Council plays the numbers game. Badly.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MAR 9, 2014

The planners are rattled by the online petition calling for a simple reduction in the draft Local Plan target of a minimum 47,500 houses in Cornwall. On March 6th a ‘Localism and Devolution Information [sic] Bulletin’ was rushed out to all town and parish councils in Cornwall. Under the name of Councillor Hannaford, Lib Dem Portfolio Holder for Environment, Heritage and Planning, this purported to correct some ‘factual errors’ made in an email sent by an Our Cornwall campaigner in support of the petition.

The email may well have been over-enthusiastic – I have still to see a copy of it – but Cllr Hannaford’s response must rank as a classic case of the wild casting of stones by someone living a very glassy house.

As Charlotte MacKenzie rightly points out in her blog, Cornwall Council are not exactly respected for their accurate handling of statistics. To some extent, this must be expected as those of us nerdish enough to delve into the murky world of official data-gathering on housing and population discover numerous, puzzling contradictions in the datasets.

But, that aside, Cornwall Council, and particularly those tasked with overseeing planning, are notoriously cavalier in their use of data. Let’s just take one example. Cllr Hannaford, in her speech to the full council on January 14th stated ‘33% of all homes are affordable homes’. This was just not true. The Annual Monitoring Report published by the Council’s own officers just a month earlier clearly states that 28.6% of the houses built in 2012/13 were ‘affordable’. Even more shockingly, only 20% of the 15,520 outstanding permissions were ‘affordable’.

When we turn to the more general picture of planning permissions and the Local Plan housing target, the subject of last week’s ‘factual errors’, we find equally curious statistical legerdemain. The minutes of full council’s January 14th discussion of the Local Plan read as follows …

“Councillor Hannaford explained … 27,000 houses had already been granted planning permission and 7,000 of those had already been built, meaning the real figure was 27,500 houses over the next 17 years.”

This is obviously nonsense. As we can see from the figures reported by planning officers to the relevant Portfolio Advisory Committee meeting on October 15th last year.

As they tell us that only 6,714 houses had been completed by April 2013, over 40,000 remained to be built. So the ‘real figure’ couldn’t possibly be ’27,500 houses’.

But let’s accept that Cllr Hannaford actually meant permissions rather than houses completed. A simple calculation informs us that, if the target is 47,500 and 27,000 already have planning permission, there should be 20,500 left to be permitted, not 27,500. (27,000+27,500 = 54,500, not 47,500)

In fact, Cllr Hannaford has been misquoted in the minutes. If we listen to the webcast we find that she actually said …

“27,000 houses had already been granted planning permission and over 7,000 of those had already been built, meaning the real figure was 20,500 houses over the next 17 years.”

So the minutes were wrong. Yet not one of the 122 other councillors nor Cllr Hannaford questioned them and they were duly accepted as a correct record at the next meeting in February. Which makes you wonder if any councillors actually read the minutes.

In her hasty attempt to calm fears among town and parish councillors Cllr Hannaford used the same formula, writing that “over 25,000 have permission, of these about 7,000 are already built. This leaves about 22,000 permissions to find over the Plan period.”

Some signs of improvement here, but still not full marks for accuracy. Her statement should read ‘at April 2013 22,234 permissions had been granted, with another 3,177 permissions granted for major schemes later that year. Of this total of 25,411, 6,714 had been built by April 2013. This leaves 22,089 permissions to find over the Plan period’.

Except that the assumptions behind this argument are untenable, if not downright idiotic. Despite having pointed this out already in a letter to the West Briton last month, let’s try again to teach some basic numeracy. At April 2013 6,714 houses had been built and another 15,520 permissions had been granted but not yet completed. This left – at April 2013 – another 25,266 to be permitted to reach the target of 47,500. By the time of the meeting in January, no doubt that latter figure was indeed pretty close to Cllr Hannaford’s 22,000.

So far, so good? Well, not quite. The Council’s Strategic Housing Land Availability Analysis tells us that an 18% discount must be applied as past experience suggests that about one in five houses with planning permission don’t get built. So almost 58,000 permissions have to be given to guarantee 47,500 houses. Therefore, the 25,266 of April 2013 has in practice to be bumped up to nearly 36,000.

But wait. There’s a bigger problem. If all the targetted 47,500 houses are to be built by 2030 than all the 36,000 or so permissions given before that date will be used up. Effectively, the number of outstanding planning permissions at 2030 becomes zero! The idea that planning permissions will be reduced to nothing is patently absurd and results from ignoring the fact that this 20 year plan period will be followed by another. Planning permissions are rolled over from one to the next. They have to be. History will not stop in 2030, however much councillors prefer to ignore the longer-term consequences of their disastrous suburbanisation and population growth strategic policies.

At present, the Government demands that local authorities keep a five-year land supply which, with this target of 47,500, translates into something like 13,100 according to the Council’s planners (SHLAA, p.33). Those permission would therefore have to be given before 2030 and should be added to that 36,000. Oh dear, Cllr Hannaford’s 25,266 permissions appear to have mutated into something closer to 49,000. Factual errors anyone?

If Cllr Hannaford is privy to some information that suggests we won’t need a five year land supply in 2030 then she should really tell us what this is. If not, then she’s being extremely disingenuous. Even without the need for a centrally-imposed five year land supply we’d surely need some extant planning permissions to cater for demographic change, new household formation and the like.

On a more fundamental level, disingenuity shades into distraction. While new houses clearly result from planning permissions, focusing on the latter rather than the former cynically distracts our attention from the key issue, which is the cancerous spread of housing into our countryside from the towns.

Let’s move on from Council spin to the facts. The Council is arguing that a minimum 47,500 houses have to be built by 2030. At April 2013 6,714 had been built and at that point another 40,786 remained to be built by 2030. The 47,500 total is 5,394 more than the number completed in the previous 20 years, according to the planners’ own data – a rise of 13% whichever way you cut the figures. And, as the SHLAA points out, strategic planning targets in Cornwall are almost always exceeded, not undershot.

Councillors can witter on about permissions as much as they like. But the permissions already given will result in bricks and mortar housing and the loss of green fields. Like it or not, these houses haven’t somehow mysteriously disappeared. At some point they will be built. They are not invisible, as Cllr Hannaford seems to believe.

We can be charitable and assume that Cllr Hannaford doesn’t fully understand the arguments being fed her by her planning officers. But those officers presumably do understand them and must know that they are spurious.

So the more relevant questions become these. Why do the planners jump instantly to defend data that justify higher housing targets and disingenuously attack attempts to argue for a lower target? Why do they rush to accept official demographic projections that have an appallingly poor record of accuracy and bizarrely describe them as ‘robust’, ‘objective’ and ‘defensible’? Why are they so reluctant to engage in a meaningful discussion with those of us who question the statistics they uncritically churn out?

Instead, they hunker in their bunker and dole out half-baked half-truths. In the process, wittingly or unwittingly, they present the developers with arguments for even higher housing targets. Read the developers’ representations to the Council and you’ll find an uncanny echo chamber whereby the planners’ conclusions are bounced back at them to justify a housing target of anything up to 70,000.

One could become quite suspicious about this curious behaviour. Aren’t they supposed to be ‘public’ servants rather than facilitators of selected private interests? Or is that a hopelessly old-fashioned view?

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