On 19th May a group of men and women met at Newquay, intent on one thing. The assembled planning agents were keen to revise Cornwall Council’s already high ‘target’ of building 47,500 houses in just two decades. They were starting from the position that this number was insufficient to meet ‘needs’ and must be increased by as much as 50%. The occasion was the ‘examination’ of Cornwall’s Local Plan, held in front of a planning inspector. The planning agents and the developers and landlords represented at the meeting were pushing at an open door as the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework now prioritises growth at virtually any cost, redefining it as ‘sustainable development’. A series of local authorities upcountry have to their dismay watched as planning inspectors pushed up their housing targets. This is almost certain to happen in the case of Cornwall Council’s Local Plan, especially as the Council itself has refused to make a case based on Cornwall’s unique role as the home of one of the UK’s national minorities, or even argue for parity of treatment for Cornwall and its people after half a century during which the population of Cornwall grew by almost 60% while that of England expanded by 20% and Wales by 15%.
What would the desires of the assorted developers’, landlords and housebuilders gathered at Newquay mean in practice? If the housing target is expanded to 65,000 or more then it will mean a massive increase even on the current unsustainable rate of housebuilding in Cornwall. (Housing completions ran at a long-term average of 2,445 from 2001 to 2014, equivalent to 48,900 over a 20 year period.) It would mean a continuation of the mass in-migration, two thirds from the south east of England, that Cornish communities have had to cope with since the 1960s. It means the construction of not the equivalent of just five brand-new Truros in a short 20 years, but seven or eight new Truros in that period. More ominously, it locks Cornwall into a never-ending spiral of population growth. This is adding fuel to the flames rather than trying to bring them under control. It speeds up the day when we have a million people in Cornwall competing for housing, jobs, services, land and space in an increasingly overcrowded, congested, de-Cornishized Cornwall. At the rates of growth being proposed this will be achieved well before the end of this century, an almost three-fold leap from the 342,000 of 1961.
The Cornish, who we are told are now recognised as one of the indigenous national minorities of the UK, would greatly benefit from a breathing space in order to assimilate the new population and protect our fragile heritage, both in the built environmental and cultural sense. This would allow us to recover sufficient confidence to assert our right to control our own destiny. But that aspiration would entail controlling the freedom of upcountry developers and local landlords to go on profiting from the great sale of Cornwall. If our heritage and their profits are weighed in the balance, it’s the profits that’ll come out on top.
In any case, the Cornish heritage or its identity was the last thing on the minds of the (couple of) ladies and the gentlemen present at Newquay. Their aim was not just to carry on with an unsustainably destructive rate of growth but to ramp it up to hitherto unseen levels. Just as fossil fuel companies go on blindly seeking more carbon-rich reserves of oil and gas to burn, thus hurling the planet into unpredictable consequences as it steadily heats up, merely in order to go on making squillions in profits, so planning agents and those they represent are hell bent on sacrificing the Cornwall we know to the narrow interests of their own pockets.
Not that they will ever admit this openly. Their strategy is instead to convince us that what’s good for them is good for the rest of us. Furthermore, if we have the temerity to challenge their position, it will bring disaster on our heads. Or that’s what they and their supporters tell us. If we want to solve the problem of providing sufficient ‘affordable’ housing we have to let them build thousands more unaffordable (for locals) houses which are then sold on to upcountry buyers. More shockingly, they get away with this nonsense. We can hardly expect a supine local press, dependent on estate agents’ advertising, to devote much critical thought or investigative journalism to the issue. But sadly, most Cornwall councillors and London-orientated politicians have for some time been uncritically swallowing and then regurgitating their banal justification for mass housebuilding. This is despite the plentiful evidence of the past half century. In that period, building thousands of houses at a rate considerably faster than most other parts of the UK seems to have perversely resulted in even more difficulties for local people when they try to access decent housing.
To that disingenuous argument, the developers and their lackeys were adding more the other day at Newquay. Having colluded with their estate agent chums and sold off a large chunk of the Cornish housing stock as second homes, they then have the brazen cheek to suggest this means more housing must be built to allow for this sell-off. Or they invoke the magic talisman of ‘market signals’. Only the developers seem to possess the necessary skills to see that these unerringly point to the need for a massive uplift in housing. This is odd to say the least, as those same market signals do not seem to have halted the recent downturn in house completions in Cornwall, from 2,375 in 2011/12 to 2,040 in 2013/14. This may be good news for the Cornish environment in the short run, but thousands of planning permissions that have been granted since 2010 sit in the developers’ land banks as the construction companies wait for prices to rise. The practice of land-banking of course gives the lie to the hoary myth peddled by developers and Tory politicians that giving more planning permissions will automatically increase supply which then reduces prices. It doesn’t for one simple reason. Developers and builders do not want prices to fall; quite the opposite as they depend on prices being high enough to facilitate healthy profit margins. Their raison d’etre is not to solve our affordability problems; it’s to make a profit. Everything else is an illusion.
That illusion was much in evidence at Newquay. Despite a total lack of opposition to their plans, the developers’ lobby was so desperate to push the housing target much higher in order to make it even easier to get planning permission that they paid for QC’s to aggressively argue their case for them and bludgeon the planning inspector into submission, admittedly not a difficult task. But who were the men and women who were so kind as to decide our future for us? In my next blog I’ll look a bit more closely at who’s deciding the future of Cornwall on our behalf.