ORGINALLY PUBLISHED NOV 29 2013
What some have called a ‘developers’ charter’, the Tory/Lib Dem Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), requires local authorities to plan to ‘meet the objectively assessed need for new homes’. This makes up part of their rigid ‘predict and provide’ approach to housing targets, with the NPPF explicitly aiming to boost housebuilding.
Sure enough, it turns out the Government only deems Local Plans ‘sound’ if they meet its ‘objectively assessed need’ criteria. This is producing targets effectively at or above the old Regional Strategy (RS) targets imposed by the last Labour Government. Let’s remind ourselves. In Cornwall’s case the RS target was 68,000 houses in 20 years. The actual number of houses built from 1990 to 2010 in Cornwall was 42,100. This target would therefore result in a 62% growth in an already unnecessarily high housing target. (In fact, 29,000 would be sufficient both to meet the needs of the existing population and that from expected in-migration on past trends.)
So how does the Government define ‘objectively assessed need’? In a classically circular argument it states that ‘objectively assessed need’ in this context should be based on those projections produced for its own Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). In addition, we have the Office for National Statistics (ONS) projections of population growth. These two sets of forecasts are the litmus test for ‘objectively assessed need’.
But how accurate are they? Eight projections were produced in the 2000s which contained a figure for 2011. This is convenient as we can test those forecasts for 2011 against the Census of that year.
The population projections ranged from a predicted 40,000 growth to 54,000. But these turned out be from 23% to 67% inaccurate as the real growth was just 32,400. The household projections were even more inaccurate, by 47% to 118%, as the real growth turned out to be only half that forecast by the projections of 2004 and 2006.
You can’t fault them for inconsistency however. The only problem is that they have been consistently wrong and consistently wrong in only one direction. All eight projections greatly overestimated the actual population and household growth in Cornwall over the last decade. And by no small amount. Instead, they were out by a huge margin. Old Granny Combellack could do a better job than this with some tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.
It’s obvious why the Government and developers are so keen to accept these ludicrously over-inflated predictions as ‘objectively assessed’. Ramp up the projections and you ramp up the plans. It’s less clear why Cornwall Council continues meekly to accept them as if they were holy writ, brought down gleaming from the mountain.
When asked why planners still take these projections seriously, planning officers at first seemed oddly unaware of the degree of inaccuracy. They claimed that sometimes predicted levels are over-estimates; sometimes they’re under-estimates. No, planners may be strangely (and conveniently) ignorant but during the last decade ALL predictions greatly over-estimated the actual growth.
Unable to hold on to that fiction, the officers then claimed that projections were derived from a ‘very sophisticated computer model’ and that ‘the inputs were right’. From the perspective of the blind men in the Council’s planning bunker it appears that if the inputs are ‘right’, then the outputs must also somehow be ‘right’, even if they’re palpably wrong! Alice in Wonderland meets 1984 in Truro.
This would be comical if only it were so serious. The Council is now accepting the Strategic Housing Market Needs Assessment (SHMNA) produced by its consultants GVA Grimley and Edge Analytics as its statement of ‘objectively assessed need’. And what is this report based on? DCLG and ONS projections! Predictably therefore, the estimates in the SHMNA for net in-migration in 2011/12 have already been shown to be wrong – again over-predicting by a margin of around 25% (p.48 of the Cornwall Overview Report).
However, the abysmal record of these forecasts is never questioned. The latest DCLG household projections predict a growth of 24,000 in Cornwall over the next decade. Meanwhile, the ONS is predicting a population growth of 51,700 in the next 10 years. If these forecasts are compared with recent decadal growth any six-year old could see immediately how absurdly unlikely they are. But this conclusion seems to entirely escape our planners and those at Lys Kernow who should be monitoring them.
Except … imagine the worst scenario for a moment – that the housing target is pushed up to meet these farcical and fictitious statements of ‘need’. Given the insatiable demand to come and live in Cornwall (or own a second home here) it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of estate agents and developers to market all those surplus houses up-country. And hey presto; wishful thinking becomes reality.
Why are our elected representatives so mute when confronted by such incontrovertible evidence for rigged data? Why don’t they challenge this so-called ‘objectivity’? Why can’t they roundly condemn it as unfit for purpose? Why is Cornwall Council quietly sweeping this scandal under the carpet? Why don’t councillors conclude these data are unacceptable for planning purposes and demand an independent enquiry into those ‘sophisticated computer models’ that suspiciously always inflate Cornwall’s ‘needs’ time and time again?