Planning permissions: are the flood gates opening?

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOV 10, 2013

Here’s a particularly bizarre argument deployed by Cornwall Council’s planners. Because 22,234 houses had already been built, were under construction or had planning permission in April 2013 (three years into the Council’s still delayed ‘Local’ Plan) a target of 47,500 houses ‘only’ really means we have to permit another 25,300 over the next 17 years. And 25,300 doesn’t really sound so much does it?

This ever so conveniently omits to mention that 15,520 of those 22,234 still remain to be built, most of them on green fields on the edge of our towns and villages. The implication is that, as permission has already been given, somehow they don’t count. We should forget all about them, even though 15,500 houses equates to a town bigger than any existing Cornish settlement and three quarters the size of the Camborne-Redruth urban area.

The argument is nonsensically irrelevant and a rather desperate attempt to distract attention from the fact that a target of 47,500 houses is more than the 42,106 houses actually completed in the previous 20 year period.

Others point out how 22,234 houses means that 47% of the housing target has already been allocated. And this just 15% of the way through the Plan period. At this rate all 47,500 will have been allocated in another four years. This is a very scary proposition that conjures up images of a completely out of control bunch of planners hopelessly in the developers’ pockets and doling out permissions like so much confetti. Sure enough, we find that in some community network areas – Liskeard, Truro and Camborne-Redruth – the number of permissions and builds after three years is already at or above the numbers actually built over the previous 20 years.

permissions as % of last 20 yrs

However, focusing on the overall total doesn’t take into account another fact. In 2010 at the beginning of the plan period, there were already around 13,000 outstanding planning permissions, brought forward from the last period. So the extra permissions since 2010 amount to more like 9,000+ rather than 22,000+. That’s only a town slightly smaller than Newquay or St Austell appearing in the landscape in three years. Sighs of relief all round.

Or maybe not. For we need to note two things. First, the stock of outstanding planning permissions seems to be creeping ever upwards, from somewhere between 13,000 and 13,500 in April 2010 to 15,520 in April 2013. This does indeed imply that planning permissions are being handed out at a faster rate than the numbers of houses being built. So the potential for future growth as soon as developers can sniff a nice profit increases.

Second, all these numbers – 9,000, 22,000, 47,000 – carry the danger that we lose sight of the long-term consequences of continuing a rate of growth that is already far too high and unsustainable in the long-term. Namely, we run the risk of joining the robotic planning officers and the majority of councillors in becoming deadened to the disastrous effects of current growth rates on the Cornish environment, its society and it communities.

planning permissions

Let’s take the first point and compare the number of permissions with the number of houses built in the two years from April 2011. While around 2,300 houses were built each year, 3,100 houses were approved. Thus permissions are indeed running about 800 a year higher than completions, which explains the steady rise in the backlog of permissions. If all houses permitted got built we could be looking at a total of 62,000 houses over a 20 year plan period rather than the 46,000 implied by current build rates, already running higher than the mean for the 20 years 1990-2010.

No doubt the planners would respond by saying that not all houses permitted automatically result in bricks and mortar. And they are right. They guesstimate that up to 20% of houses permitted never get built. If we take that figure then the 3,100 permissions a year is reduced to around 2,500, or a 20 year equivalent of 50,000, only slightly over the target of 47,500.

That doesn’t look too bad then. Except that the number of outstanding permissions is moving inexorably upwards, not downwards. Indeed, this year in the six months since April another 3,177 permissions have been given for major ‘developments’ in just five of the 19 Cornish community network areas. That’s a very sharp increase in the rate of permissions granted and suggests that the Council’s de-facto and deliberate policy of ramping up housing growth is ominously beginning to bear fruit.

And then there’s the small matter that 47,500 or 50,000 is a 13% to 19% increase on the building rate of the past 20 years. Moreover, 47,500 houses translate into a growth of 18% in the built-up area of Cornwall. In a mere two decades. At this rate the built up area doubles every 80 years or so. Cornwall’s planners and the majority of its councillors plainly either don’t understand how compound interest works or are supremely indifferent to the fact that at this rate more than half of Cornwall’s land surface will be built over by the early 23rd century.

Their ostrich-like refusal to think outside the planning box and confront the implications of their insane growth-at-all-costs policy also blinds them to the scale of the present building bonanza. Building 47,500 to 50,000 houses will result in covering an area the size of more than two Camborne-Redruths; or four and a half Penzances or Newquays or St Austells; or 11 Budes or Launcestons or Liskeards.

Cornwall Council has lamentably and pathetically failed to protect Cornwall, its environment, its communities and its Cornishness. They’ve not only failed to grasp the opportunity provided by a slowly declining population growth rate since the 1980s to reduce the housing target and make a robust case to central government for special treatment. Unfazed by the sprawl of suburban settlements, the majority of councillors apparently think this level of growth is a fine idea. The Conservative/Lib Dem Government also think it’s great (although they’d like even more). But have the people of Cornwall ever been asked whether they think it’s a good idea? And if not, why not?

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