On Tuesday Cornwall Council’s leadership got what they’ve been wanting – an ‘overwhelming’ vote by councillors to adopt the Council’s Corporate (so-called Local) Plan. The green light has been now been given to the Plan’s target of a minimum of 52,500 houses in 20 years, thereby increasing the housebuilding rate in Cornwall by 16% over and above its recent levels. Surrounded by a deceptive cloud of references to local needs, and underpinned by dodgy data that have consistently and grossly overestimated population and household projections for Cornwall, the Corporate Plan embeds Cornwall’s status as a developers’ paradise. It projects a build rate that runs, pro rata, 50% higher than that in England and Wales well into the future.
Faced by a choice that was no choice – between developer-led transformation with no Council input and developer-led transformation with the Council’s collaboration – the assembled turkeys did the decent thing and voted for Christmas. Even MK and Ukip signed up, leaving just a few brave mavericks such as Lib Dem Mario Fonk of Gulval and Heamoor, together with Tories Steve Chamberlain and Vivian Hall, to vote against. As their officers beamed on approvingly, most councillors could barely summon up the energy to moan about how constrained they were (by those devils up in London) and how misunderstood they are by the public, poor dears.
Many of those misunderstood councillors were of course the same ones who voted against demanding a Cornish Assembly or the devolution of planning powers to Cornwall when the Council was negotiating its first devolution ‘deal’ with the Tory Government. But then, consistency has never been their strong suit.
One of Ukip’s shrinking band, Steph McWilliam, proclaimed her conversion. She was now ‘educated’ into the need to legitimate the Corporate Plan and hoped others outside the Council chamber would be ‘quicker on the uptake’. For those who stubbornly refuse to understand why their elected representatives have been so ineffective, unorganised and unwilling to work with campaigners outside, ‘re-education’ will plainly be the next step. So if any men in black come knocking at your door be wary.
Cornwall Council’s leadership can finally put its Corporate Plan in place, having wasted several years on pointless ‘consultations’, coincidentally and, some might say, conveniently in the meantime allowing developers to exploit the absence of a strategic plan. Behind the protestations of injured innocence and lack of autonomy we find the same gnarled old People-Led Growth policy that has gripped our policy-makers since the 1980s. This places the aspirations and demands of future residents of Cornwall over and above the needs of existing residents, local communities, the Cornish environment and our Cornish heritage.
What a pity however that apologists for the unsustainable suburbanisation of our land find it so necessary to resort to nonsensical claims to justify their strategy. These amount to deception at best, sheer brazen lies at worst. Take Council Leader John Pollard’s disgracefully disingenuous and complacent words when interviewed on Radio Cornwall on the day the Corporate Plan was nodded through by the automatons (Interview at 5.37pm, 22nd November). He made two statements which inevitably went totally unchallenged by the journalist who was supposedly interviewing him.
First, he claimed that there was a ‘lobby from the developers for over 90,000 houses’, so a minimum 52,500 figure wasn’t that bad at all. Unfortunately for Cllr Pollard, at the Corporate Plan ‘examination’ earlier this year, developers were actually calling for a target range of between 57,000 and 78,000. Not one explicitly called for a figure as high as 90,000. In fact, their mean demand was somewhere between 60,000 and 65,000. Compare that with the vast majority of Cornwall’s parish and town councils which, back in 2011, wanted no more than 38,000 and ask yourself which the 52,500 minimum figure is closest to.
Second, Cllr Pollard claimed that ‘we know that the housing development in Cornwall will only add 0.25% to the built environment’. In 2011, according to the Census, there were 259,346 household spaces in Cornwall. Adding a minimum of 52,500 more in 20 years equates to a 20.24% increase in the housing stock. Yet, according to John Pollard this will result in a miniscule 0.25% extension of the built up area. This outcome is nothing short of miraculous. Except of course that it’s fatuous and illogical nonsense. Unless the plan is to pack all the new household spaces into tower blocks at Lys Kernow. Hmmm, not a bad idea, come to think of it.
We have to understand how these factoids (statements that look like facts but are fictional) are generated. The Council’s planning officers dream up ‘advice’ for Council spokespersons, advice which is then dutifully transmitted to the public, even though the person uttering the purported ‘facts’ doesn’t check them and doesn’t entirely understand them, often in the process delivering a garbled version. No matter. The officers can be confident that journalists don’t possess the wit to question what looks like hard statistical evidence. For example, Cornwall Council’s Planning portfolio holder, Cllr Hannaford, has a long and sad record of repeating apparent ‘facts’ given to her by planning officers, facts which on examination prove to be utterly spurious.
As were Cllr Pollard’s on Tuesday. In reality, painting a picture of a minimum 20% growth in Cornwall’s housing stock and associated in-migration as ‘not an imposing number’ betrays a stunningly complacent and philistine attitude. As the countryside next to our towns and villages becomes home to an infestation of diggers, traffic cones and signs breathlessly announcing the next ‘exciting’ urban extension, while any remaining wildlife is perfunctorily ordered to pack up and move out, people are also being told not to worry by the avuncular Cllr Pollard. There’s plenty of fields where those came from.
Yet what unimaginative robots such as Pollard fail to understand is that it’s precisely those landscapes familiar to us, the fields, lanes, woods and hedgerows next to our towns and villages, the places we knew as children, that have meaning for us. Trashing those fields feels like our very memories are being ripped up and thrown away. And for what?
Their ready resort to false statistics masks the real intent of the Corporate Plan, which is to reinvigorate the failed policy of People-Led Growth. And the reason for that can be seen in the two debates at Tuesday’s Council meeting. Although technically separate issues, the Council’s budget and its Corporate Plan are inextricably intertwined.
As central government removes the revenue support grant over the next four years, local authorities will become wholly dependent on council tax, business rates and other income for their finances. In that context, the buoyant demand to build houses in Cornwall is seen by the Council’s leadership not as a problem at all but as an ‘arc of opportunity’. They want more houses. And lots of them. More houses, whether occupied or not, bring more council tax. More people will lead to more businesses and then more business rates. And that’s as far as their feeble ‘vision’ goes.
The Corporate Plan embeds the ‘growth’ that the Council’s Cabinet views as its only means of salvation. However, instead of coming clean and admitting openly that this is their intention, they hide behind weasel words. False claims are made that ‘local needs are uppermost’ (Cllr Pollard), even though the only ‘local needs’ that are ‘uppermost’ are the Council’s finances. Doubletalk is dribbled out. According to Cllr Hannaford at the Council’s meeting, its Corporate Plan will mean the Council can now ‘create sustainable, viable communities and not just housing estates’, ‘safeguard our precious environment’ and ‘begin to lead development rather than be led by it’. Now, these truly would be miraculous outcomes.
As would the emergence of a properly organised campaign of resistance against the Council’s unsustainable plans to transform Cornwall into a replica of south east England. But we can always live in hope. We may have lost a battle but the war can still be won.