hour trip by car, or train.
A decision by the luxury Carbis Bay Hotel to destroy a portion of natural woodland to build meeting rooms for the summit was also greeted with similar mirth.
Some of that protest has come in the form of new art. Artist Joe Rush, in collaboration with the tech business musicMagpie, created Mount Recyclemore—a sculpture of the seven leaders made out of discarded electronic waste—to protest the event.
There has been some acknowledgement that the Summit will come with a cost to locals. Johnson announced that the Cornish towns of Penzance, St Ives and Camborne will collectively receive £65 million in funding to be used in building and restoration works in some of Cornwall’s most deprived areas, a U.K. spokesperson said.
There are some benefits, according to a local Cornish resident.
“Wherever they’re doing G7 summit, they have resurfaced the road.”
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