Penzance: affordable homes yes, unaffordable sprawl no

At last. The radiator is in danger of over-heating and the silencer is threatening to fall off after two weeks of ranting and raving. But we’ve finally made it to Penzance.

Newlyn residents discuss latest housing plans

Newlyn residents discuss latest housing plans

Penzance is similar in some ways to St Ives, or at least Newlyn is, or was, with artistic connections and the fishing industry. These days most of the artists have migrated to St Ives and the fishermen to Newlyn. The town of Penzance is also now looking a bit seedier and past its best, lacking the up-market image of St Ives. In fact the town, with the highest levels of deprivation of anywhere in Cornwall, has not unjustly been described as ‘just a slightly pricier version of Camborne.’

Despite that, like Camborne it’s retained its character and still has a gritty sense of place. However, Penzance’s resident population has only risen by 9% since 1961. This is far lower than the overall figure of 58% for Cornwall and very different from the experience of all the other Cornish towns (with the exception of St Ives). The original draft of the local Plan only proposed 1,400 houses for Penzance and Newlyn. Admittedly, this was a 12% growth in its size, a far faster growth rate than it’s seen over the past half-century, but it was still much lower than anywhere else.

Some in Penzance have put these two things together – a slow rate of population growth and a problem of lack of affordable housing. They’ve then concluded that the latter must be caused by the former. Penzance is in the doldrums because it hasn’t had enough housing and population growth. Demands that the town get its ‘fair share’ of housing surfaced last year. Combining a narrow parochialism with unimaginative and conservative analysis, Labour councillors Tim Dwelly and Cornelius Olivier came up with the answer to Penzance’s lack of affordable housing. It was just a simple matter of building more houses, some of which are bound to be affordable. In October 2013, Councillor Olivier begged for the town’s target to be increased from 1,400 houses to 2,500. As a result the planners have taken pity and added another 750 to Penzance’s total.

labr and housing targetThose who argue that building a lot of unaffordable houses will automatically lead to more affordable ones really should get out of Penzance more often. If it was so simple than why have lots of unaffordable houses in places like Redruth, St Austell or the towns of east Cornwall not solved their housing problems years ago? Curiously, mass housing and very high levels of population growth, more than doubling their sizes, doesn’t seem to have waved any magic wand.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, blanket calls for ‘more housing’, purportedly to ‘solve’ problems of affordability, in the Cornish context in reality merely provide a smokescreen for the construction of a lot of unaffordable housing. It’s basically a policy of encouraging population growth to fill the unnecessary extra market housing. Councillor Dwelly complained in 2013 that ‘the main problem here [in Penzance] is opposition from some people to … new homes’. The main problem? So it’s not low wages or demand from second and holiday homes then. The number of those rose by 570 in the ten years from 2001 and now amount to more than one in ten of the houses in Penzance. Interestingly, Councillor Dwelly’s comment was made in the context of an article entitled ‘Let’s move to Penzance’, rarther than ‘Let’s solve the crisis of affordable homes in Penzance’.

gulval before and afterCouncillor Dwelly continued in the same piece to say ‘Luckily plenty of local people don’t feel this way.’ But plenty of local people obviously do, being a lot more critical of the planners’ claim that ‘growth can help deliver many of the aspiration of local communities in the area’. Like the hundreds who crammed into a hall at Gulval to protest against a scheme to build 250 houses there. This is the first phase of the 1,000 houses proposed for greenfield sites at Gulval and Heamoor north of Penzance. The campaigners set up a Community Association and have come up with excellent, well articulated arguments against the scheme. They have also gained the support of Mario Fonk, Lib Dem councillor for the area and Andrew George, the local MP.

Meanwhile, Terry Grove-White, assistant head of planning at Cornwall Council, ominously stated that planners were ‘working closely with local councillors’ for ‘options for growth to support the needs of Penzance and Newlyn’. One growth that the town has seen, but which Mr Grove-White didn’t mention or hasn’t noticed, was the growth in second and holiday homes. But there can’t possibly be any connection between that kind of growth and Penzance’s housing issues, can there?

Housing growth at Penzance

Housing growth at Penzance

The planners are presumably also ‘working closely’ with the developers of the land at Gulval, Terrace Hill. This Glasgow-based company was controlled by petrochemical tycoon Robert Adair. This year it merged with London developers Urban and Civic. The company focuses on ‘areas with robust local economies‘. Which is a bit perplexing as Penzance has been outrageously described as a place where only heroin dealers can make a decent living, purportedly the ‘skag head capital of Cornwall‘. But then, maybe that’s proof that George Osborne’s booming economy – based on the growth sectors of illegal drugs and prostitution – flourishes even in the far west of Cornwall.

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