You really have to wonder about people like John Pollard, the Leader of Cornwall Council, who has submitted a long justification for the Council’s policies to the West Briton after last week’s advert by housing campaigners. People like this will do anything to shelter in the comfortable embrace of the myths they’re cocooned in rather than face the facts.
John refuses to respond to the evidence that shows Cornwall is experiencing a faster rate of residential building growth than anywhere in England and Wales. John shuts his eyes to the fact that the built-up area of Cornwall is expanding more quickly than most, if not all, of the other places in the UK. John ignores the fact that since the 1960s Cornwall’s population has grown at three times the speed of that of England.
Instead, he busily spins his own narrative. This is one designed to deceive and confuse the people of Cornwall about the Council’s role in the process through which Cornwall has become a developers’ paradise. This is a narrative where the Council, far from wanting lots of unnecessary open market housing, is forced to plan for so many by an evil central government. The squeals ring out from Truro: it’s not our fault; the poor old Council is a victim of bullying.
And yet this is also a narrative where it’s never openly admitted that the vast majority of the houses being built will end up going to meet demand from those moving to Cornwall. Instead, we are told that ‘many’ (but not how many) are ‘needed for people here and for their children and grandchildren’. This is a narrative where it isn’t John Pollard who’s burying his head in the sand and has no Plan B other than continuing the current disastrous growth project. Not at all; in fact it’s those naughty people campaigning for a sustainable Cornwall.
First, he castigates campaigners for ‘resisting change’, ‘change’ apparently being a new term for upcountry developers’ profits. Then, to rub salt into the wound, he calls on campaigners to ‘work with [the Council] so we can, together, achieve the best we can for Cornwall’.
Such honeyed words. Such a hollow joke. Over the past four years the Council has consistently refused to acknowledge the arguments produced for a lower housing target, let alone engage constructively with them. One example might suffice.
In 2012 I wrote to Mark Kaczmarek, then Portfolio Holder for Planning, to point out that the build rate in Cornwall was running 82% higher than England in relation to our population. The response I got from the planners was that comparing Cornwall with England (or Wales for that matter) was not a ‘robust method’. They told me some local authorities had higher rates of housebuilding to population; some had lower rates. As so often, this turned out to be a complete fabrication unsupported by a shred of evidence. In fact, very, very few local authorities have lower rates than Cornwall; the only one I’ve found is Milton Keynes. Moreover, NO (1973 borders) English or Welsh county has a lower rate.
If the planners had really wanted to work with campaigners then they could easily have responded positively by saying how interesting that finding was. They could have done some further work on the data, using their resources to construct a ‘robust’ argument for fairer treatment using these facts. They could have invited me and others to work with them to prepare that ‘robust’ argument for a lower housing target. They didn’t. Which is strange as normally one would want to enter a negotiation with central government by presenting the lowest figure possible and arguing from there. Or at least one would if the Council had genuinely wanted a lower target. But it didn’t.
Far from it. Let’s look again at the Council’s Housing Growth Discussion Paper of July 2012, towards the beginning of this process. Bluntly rejecting the existing growth rate (already higher than the vast majority of England and Wales) of 42,000 houses every 20 years, the planners stated that 50,000 was ‘more indicative of future deliverability’. They concluded that on demographic grounds ‘a range of between 45,000 and 63,000 new homes are required’. On economic grounds ‘a range of between 46,000 and 99,000 homes are required’. Furthermore, their then Market Needs Assessment was proposing 64,000 and in any case ‘there is capacity to accommodate at least 105,000 new homes in Cornwall’.
It’s clear that, from the start, Cornwall Council’s planners were keen to ramp up the existing growth rate and were utterly complacent about the costs of this strategy. Councillors on the Planning Policy Advisory Panel (since binned) had proposed 40,000 in an attempt to halt the slide towards ever higher numbers. ‘After discussion’, presumably with those same officers so keen on 50-60,000 houses, the Portfolio Holder and the Cabinet proposed an ‘initial’ target of 48,000. This was then forced onto a sufficient number of gullible councillors, who hadn’t the time, inclination or ability to assess their arguments critically.
The truth is that Cornwall Council’s planners, who described 48,000 as ‘towards the lower part of the range’, always wanted a much higher target. So it’s hardly a coincidence that they’ve ‘looked again at the evidence and believe’ the target should now be a minimum of 52,500. They didn’t need to ‘look at the evidence’. They’d already creatively created the evidence back in 2011/12. This then, wittingly or unwittingly, fed into the arguments of the developers and their planning agents. It meant that a ‘robust argument’ for a lower target and a breathing space for Cornish communities was never, ever on the cards.
The more mundane and sordid truth is that, far from being forced to impose a higher housing target against their wishes, the Council’s planning officers have been complicit in the process from the very beginning. They’ve been actively pushing an already unsustainable and unfair rate of housing and population growth in Cornwall to even higher levels.The failure has been a political one, the failure of councillors like John Pollard to investigate the way their planning department has been captured by the developers’ lobby, restore control over their planning officers and tell them to prepare a case for a lower housing target.
The only way the Council will be able to ‘work with’ campaigners is if a new set of councillors is voted into place in May 2017, a set that can take control of this drift and has the vision to chart a new and genuinely sustainable future for Cornwall and its people.