When a Strategic Planning Committee meeting at Cornwall Council ended up granting permission for two massive housing schemes, involving almost 1,000 houses and the destruction of a large swathe of countryside west of Truro, there was an angry outcry. The social media in particular was alive with the howl of protest. Over 50,000 people checked into the It’s Our Cornwall facebook page in just 24 hours. There was talk of a demonstration, but then, as so often happens, the energy dissipated, the anger melted away and people resorted to the more familiar cynicism and grumbling.
This contrasts with the emergence of several active campaigning groups at the local level. Over the past year or two we’ve seen effective and innovative campaigns mounted at Penryn, Falmouth, Gulval and Lelant for example. Campaigners’ enthusiasm has led to wide support for the campaign against the destruction of trees at Treloyhan Manor, St Ives, or Cornwall Council and Eco-Bos’s plans for an ‘eco-town’ north of St Austell. These specific campaigns join more established groups fighting against over-development at Camborne, St Austell and in Truro. Other local campaigns have flowered and then faded as the battle has been won or, more usually, lost. Although it’s noticeable that those towns with the highest recent population growth and often the plans for the biggest future growth – Helston, Newquay, Bodmin, Lanson, Saltash for example – seem to be the quietest in terms of locally based campaigning groups.
But there’s a missing piece to this jigsaw of protest. There’s no effective organisation at a pan-Cornish level and no clear consensus about the best strategy to adopt at that level. Some mount legal challenges. The almost £15,000 raised from nearly 600 people in just a month to finance a judicial review of the Council’s decision to award planning permission at Treloyhan ought to give at least some pause for thought in the corridors of ‘power’ at Lys Kernow/County Hall. Other groups such as Cornwall for Change (C4C) are concentrating on lobbying councillors, planners and MPs. A vaguely titled wider ‘Alliance’ has recently appeared but there is little information about it or its intentions.
These tactics all have their place. However, what’s missing is a wider political strategy. Do we need a political organisation that can bring together disparate local campaigns and mount a strategic challenge at the Cornwall level? Where is the organisation that can act as a beacon of hope for an alternative, better, more rational and genuinely sustainable future for Cornwall? Where is the body that can put the fear of God into the existing crew manning the good ship SS Kernow as it drifts inexorably towards the rocks? Until a political alternative can be built which focuses on the issue of developer-led planning we have little hope of avoiding the oncoming shipwreck.
The next Cornwall Council elections come around in 2017. Already we are hearing calls to vote the present Council out. It’s all very well saying that we should vote against present incumbents who have, collectively, dismally failed to protect Cornwall from the voracious ravages of the developers and their allies. But who do we vote for?
All the Westminster parties are signed up to neoliberal developer-led growth and are unwilling to tackle the fundamental problem of market-led housing delivery. The Conservatives on Cornwall Council are like chameleons. When in charge they called for even more housing and prided themselves on being a ‘can-do’ council, gleefully pushing up the housing and population growth rate. Then, they did a massive u-turn and called for a reduced housing target – to 33,000 from 47,500. If that isn’t enough to leave us a little dizzy, the nausea mounts when we consider what their bosses up in London are up to. For example, the Tory Government’s inspector seems determined to push the housing target up, not down, to 53,000 or more. And last week, the Government proposed making it even easier to build, especially on so-called ‘brownfield’ land. However, a lot of our ‘brownfield’ land in Cornwall was last ‘developed’ more than a century ago. As the Council itself concludes, brownfield sites ‘can often be more biologically diverse, or can provide a niche habitat for rare species’ (CC, Sustainability Appraisal of Local Plan, p.48). In Cornwall, simplistic blanket calls to prioritise ‘brownfield’ land are seriously misplaced and risk doing more environmental harm than building on green fields that are home to industrialised agriculture but not a lot of wildlife.
Meanwhile, a handful of Lib Dem MPs (remember them?) and councillors in the west have a good record of opposing the housing growth agenda. Yet others in north Cornwall and elsewhere have been avid supporters of a high population growth strategy. Moreover, their party was part of the coalition that produced the presumption in favour of any and every ‘development’ in the current ‘national’ planning framework. On Cornwall Council, Liberal Democrats complain a lot about having their hands tied by government but offer no credible opposition to developer-led policies. Indeed, their current ‘Case for Cornwall’ lauds the former Conservative administration’s plans for a massive rise in housebuilding and relishes the prospect of piloting ‘deregulation’ schemes that will make it even easier for developers. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is unable to contemplate the radical reforms to market-led housing delivery needed to provide decent housing for all. One of their candidates at this year’s General Election was even reported as telling a protestor that ‘there’s plenty of room in Cornwall’.
MK and the Greens on the left and Ukip on the right express more reservations about mass housebuilding in Cornwall but they have other agendas which make them unpalatable to different sections of the electorate (and Ukip is as wedded to neoliberalism as are Tories, Labour and Lib Dems). In addition, it’s no good voting on principle for Independents either. Independents have propped up the last two Cornwall Council administrations and have to take a large share of responsibility for the current mess.
The answer just could be staring us in the face if only we look east beyond the Tamar for some ideas and inspiration. There we find two templates for political action. Both offer ideas for a similar movement in Cornwall that could begin to fill the political vacuum around the long-term future of Cornwall.