On the day when the Local Plan examination discussed Cornwall Council’s housing target, 15 men and two women sat around a table at the Atlantic Hotel, Newquay. Their task was not a difficult one. They were in the main planning agents setting out to convince a planning inspector that the target of 47,500 houses, the equivalent of building more than five more Truros in just two decades, was a ridiculously low figure. They rolled out three main reasons to push the number up. First, there’s Cornwall’s bloated (and strangely still not updated) Homechoice Register, on which all those registered are assumed to be currently living in cardboard boxes or other temporary accommodation and need extra houses. Second, there’s the growing number of second homes. And third, we mustn’t forget those elusive market signals that invariably signal more houses rather than fewer. The planning agents present had it easy. It’s a simple matter to churn out the same tired old ‘arguments’ already produced by Cornwall Council’s planners over the years and then echo them smugly back at them. To make it even easier, the developers and landlords behind them had coughed up the cash for two or three barristers to bully and hector the inspector.
So who comprised this group of fairly anonymous people who are allowed to decide our fate for us in backrooms at iconic Victorian grand hotels? Who were the planning agents present, where did they come from and who were they representing?
- We can start with the Home [sic] Builders Federation, who’d dispatched down to Cornwall their strategic planner for London and the South, James Stevens. James is a serial planning examination attender based in London. In 2009 he wrote a forceful, some might say aggressive, letter to the former Carrick District Council demanding that ‘key stakeholders should be involved at the outset’ in the Council’s Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment. In this world ‘key stakeholders’ mean those who profit from building over the countryside rather than the communities who grew up and live in that countryside. The new Cornwall Council duly and dutifully took notice and a whole gaggle of developers were good enough to give up their time and help them write their SHLAA.
- Persimmon Homes (whose profits jumped in 2014 by 44% to £475 million, on a rise in housing completions of only 17%) was the only developer representing themselves directly. Alex Anderson of their Exeter office was formerly with the Pegasus group and before then was planning officer at Mid-Bedfordshire District Council. All the other developers and landlords seeking to enhance their income by transforming Cornwall into a developers’ paradise and thereby speeding up the implicit race to increase Cornwall’s population to a million by the end of the century, had paid planning agents to represent them. Let’s see who they were …
- Des Dunlop, Managing Director of D2 Planning based at Westbury, near Bristol, was putting the case for the North East Helston Partnership. Apart from a local farmer, it’s not exactly clear who comprises this group. But when their plans for 340 houses to the north east of Helston were not supported by Helston Town Council earlier this year, they reportedly felt it was ‘a missed opportunity’ and a ‘disappointment to the 650 families in housing need in the area’, whose interests had been of course uppermost in their minds. Indeed, they tell us there is ‘an urgent need for development … to provide the new homes and facilities that Helston so badly needs’. You’d think from this that Helston hadn’t seen a JCB since the 19th century. Quite the contrary, as the town’s population has more than doubled over the past 50 years, making it one of the fastest growing places in Cornwall. And yet it still badly needs facilities?
- Elliot Jones of Boyer Planning had travelled from Cardiff to represent another group of landowners – the North and Middle Pill Landowners of Saltash. Elliot has worked for a number of other planning agencies, including WYG and Nathaniel Lichfield. Saltash is another of those towns which apparently has a great ‘need’ for housing even though it’s still suffering indigestion from the new housing stuffed around it over the past four decades. In their earlier representation to the Council however, the landowners felt the proposed target involved ‘low housing numbers’.
- The megabuilder Taylor Wimpey and Merlion Capital Corporation of Winchester had employed Savills, who sent their Bristol-based Director of Planning, Nick Matthews, all the way to Newquay to do the job. Working then for Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey, Nick had been ‘disappointed’ in 2012 when Bristol City Council set their Community Infrastructure Levy at a level the developers and Nick felt was too high. Not that this appears to have affected Taylor Wimpey, which saw its share price jump when the Tories were re-elected. This follows a 70% rise in its share price in 2014, together with a profit margin of 18.5%. Taylor Wimpey has interests at Lanson, St Austell, Perranporth, Newquay (don’t they all), Truro, Mabe, Falmouth and Wadebridge. Meanwhile, Merlion Capital, which owns land to the west of Camborne, is sure ‘our proposal [to build] will provide local families with high quality affordable housing’. Unaccountably, it fails to mention the high quality unaffordable housing it will also provide for non-local families. When criticising the Local Plan’s ‘insufficient’, ‘unsupported’ and ‘unsound’ plans in 2013/14, Nick was sure there was still a ‘significant under-supply of housing’.
- While Nick Matthews didn’t propose an alternative housing target, most planning agents have been less reticent. Paul Rogers is Technical Director at Terence O’Rourke (London), based in Bournemouth. Making a case for Eco-Bos during the representations on the Local Plan, he’d favoured an increase to 57,000. Terence O’Rourke was commended in 2011 by the Royal Town Planning Institute (‘mediation of space, making of place’) for its ‘vision’ for the ‘multi-nucleated eco-town’. This ‘scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ incestuous doling out of an award, sponsored by planning agents WYG Planning and Design, was then precursor of inaction for four years as the ‘multi-nucleated eco-town’ plans quietly gathered dust. Eco-Bos, a partnership of the Eden Project, Imerys and Swiss-Egyptian developers of luxury bolt-holes Orascom, working closely with Cornwall Council, have however unfortunately not packed up and gone away. They’re now back with a vengeance and are attempting to mediate space and begin the process of making the clay country into another place.
- Barton Willmore’s HQ is at Reading and its nearest offices are again Bristol and Cardiff. Zoe Aubrey is a planning associate at the latter office and formerly worked for DTZ, a ‘global property real estate service company’. Before that she did a nine month stint as assistant planner at Cardiff City Council. She was representing Merriman Ltd of Leicester, which ominously promises ‘innovative and comprehensive development solutions’. Barton Willmore had previously put forward Merriman’s case for a housing target of between 48,000 and 67,000 houses. Much more comprehensive.
- Arwel Owen is another graduate of Cardiff University’s planning department and a senior associate at David Lock Associates (Milton Keynes). He was representing Hallam Land Management, a Sheffield based company which is the land and planning arm of the Henry Boot Group, which made £9.2 million profits in 2014 on a turnover of £88 million in its construction activities. Henry Boot was lining up with Exeter based INOX to dump even more housing and a supermarket at West Langarth, before this project was queered by Cornwall Council’s willingness to give permission for another couple of supermarkets nearer Truro. Arwel had previously argued the Council’s housing target was ‘unsound’ as it was ‘contrary to the published advice of the Council’s officers’, which neatly identifies where councillors should look for a fifth column. For Arwel, a ‘more realistic’ target would be a curiously exact 60,476 houses. Why not 60,477?
- It’s not just upcountry developers who are circling Cornwall avidly, drooling in anticipation. We have our own home-grown predators sniffing at the decaying carcass of Cornishness. Two such are the Enys Estate at Penryn and the Tregothnan Estate, here represented by Steve Briggs, a Taunton-based partner and Head of Panning at Smiths Gore. Steve was Head of Community Planning at Torridge District Council and before that an Area Planning Manager at South Somerset District Council. In his earlier representation on behalf of the Enys Estate he’d implied that up to 65,000 houses would be a more appropriate target. Tregothnan Estate, always keen to publicise its tea ‘grown in England’ [sic], has been supported by benefits from the Regional Growth Fund. Oddly, the only part of Cornwall where the population is now lower than it was in 1961 comprises the rural parishes around Tregothnan at St Michael in Penkivel. So we can expect none of those 65,000 houses will appear anywhere near there to disturb its sylvan tranquillity.
- Megan Rossiter, a Principal Planner at Tetlow King‘s Bristol office, represented the South West HARP Planning Consortium, which brings together housing associations. The housing associations want Cornwall’s housing target raised to between 60,000 and 70,000 and willingly play a role as Trojan Horse for the developers.
- Mike Harris of Strick Treglown at Bristol was representing another local landowner – the Coode Estate based at Lanhydrock, which owns land at Launceston as well as in mid-Cornwall. In its previous representation, Stride Treglown had argued for between 60,000 and 70,000 houses. Mike also made the case for Chaddlewood Investments Ltd, a company seemingly registered in Dublin that wants to build across the by-pass to the east of Wadebridge into valued countryside.
- Stephen Harris is a director of Emery Planning Partnership. Although found a fair distance from Cornwall at Macclesfield, this company apparently knows that Cornwall ‘needs’ 66,000 houses, not 47,500. Stephen was representing Wainhomes. One wonders why they bothered when they already have the ear of planning officers, some councillors and the Conservative Party.
- Commercial Estates Group of London, Crinnis Beach Second Home City and the Broadmoor Farm suburb at Saltash, had previously made its views plain. The Council’s target was ‘deeply flawed’, ‘not robust’ and based on ‘no reliable evidence’. Instead, they favoured a range from 54,500 to 81,000 houses. CEG’s self-interested plea was penned by Nick Thompson of Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners. Nick is Senior Director in the London office and a part of the ‘collaborative and talent driven culture’ of the company which is now offering those talents to reshape Cornwall for us. Nice.
- Finally, we arrive at Origin3, yet another planning agency based at Bristol. Their founder Jonathan Orton was at Newquay. Jonathan formerly worked for Cheshire County Council and the Maltese planning authority before setting up the company. He was acting on behalf of Jersey-based LXB Properties (Willow Green and Higher Newham at Truro), Comparo of Cirencester, who own land and property at Holywell Bay and Watergate Bay, and Terrace Hill, which wanted to build hundreds of houses at Gulval while ‘caring passionately’ and ‘crafting places’ for the long-term. Terrace Hill took over Urban and Civic plc of London a year ago and now encompasses Catesby Property Group of Warwick. They were the developers behind Binhamy at Bude, later sold on to Bovis Homes. If that lot wasn’t enough, Jonathan was also representing Taylor Wimpey’s Wadebridge scheme.
- Origin3 had earlier found Cornwall Council’s Local Plan to be, what a surprise, ‘wholly inadequate’ and ‘unsound’. In a bizarre argument, they concluded that 37,723 houses were needed just to meet those waiting for affordable housing. In order to deliver this amount there would have to be an ‘increased provision of market housing’. But, even at an affordability ratio of 40%, unanimously regarded by developers as far too high, this would mean building 94,000 houses, not 47,500.
The final unreal absurdity, doubling even the present unsustainable rate, is likely to have found a sympathetic ear in the Government’s planning inspector, Simon Emerson. This is the man who forced Bath and North East Somerset to build more houses in 2012/13 by backing developers’ concerns. It took him 30 months to do so however. He’s already postponed the rest of Cornwall Council’s examination to January 2016. This conveniently gives speculative developers plenty of opportunity to bang in their planning applications in the absence of a strategic plan, thus increasing their likelihood of success.
Before leaving this squalid business, let’s note two things.
First, the revolving door between planning agents and local authorities explains their shared culture.
Second, not one of those who were deciding the fate of Cornwall and Cornish communities seem to have any detectable link to Cornwall, let alone be of Cornish origin.