When the Cornish were recognised as a national minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Charter for the Protection of National Minorities last year, politicians from across the spectrum in Cornwall fell over to express their delight. Everyone that is apart from the Ukippers, who didn’t fall for this dastardly European plot. And apart from those of us, more cynical or less naive perhaps, who wondered if this was merely convenient tokenism, signifying little in practice and designed primarily to bolster the Liberal Democrats’ flagging electoral prospects.
While the aim of saving the Lib Dems’ skins failed dismally, the current ‘examination’ of Cornwall Council’s Local Plan provides a test case for assessing whether the Charter can actually be used to protect the rights of the Cornish. Or will it be brushed aside by a central state that won’t be deflected from its project to make Cornwall safe for developers? Article 5 of the Charter states that ‘the parties (i.e. the UK state and its agents) undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage’. In order to maintain, develop and preserve Cornish culture and the Cornish identity, the current numbers of those who define themselves as Cornish or can otherwise be defined as Cornish (for example through birth or upbringing) have to be maintained. Without the Cornish, Cornwall will cease to be Cornwall in any meaningful way.
In this context, Article 16 becomes relevant. This states that ‘the parties shall refrain from measures which alter the proportions of the population in areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities and are aimed at restricting the rights and freedoms flowing from the principles enshrined in the present Framework Convention’. The first part of this is clear enough. Any measures that reduce (or for that matter increase) the proportion of Cornish people in Cornwall contravene the Charter. But the little word ‘and’ and the second part of Article 16 provides a handy likely bonus for the barristers as it re-inserts an element of ambiguity. Nonetheless, any measures that change the ethnic balance of the population would seem to restrict the rights of the Cornish as set out in Article 5 and would be breaching the spirit of the Charter.
Cornwall Council was asked to respond to the Charter by the planning inspector at the examination of its Local Plan. It came up with three points.
First, it decided to remain in denial. It states the Framework Charter is subsidiary to the European Convention on Human Rights and in any case the prime responsibility lies with central government. This passing the buck argument was supplemented by a claim that as ‘national minority’ is nowhere defined in the Convention, then there is ‘no evidence to support any suggestion that the Local Plan will result in such actions’, i.e. actions that might restrict the ‘rights and freedoms of the national minority’. Although, if that national minority cannot be defined, then it’s unclear why Cornwall Council is so confident its rights are not being restricted.
Instead, the Council claims the Local Plan meets ‘the needs of everyone’, that is Cornish and non-Cornish alike. The Council then somewhat bizarrely implies that, by demanding their rights are protected, the Cornish are in danger of infringing Article 20 of the Framework Charter by not respecting ‘national [sic] legislation and the rights of others, in particular those of persons belonging to the majority or to other national minorities.’ By introducing this red herring, the Council appears to be prioritising the right of the non-Cornish majority to move to Cornwall irrespective of the effect on the right of the Cornish to maintain, develop and preserve their identity.
Second, Cornwall Council claims that in any case there is no evidence that plans for 47,500 houses in 20 years will alter the proportions of the population. This is not strictly true, as there is some evidence, albeit a generation old. In 1986/87 Cornwall County Council and the old District Councils carried out a household survey. This looked at new private housing developments across Cornwall. It found that over half of the residents in these new estates had moved to Cornwall directly or during the previous decade. All of which makes the claim of Cornwall Council’s Head of Planning Phil Mason, that new housing attracts no in-migration at all, utterly ludicrous. Furthermore, if there’s no evidence then isn’t it Cornwall Council’s duty to commission or encourage some relevant research? (In any case, the claim that there’s no evidence about the Cornish national minority would seem to ignore recent academic work by Kerryn Husk at Plymouth University.)
If Cornwall Council’s assertion that new housing is not being bought by in-migrants were true than we are left with a rather large puzzle. Where the heck is all the new housing going? Even adopting generous assumptions, in order to meet the natural change of the existing resident population (which in the long run is in decline, despite Councillor Hannaford’s unconvincing attempts to argue the reverse), to allow for falling household size, and to house the numbers of those deemed to be in severe housing need as defined by the Council’s own Strategic Housing Market Needs Assessment, we ‘need’ around 13,000 houses over a 20 year period. That’s a maximum. Not 47,500. So who will live in the other 34,500? They can’t all go as second homes or holiday lets, surely?
As the planners well know but don’t care to publicise very explicitly, or even mention unless forced to, the extra housing is being built to meet external demand from those who currently live east of the Tamar but who want to come and share the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’. These are the same in-migrants our chief planning officer assures us aren’t attracted at all by new housing. In the Alice in Wonderland world the Council inhabits, the fact that around three quarters of new housing, at a minimum, goes either directly or indirectly to meet external demand apparently has no bearing at all on the ethic proportions of the population in Cornwall. So the massive social changes we have seen since the 1960s just can’t have happened. We must have dreamt it. Or fallen prey to some figment of our collective imagination.
If the first two arguments weren’t disingenuous enough, Cornwall Council then throws in a third. Significantly for the first time admitting the possibility that the Local Plan might indeed alter the proportion of the population, ‘even if’ it does this still doesn’t impact on Article 16. This conclusion is drawn on the grounds that feeding the process of in-migration and population in this way is not intentional. This is the ‘don’t blame us, we never meant it’ defence. The unintended consequences of the Local Plan in encouraging further in-migration may be crystal clear, but as the Local Plan’s aim is to ‘meet the needs of all sections of the community’ (which should surely more accurately read ‘to meet the needs of communities in Cornwall and members of other communities currently residing outside Cornwall’), then somehow the Framework Charter doesn’t apply to the Council’s Local Plan. This is despite the fact that most unbiased observers would conclude the housing target is bound to result in a further alteration of the proportions of the population in Cornwall, as it has done since the 1960s. This will make it increasingly difficult to maintain, develop and preserve the Cornish identity.
It might have been so different if councillors had shown some political leadership. The Council could have seized the opportunity of the Framework Charter last year and worked up a robust argument for a reduced housing target on the basis of Articles 5 and 16. It could have argued that, following half a century during which Cornwall has done more than its fair share to accommodate the desire of people to leave England, this would provide a much-needed breathing space to allow new communities to assimilate and learn a sense of place. Instead, it wasted its time desperately casting around for reasons to avoid the implications of the Charter for the Protection of National Minorities, while sadly continuing to ignore the rights of the Cornish people.