Before I go and lie down in a darkened room for the next two weeks to recover let’s pull together some of the lessons of this two-week tour of Cornwall’s towns.
Pity about the Morris Minor though.
What can we look forward to?
From Bude and Saltash to Penzance, we’ve discovered that at every town there are plans in the pipeline for massive housing schemes in the nearby countryside. These come with all the apparatus essential for unsustainable, mindless consumerism – supermarkets, shops, hotels, restaurants, roads and the ‘public open spaces’ ubiquitous to this placeless paradise. We’re being locked into the high population growth regime we’ve had to endure for the past 50 years and they’re throwing away the key.
Those who take our decisions for us have a simple answer to all our problems – even more of the same old thing. Even more destruction of the distinctiveness of Cornwall and its environment. Even more congestion. Even more difficulty meeting genuine local housing need. Almost everywhere the developers, their planning agents and the volume housebuilders who profit from this, turn out to be from well to the east of the Tamar. The bulk of the profits from this building bonanza aren’t going to companies based in Cornwall. It looks like a classic case of colonialism, the profits flow out while the key decisions are made outside the territory.
How have we got to this point?
It’s easy to see what’s happening, not much air space or press coverage is wasted on pinning down the causes. In fact the culprits include a central government obsessed with the ‘growth’ fetish, a rigged planning system that pays lip service to localism but actually practices centralism, and a local state (Cornwall Council) that actively encourages a high population growth strategy. Overarching all these is an unfit for purpose developer-led housing market that is good at producing profits but piss poor at providing decent, affordable homes for local people.
Cornwall Council: working with the developers
It’s become clear in the course of this trip that Cornwall Council plays a key role in facilitating developer-led ‘planning’. Its planning officers have been captured lock, stock and barrel by the developers’ lobby. This can be the only explanation for the way that, for two years, they have wilfully spurned the opportunity to construct a robust case for a lower housing target in the Local Plan, despite having ample means to do so. As a result, the Council has been left in a vulnerable position for the forthcoming examination phase of the local plan. Developers and central government will no doubt try to increase an already unsustainable target of 47,500 to somewhere around 60,000, using the arguments Cornwall Council’s planners have kindly already provided them with.
While planning officers are in the developers’ pockets, our elected representatives abysmally fail to defend Cornish communities from developer colonialism. Instead of forcing their officers to work up a case for a lower target, the Council’s leadership acts as willing apologists for high population growth. They’ve dragged out all sorts of red herrings and rubbish factoids fed them by their compromised officers. For example births exceed deaths (they don’t), only 1% of Cornwall ‘has development’ (it’s at least six times that), 28,000 people on the housing waiting lists are living in sub-standard houses (they aren’t – even the Council’s own consultants reduced this figure to fewer than 6,000). Some of this is disingenuous, some of it is a downright lie; all of it operates as a smokescreen, distracting the public and gullible and uncritical journalists from (and in practice promoting) the central policy – which is population growth almost entirely fed by continuing high levels of in-migration, the majority of which is from the south east of England.
Who’s resisting developer-led growth?
The majority of our elected representatives have shamelessly colluded in this, at both local and central government level. There are some honourable exceptions, for example Dick Cole (MK), Steve Chamberlain (Conservative) or Mario Fonk and Rob Nolan (Lib Dem), who have struggled to achieve lower targets or led local campaigns of resistance. But the growth fetish infects all the main parties. There seems to be a cross-party consensus in support of high growth in Liskeard, Lanson and Saltash, Lib Dem councillors are the most pro-growth in Bodmin, Tories in Newquay and St Austell, Independents in Camborne-Redruth and Labour in Penzance.
Meanwhile, the Greens and MK could make a stronger progressive case against high population growth and planning for greed not need, linking it to the loss of heritage and habitats and the unsustainable impacts on dangerous climate change. That they haven’t may in the case of the Greens be because of a reluctance to call for lower in-migration levels when most of the party activists are in-migrants themselves. MK’s case against high housing targets is somewhat compromised by their silence over the sacrifice of acres of Cornish land to be transformed into a suburb of 1,600+ houses in return for a stadium for Cornwall, a campaign supported by prominent Cornish nationalists. Moreover, both parties are nervous about being misrepresented as being opposed to affordable housing.
It’s been left to local campaigners of all parties and none to mount sporadic resistance to the developers’ juggernaut. It’s noticeable that those towns with the highest population growth rate in the past are generally sites of less opposition to more growth (with the exception of St Austell). Is there a connection? Have those communities with the highest growth since the 1960s been shattered already, coherence lost and sense of place weakened to the point they they are unable to resist ever more growth? It’s also noticeable that resistance seems strongest in the far west – in Camborne, St Ives and Penzance.
What’s the next step?
The developers may have won the first battle but not the war. In 2015 we need to work for the emergence of an effective cross-party pressure group on this issue. There are models – in Herefordshire for example opponents of hyper-development formed themselves into a political group on the council and have successfully fought elections. In Cornwall we have either to convince our elected representatives to start resisting the future mapped out for us by corporate developers or replace them.
To that end, we need to build an organisation with an effective PR and media presence plus the ability to mount selective direct action to engender publicity and confront the developers. It would also have to bring together environmental and cultural campaigners and be forward-looking not backwardly nostalgic, presenting the possibility of a better life for our communities. In must also be democratically organised so that all those who’ve read and supported these blogs over the last two weeks – a hearteningly high number in fact from Bude to Penzance – can get involved. There’s a growing groundswell of anger at the short-term, insane housing growth policies of central and local Government. In 2015 can we come up with ways of channelling that growing anger?