Cornwall Council: protecting place-shaping from democracy

Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending to this series of blogs. Opposition to the increasingly desperate and out-of-touch hyper-growth strategy of our ruling elite is fragmented and weak. Organisation is absent. Although many people are vaguely concerned about the direction the Council and its partners are taking us, levels of disaffection from ‘politics’ and the democratic process work to numb many of them into helpless passivity. If they do get involved they’re all too easily captured by an English/British nationalist populism or celebrity socialism and unable to engage their critical faculties. Are there any silver linings? Maybe one or two, which I’ll return to at the end of this. For now though, let’s just nail the way the Council’s leadership has been cynically complicit in making Cornwall safe from democracy.

Cornwall Council’s self-appointed ‘opinion-formers’ live in a little bubble where nothing is allowed to disrupt their growth plans. The biggest potential hazard they face is democracy. And there is a minority, though growing, collection of cynics and sceptics out there in the real world who harbour one or two doubts about the grand plan. They see their local townscape and environment being irrevocably changed and ask in whose interests this might be happening. Either getting no answer or finding the answers they get unsatisfactory or fatuous, they begin to question the Council’s old-fashioned growth fetish. If that sort of subversive thinking is allowed to get out of hand, the Council’s plans might well go up in smoke, burnt to a crisp by the flames of democracy.

We’ve already seen the de-democratization of local government against the wishes of its people in 2009. Now, we have a further culling of elected representation on the horizon, making Cornish communities the least represented, in quantitative terms, anywhere in the UK. We’ve also had the creeping process of privatisation and PFI contracts. This has the added advantage from the Council leadership’s perspective, of hiding accountability under a veil of commercial confidentiality.

The final piece of the jigsaw comes in removing money and decision-making from elected to unaccountable, non-elected bodies. One such is the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which gained the most out of the first undemocratic ‘devolution deal’. Now, we are seeing a further extension of that process. While focusing on saving its own bacon, Cornwall Council has endeavoured to share the responsibility (and blame) for its unsustainable and irresponsible growth strategy with some fellow-travellers. This was done through establishing the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board, which couples unthinking commitment to a short-sighted market-led growth strategy with immunity from any direct democratic accountability. A clever wheeze indeed. It first met last November. The agendas of its meetings are on the Council website but the minutes, although promised, are missing.

So who’s on this Board? First, there are those who are in theory directly answerable to the people, although strangely reluctant to involve the people of the communities that require more resilience in planning how to become more ‘resilient’. Cornwall Council, the Isles of Scilly Council and the Cornwall Association of Local Councils have seven members. Along with these, we have Cornwall’s six MPs plus the Devonwall Police and Crime Commissioner, all these of course being Conservatives. The second group comprises the chairs of a bunch of quangos – NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group, the Cornwall Health and Welfare Board, Cornwall & IOS Local Nature Partnership and the Cornwall & IOS Local Enterprise Partnership, none of which have any democratic accountability. Finally, neither does the President of the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, who has been brought along to pull the business sector on board.

According to New Frontiers the Board provides ‘the collective leadership we need to increase our environmental, economic and social resilience, and flourish beyond Brexit’ (p.1) One assumes this clique agrees with the ominous promise of the New Frontiers authors that ‘Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is a natural test-bed for new approaches to the grand challenges facing our society’. Watch out, as your community may well soon be in line to be a test-bed for these latter-day Frankensteins intent on giving us a good dose of place-shaping.

Not many areas have seen a bigger population growth than Cornwall since 1961. But our ‘leaders’ don’t think it’s enough and want more.

For Cornwall’s Leadership Board, a reliance on unsustainable housing and population growth as the tired old core of the Council’s strategic policy is no problem at all. After all, the Council’s New Frontiers bid for a second devolution deal shamefully says not one word about Cornish culture or Cornish heritage, so we can hardly expect assorted quangoites and Conservatives, many of whom have a fairly superficial knowledge of such things, to bring up those embarrassing topics.

The Council and their partners say they have no alternative. But let’s imagine for a moment that Cornwall and Scilly really were test-beds for a genuinely new approach. Then we might see other plans. For example, there might be suggestions of how to create a properly sustainable and balanced stable state economy, or signposts for developing a genuinely democratic, participatory governance structure, or details of the local efforts required to achieve the near 100% cut in greenhouse gas emissions we need by 2040 to have a snowflake’s chance in hell of avoiding dangerous climate change. Such a document might ask central government for serious planning powers to reduce the numbers of second homes rather than powers to compulsorily purchase farmland for population growth. It might propose measures aimed at building a cohesive and self-confident regional identity, or put culture at the centre of its strategy. Then Cornwall and Scilly would really become a test-bed for new approaches, and we’d have a chance of conserving that ‘beautiful and fragile eco-system’, instead of wilfully and complacently destroying it in the name of profit and ‘resilience’.

We can only dream. What we need to make those dreams a reality is some organisation to channel the growing anger. We’ve already seen the collapse of one political party – Ukip – and sooner or later the surge in Labour’s membership will implode under the weight of its own contradictions and the efforts of the press, BBC and a large chunk of its own MPs. Then we’ll have a whole load of people wandering around looking for a home. Are we preparing for it? Is there any mileage in a left populist vehicle that can focus people’s frustration in Cornwall? Or is the answer a catch-all organisation committed to meaningful devolution?

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The problems with Cornwall Council’s growth obsession

We’ve seen how Cornwall Council is obsessed by its drive for ‘growth’, which, despite all the flannel surrounding it, turns out to contain at its core the same old-fashioned housing and population growth. There are four fundamental problems with its love affair with ‘growth’. The first I’ve already noted. Why should more of the same old growth have a different effect than the past 60 years of growth? As that growth apparently hasn’t worked shouldn’t Cornwall’s ‘decision-makes’ be looking for other solutions and not continue to rely on an outdated and discredited policy?

The second problem is a question of arithmetic. Cornwall Council’s personnel appears to labour under the delusion that infinite growth in a finite space is a practical proposition. Hunched over their computers, they don’t appear to have looked out of the window lately. More resources cannot be conjured up on demand to cope with endless year on year ‘growth’. The Council boasts of a regional growth rate of 4% a year. No-one in Truro has had the temerity to point out to the leadership cabal that this means the Cornish economy will double every 17 and a half years. And then double again after another 17 and a half. And so on.

It doesn’t take a GCSE in maths to work out that, at that rate, it’ll be 64 times bigger than now in just a hundred years. Even if we’re not talking of a population 64 times bigger and facing the problem of slotting 35 million or so people into Cornwall, the Council needs to tell us how it intends to sustain this rate of growth. Precisely how will it manage a 64-fold growth in consumption when it struggles to manage current levels?

Most rural parts of England and Wales already have a lower population density than Cornwall in summer.

If there was plenty of spare capacity, then one might understand why some growth is contemplated. But there isn’t. Mid and west Cornwall is already among the most densely populated rural parts of Europe. The annual tourist influx is already pushing at or over the limits of capacity.

Moreover, the third, and increasingly salient, problem that the Council and its partners ignore is the growing realisation that we’re living through an unprecedented crisis of biodiversity and species extinction. This news does not seem to have penetrated Cornwall Council or its partners in crime. The ludicrous idea that climate change is caused by human activity is clearly one not shared by Cornwall Council’s leadership.

On page 1 of New Frontiers, the basis for the Council’s request to London for a second devolution deal, it brags that Cornwall can be a ‘test-bed’ for ‘new approaches to the grand challenges facing our society’. The single most pressing ‘grand challenge’ is surely climate change. Odd then, that New Frontiers, while mentioning the word ‘growth’ 119 times, doesn’t once explicitly mention climate change. Even more shockingly, there’s no discernible evidence of any proposed environmental audit of their grandiose growth plans. There’s no calculation of the carbon footprint of building 60,000 houses in the next two decades. Or the infrastructure projects that will ‘unlock’ more housing. Or the spaceport. Or any of the other bombastic schemes that are being run up the flagpole at County Hall.

Countryside west of Truro. To the folk at County Hall and the developers just a great site for housing.

Read the document and you get the impression that its authors live in a time-warp. We’re strangling the marine environment with plastics and killing ourselves on a daily basis by ingesting micro-plastics. But at County Hall the inmates are mysteriously stuck in the 1960s, blithely unaware of the dire effects of human activity on nature and the environment. We may be on the Titanic and the metaphorical icebergs are looming, but the crew remain blissfully in the dark about them.

Finally, the fourth problem should be blatantly obvious, although it’s one that Cornwall’s political and economic elite don’t seem able to recognise, let alone empathise with. It’s the fact that their ‘place-shaping’ schemes are fast destroying what’s left of the Cornishness of Cornwall. They might not care about that. Indeed, some of them may even welcome it, arrogantly and condescendingly dismissing the Cornish sense of heritage as an unwarranted and illegitimate sense of ‘entitlement’ on our part.

Yet, while they’re supremely complacent concerning the costs of growth, one fear stalks their dreams – the possibility of democratic oversight and control over their irresponsible activity. The final blog tomorrow will describe what measures the Council and its mates are taking to prevent that frightening possibility ever taking shape.

Posted in Cornwall Council;, population growth | 1 Comment

Cornwall Council’s love affair with housing and population growth

Go beyond the vision in New Frontiers, the Council’s bid to central government for a second ‘devolution deal’. What do we find? As we have seen, it turns out that the document contains no new approach at all, just more of the same old approach. Admittedly, there’s some new bits and pieces, like references to spaceports, satellites, post-Brexit regulatory powers, data hubs and lithium mining. However, at its heart lies the same old, endless ‘growth’.

Perhaps this is a new sort of growth that doesn’t rest on mass population movement. Maybe our innovative, cutting-edge Council has discovered how to achieve growth that doesn’t have to rely fundamentally on the construction industry. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We read why growth is supposedly under threat. ‘The shortage of new homes is one of the major barriers to achieving sustainable economic growth in the region’. Oh dear, the actual objective turns out to be to build lots of housing for all those in-migrants we need to achieve ‘growth’, although we’re now informed this will be for ‘inclusive workforce growth’ (p.16). As opposed to what exactly?

Not that the officers were exactly honest about this aim. When councillors were permitted to discuss the New Frontiers document at the obscure Customer Services and Support Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee last week, they were told funding from central government was needed to ‘provide more affordable homes for local people’. The only problem is that this means that many, many more unaffordable houses have to be built.

Since the turn of the millennium Cornwall has already experienced a higher rate of building than elsewhere. The Council wants to increase this rate even further.

Although the Council doesn’t see this as a problem at all. In fact, it proudly boasts that it can deliver ‘at least 3,000 homes [sic]’ a year. It admits this will ‘exceed (on a proportionate basis) the Government’s national basis for the increased supply of new homes’ (p.43). Note that this equates to a 20-year target of 60,000 houses, equal to six new Truros, well above even the official target of 52,500. From the Council’s standpoint, injected with liberal amounts of testosterone when it comes to housing and population growth, this pathetically low target is one it confidently expects to surpass with no trouble at all.

Countryside at Redruth earmarked for another suburb

If you’re uneasy, worried or downright alarmed by the current level of building activity going on around Cornish towns then just wait until the Council’s plans come to fruition. It’s asking central government for £60 million to ‘accelerate’ housing delivery through a string of ‘garden villages’. It wants compulsory purchase powers to buy farmland to push these new settlements forward, over the heads of any local opposition presumably. The new utopia of ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’ growth seemingly involves increased dictatorial powers to ‘place-shape’. The market and dictatorship march together, hand in hand.

Furthermore, this growth agenda is driven forward with an over the top, in your face attitude. The Council’s inner Cabinet and senior officers seem to have become dizzy with machismo, striving to prove their masculinity by building houses. ‘You want 52,500. Nah, we’ll give you 60,000. Go on punk, make my day.’ (The genius who dreamed up the title New Frontiers was clearly contemplating the wild west at the time. Pursue this further and you begin to wonder how soon we’ll suffer the same fate as the native Americans.)

Perhaps over-compensating for fears of inadequacy, Council statements become ever more boastful. As the Council’s real powers shrink, so its leadership resorts to self-glorification and braggadocio. As people’s cynicism mounts, so the flood of magniloquent and vain-glorious claims spews forth at regular intervals. This is certainly one area where growth can clearly be proven.

Oddly, all this frenetic macho ‘growth’ is predicted to have no effect at all on what the Council describes as the ‘beautiful and fragile eco-system’ of Cornwall (p.1). We’re told it’s needed to increase the ‘resilience of our communities’, at present presumably hopelessly vulnerable. They’re certainly vulnerable, or at least the councillors they elect seem to be, to the same old policy follies familiar from the 1980s, now dusted down again and foisted on them in a new guise. Yet growth brings with it costs and problems, many of which are causing growing alarm among scientists and others. But not at County Hall it seems.

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Cornwall Council’s ‘big idea’: Growth. Lots of it. And then more.

The ‘big idea’ at the core of the Council’s strategy is ‘growth’. Perhaps the Council’s ideological gurus, most brought into Cornwall at great expense, think this is a new idea. I suppose we can’t blame them for being ignorant of our recent history. More curiously, no-one at County Hall seems to have bothered to inform them that Cornish communities have actually experienced quite a bit of growth since the 1960s. Yet, puzzlingly, we still have chronically low wages, problems in finding affordable places to live, congested roads and town centres populated by charity shops, hair salons and wailing shopkeepers bemoaning deserted streets.

The project class and assorted career escalator types at the top are thus surprised that the ungrateful masses are less than overjoyed by the prospect of even more ‘growth’. They then cast around for ways to try to make it more acceptable. Their advisors persuade them that this can be achieved through the simple device of prefixing words like ‘environmental’, ‘sustainable’, ‘clean’, ‘inclusive’ in front of ‘growth’. Of course, these remain essentially meaningless, as nowhere is the difference spelled out between ‘environmental’ or ‘sustainable’ growth and plain old ‘growth’. A re-packaged ‘growth’ is then placed within the sort of visionary language that most people would agree with, but that remains to all intents and purposes vacuous.

Take the Council’s New Frontiers Appendix 1. This is the basis for their bid to central government for a second ‘devolution deal’. It provides an excellent window into the Cornwall’s real thinking. With a fine sense of irony, it begins ‘Our peninsula is a beautiful and fragile eco-system in which the resilience of our people, environment and economy are inter-dependent’ (p.1). So what should we do with it? Well, let’s build on it at an historically unprecedented rate for starters. This is described as ‘sustainable, inclusive growth that delivers the very best outcomes for everyone living in our region’ (p.4). And, of course, a lot of people who don’t yet live in it, although the document strangely doesn’t get around to mentioning that.

While camouflaged by touchy-feely words, the Council can’t be accused of not being upfront in this document. Confident that few people outside the leadership bubble, central government or the Council will ever read it, there’s no need for the shifty defensiveness more normally seen in strategic planning documents. It’s ‘growth’. Full stop. The challenge is to ‘ensure the continuation of economic growth’ (p.6). The word ‘growth’ appears 119 times in this 56-page document. Growth won’t just be economic; it’ll transform everything. ‘The social benefits of growth must also not be underplayed and we need to ensure that our natural capital grows with it’ (p.7), the document obscurely adds.

Last year only a handful of English counties had a higher housebuilding rate than Cornwall

Nowhere however do the authors of New Frontiers explain how and why the growth we’ve already seen over the past half century and more hasn’t already had the desired effect. Why will miraculous outcomes and all-round joy and happiness flow from growth while the growth of the last half-century produced the problems the growth of the next half-century is supposed to solve? Sixty years or so of some of the highest proportionate in-migration and housebuilding rates in the UK has produced merely a sullen native population glued to their tellies, a mass of consumerist zombies, a new population that seems to survive by grooming each other’s dogs, a seething mass of angry and disaffected Brexit voters, and an unseen minority that indulges in the new sport of consuming fast food and then adding to growing air quality issues by touring the countryside to find a spot to chuck the packaging out? Are these the ‘social benefits of growth’?

Dig deeper in flighty documents of fancy such as New Frontiers and we discover an altogether seedier reality underlies its Orwellian massaging of ‘growth’. Return tomorrow for the next exciting instalment and see how Cornwall Council wants to see even more houses built on all that useless green stuff out there in order to ‘accommodate’ even more people, who will then drive ‘growth’.

Posted in Cornwall Council;, population growth | 3 Comments

Cornwall Council’s choice: Place-shaping, privatisation and policy follies

To understand what might otherwise appear to be the collective insanity gripping a power-crazed elite at Truro we need to set it in the context of major reductions in the revenue support grant central government gives to local government. These amount to a 77% cut in the five years from 2015 and the end of local government grants entirely by 2020. But we need to cast the net even wider to fully grasp what’s going on.

Local government cuts have had two useful benefits for central government. The first is to obfuscate the austerity programme, making local government undertake the most savage cuts. This meant that blame could be neatly diverted from the Tory/Lib Dem and then Tory Government to hapless local councillors. This was made even easier in cases like Cornwall Council where the Council rolled over and refused to criticise government policy openly. It’s also abysmally failed to communicate its problems to the people, preferring to act as a relatively willing handmaiden of the central state.

The second effect was to create panic and paralysis in the corridors of local government, softening it up for the broader privatisation agenda of the Government. This is a perfect example of Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’. In her view crises, whether economic, environmental or political, have been seized upon as opportunities by neo-liberal ideologues to impose their dogma (and in the process make themselves and their mates very, very rich.)

In a context of declining future revenue, Cornwall Council has had to look at how it might weather the coming financial blizzard. As a result, it’s slipped from being the representative and champion of Cornish communities (if it ever was – I’ll leave that one open to debate) to being principally concerned with saving its own institutional skin. This explains the cosying up to developers and the return to a housing and population-led strategy (more houses and more people mean a higher tax base). It also explains the desperate search for ‘partners’, as the Council seeks to spread risk (and blame). It makes sense of the various projects to outsource services or privatise them outright, blurring the line between public and private and in the process conveniently making accountability even more obscure.

It also helps to explain the growing secretiveness of the leadership bunker. As in the Cannes public relations fiasco, the bunker now refuses even its own councillors a say on its strategic direction. Fearful of having its strategy questioned and (God forbid) changed, as it can envisage no alternative, it desperately pleads to councillors to put loyalty to the institution before their loyalty to those who elected them. This is why senior officers are probably supremely relaxed about the prospect of Cornwall’s elected representatives soon suffering a cull on a scale unprecedented in the history of ‘English’ local government. The fewer there are, the more remote becomes the terrifying prospect of effective criticism from within the institution.

Meanwhile, proclamations to the public are marked by a growing air of unreality. Anodyne visions are robotically unveiled. Crocodile tears are copiously shed for the less fortunate even as the services they get are shredded mercilessly. Ridiculously over-ambitious claims are made that the Council is the best in the land and glowing peer reviews carried out by other councils are flourished with pride. Although these are greeted with amused incredulity, irritation and contempt in towns and villages across Cornwall. Arrogant threats to silence critics are made as the Council over-reacts badly to local campaigners. All this comes on top of the long-familiar disingenuous and casual misuse of selected statistics and evidence that has been business as usual for so long. It’s hardly surprising that the gulf between the Council’s leadership and the mass of the public – disillusioned, dispirited and disbelieving or angry, astonished and amazed in turn – widens by the day.

To sum up, Cornwall Council’s leadership clique has determined that the only way it can survive is to resort to the poacher turned gamekeeper strategy. Thoroughly captured by corporate interests, it acts like a corporation. Prevented from regulating developers by changes in the planning laws, it becomes a developer itself. From representing communities, the Council turns to transforming and re-engineering communities, or ‘place-shaping’ in the jargon it prefers. This turns what should happen on its head. Instead of communities being in control of their destiny and shaping their political representatives to achieve their real needs, we have the political superstructure shaping communities to suit its need and the interests of developers, central government and better-off visitors (both permanent and temporary).

Come back tomorrow to find out what Cornwall Council’s big idea is. (No prizes for guessing.)

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Cornwall Council‘s quandary: How to survive in conditions of austerity

What the hell is going on at Cornwall Council? On those extremely rare occasions when people think about local government they probably have a hazy notion that councils provide public services paid for out of our rates and taxes. Decisions are made by councillors, who we elect, and officers loyally carry out those decisions.

Reality is not so straightforward. In the local elections last year, to our eternal shame, the Great Cornish Electorate returned basically the same crew of councillors. Since then councillors have been surprisingly quiet as Cornwall Council’s leadership takes them forward into its own brave new world of private sector local (?) government.

While most councillors were busy practicing their impressions of startled rabbits paralysed by the headlights of the oncoming privatisation train, the Council’s ‘Delivering Homes, Jobs and Communities Task and Finish Group’ was meeting. This was set up to assess the Council’s ‘appetite for risk’. It was also supposed to weigh up financial outcomes and commercial opportunities against social and environmental objectives, although the minutes, which are well worth a read, betray a predictably narrow definition of society and environment.

Then there was a lot of silly, macho posturing in the media about a spaceport based at Newquay airport. The Council tells us that this is the fastest growing airport in the UK, although this isn’t too difficult to achieve as for several years it was the fastest declining airport in the UK. That was followed up by a fanfare of self-congratulation and boisterous back-slapping as the Council announced it was again building council houses. On closer inspection however, these turned out to be council houses that no-one would recognise as council houses. In fact, they seemed suspiciously identical to private developers’ housing. Which wasn’t surprising as the Council had in the meantime mutated into a private developer.

While it was doing that, the Council, using a definition of democracy hitherto unknown, had hived off responsibility for strategic decision-making to a shadowy Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board. This was apparently a ‘key strategic partnership’ but also conveniently makes the decision-making process in Cornwall even more opaque. It removes it to a safe arms-length distance, remote from any possible taint of popular control.

Most recently, we’ve seen the public relations disaster of council officers rushing off eagerly to taste the fleshpots of Cannes in order to prostrate themselves before international investors, hoping to sell Cornwall to them. Suffice it to say that those Tory MPs who were quick to condemn the Lib Dem/Indie leadership for this jaunt were quickly exposed as cynical hypocrites. It turns out they’re up to their neck in the same slimy cesspit of ideological effluent.

Let’s draw a curtain over that distasteful scene. Overall, we now have a widening gulf of perceptions in Cornwall. From inside the leadership bunker the Council is a gleaming beacon of efficiency. They really do seem to believe that the rest of UK local government looks toward Truro with open-mouthed awe, inspired by its go-getting innovative approach and jealous of the way it’s loved and respected by all its residents. Outside the bunker, the word on the street is that Cornwall Council engages in fake consultations, is crap at communicating its ideas, couldn’t organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery, is in bed with developers and is determined to destroy the Cornishness of Cornwall while trampling over its environment. Someone is deluded, that’s for sure.

The Council does have a predicament. To explain its direction of travel we have to first understand how this predicament has arisen. As we shall see, changes in financing local government have combined with a lack of vision, failures of communication (and listening) and a reluctance to abandon 50-year old policy follies to produce the present sad situation. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why Cornwall Council has made the choices it has.

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Cornwall for Change Conference, Saturday, 10 March

Planning in Cornwall, for People or Profit?
A debate and questions.

Cornwall for Change (C4C) and Community Voice on Planning (CoVoP) are holding a conference on 10th March 2018, 2pm – 5pm

The venue is Crossroads Conference Centre, Scorrier, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 5BP

If you’re interested in going along they’re asking you to register at
https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/planning-in-cornwall-for-people-or-profit-tickets-42983249055

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