What did the self-selected and undemocratic mandarins meeting at the ‘South West Growth Summit’ in October actually want? Having spent a tedious few hours wading through the transcription of the proceedings, I have to say the conclusion is ‘nothing earth-shatteringly novel’. An awful lot of badly-expressed and semi-literate waffle was heard. On the other hand, detailed policy prescriptions were few and far between. There was the usual peppering of meaningless managerialist gibberish of course. ‘Going forward’ made its inevitable appearance six times in the course of the morning for instance.
The demand seems to be for more investment in infrastructure and training and more devolution. In short, the speakers want more money to be spent on ‘the region’ and more power to decide where that money should be spent in ‘the region’.
You’d think you ought to define your region first. However, that was something the meeting didn’t waste time on. Speakers avoided the question of why the ‘south west’ and instead regaled their listeners with a set of platitudes. ‘When a region speaks with one voice central government listens’, ‘a unified voice’, ‘ a clear, unified voice’, a ‘more collaborative coherent voice as a region’. Bill Martin, editor of the Western Morning News, summed it up as a ‘more co-operative and more proactive future as a region rather than as a collection of individual authorities, areas, whatever you want to describe us as’.
The rather important question of which region or regions should be speaking with this unified voice was definitely not up for discussion. Should it be Cornwall or devonwall? Perhaps Devon, Dorset & Somerset makes more sense. Or what about the seven-‘county’ South West? The unstated assumption – one that not one person present challenged – was that this had to be a devonwall region, the preferred option of the organisers of the conference, Pennon/South West Water and the Western Morning News. But why? We weren’t told.
The region was taken for granted. As was the necessity for growth. Here another slightly important question was left hanging. How could infinite economic growth be reconciled with environmental protection? A handful of questions about quality of life and conflicts between economic growth and the environment were either met with the soothing mantra of ‘balance’, ignored entirely and quickly passed over, or brutally kicked into touch as unimportant compared with ‘productivity’ (this last another Gradgrind-like contribution from Sajid Javid).
Devolution and investment in infrastructure sound unremarkable. But what do they mean in practice? If we look at the few statements made at the ‘summit’ that went beyond woolly references to ‘skills uplift’, ‘the grid’ or ‘digital revolutions’ we find they boil down to lifestyle and housing. Why is investment in infrastructure needed? ‘To attract and retain more people’.
Since the 1990s the devonwall elite has embraced a lifestyle image of Cornwall and the ‘South West’. This involves fatuous and cringe-inducing comparisons with California, as they conjure up a Kernowfornia, ‘a great place to live’, ‘a fantastic place to bring your families up’, according to Chris Loughlin, Chief Executive Officer at Exeter-based Pennon (and formerly Chief Executive of South West Water). For Chris, it’s all about ‘lifestyle and so forth’. This was echoed by Mark Duddridge, Chair of Cornwall and Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). His aim is to make Cornwall ‘a great place to both do work and live’. He wants ‘an economy that allows more people to be able to live and prosper in our part of the world’.
More people have to be attracted by more housing. Tim Jones, the lugubrious chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council and a career devonwaller, explained that a ‘viable and affordable housing delivery market [sic]’ was needed so as not to ‘choke off inward investors’, adding an obscure sideswipe at those who want to choke off second home ownership in Cornwall. The Chief Executive of Exeter City Council claimed that everywhere she went, there was an ‘appetite to deliver housing’ from local government leaders.
Nowhere more so than in Cornwall it seems. Sadly, speakers from the Cornwall and Scilly LEP were the most forthright in declaring their commitment to housing growth. Sandra Rothwell, Chief Executive of the Cornwall LEP, stated that one of the (only) two ‘opportunities for growth’ in Cornwall was ‘housing’. Meanwhile, Mark Duddridge waxed lyrical about the need for more road, rail and air investment in order to bring more people ‘down here’.
Underlying the rhetoric of digital infrastructural investment and the like therefore, we discover the same old worm-eaten ‘solution’ of the past – provide more housing, purportedly for migrants attracted by lifestyle marketing and keen on going surfing after a day selling to the global market, but in reality for anyone with the cash. It’s a combination of gentrification and endless population growth with no thought given to capacity issues.
When it comes to Cornwall, the devonwall message is merely ‘provide more houses, import more people, cross your fingers and hope’. It’s essentially the same thing we heard from the devonwall elite in the 1980s and 1990s. Housing is always an opportunity; population growth never has any costs, only benefits. It may look that way for the folk in their modernist offices in Exeter or Truro, or the half a million pound house overlooking the estuary, or from the golf course. But then, these are not the people who have to pay the brunt of the costs of transforming Cornwall into an extension of south east England. For the implications for the Cornish of their selfish agenda you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.