This is traditionally the time when every politician, journalist and blogger thinks they have the God-given right to impose their dyspeptic thoughts on innocent bystanders. Of course, I’m no exception. So I thought I’d better join in and inflict my own self-opinionated drivel on the world. In the process I might as well provide links back to some of the more sardonic and/or cynical blogs that have appeared on this site over the past year, blogs that you no doubt meant to read but might have inadvertedly overlooked.
So wozzon then? The future can seem grim. At the state-level the English left obsesses about Jeremy Corbyn and reverts to sepia-tinged nostalgia about the 1940s or, for others, the 1970s. Meanwhile, the Tories indulge in their own post-Brexit nostalgia, trying to recreate the 1950s while simultaneously allowing corporate interests to guzzle themselves sick at the public trough. The populist right continues to be haunted by immigration and Islam. And, strangest of all, people are unaccountably thinking of voting Lib Dem again. However, in the graveyard of grand narratives, small actions may take on heightened significance. In other words, what’s going on over to Talskiddy?
Here in Cornwall, we’re told we now have a plan. Not just any old plan either; this is the ‘Local Plan’. Except that it’s not. In these post-truth days when Orwellian doublespeak has become the new norm, the Local Plan is anything but ‘local’. It’s been pushed through by Cornwall Council, but with threats from the Government and diktats from its planning inspector.
Back in March, avuncular Council Leader John Pollard said “I do not believe Cornwall is a developer’s paradise”. John really should get out more, or visit Specsavers, as he appears to have a worrying peripheral vision problem when it comes to spotting the massive housing projects that are sprouting on the edge of every Cornish town. New settlements transform local landscapes into sprawling suburban wastelands. Cornwall Council’s planners churn out soundbites about ‘local need’. Yet they know full well that 80-90% of the extra housing is to meet (and stimulate) demand for second ‘homes’ and the desire, reinforced by media, estate agents and developers, of people currently living outside Cornwall to buy up their mythical ‘Cornwall lifestyle’.
As developers and landlords enjoy the lucrative financial benefits of this building bonanza, local communities are left to pay the costs – the pressures on a creaking infrastructure, growing congestion, air pollution, noise, the loss of our heritage and those qualities that combine to make Cornwall a special place.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious, but this frenzy of frantic building, while leading to excess profits for the big upcountry developers, isn’t beginning to solve the underlying problems. The lack of genuinely affordable housing gets worse by the week as central government cynically redefines ‘affordable’ to include housing that’s unaffordable and quietly abolishes social housing altogether. Meanwhile, Cornwall Council drags its feet over revising its housing register, one of the last local authorities to do so. The conveniently inflated figures are then seized on by developers to justify housing ‘developments’ that will do little to reduce the number on the list.
To ensure this outcome the Tory/Lib Dem Government imposed the National Planning Policy Framework on us in 2012. In the words of one academic observer, this has ‘radically skewed the decision-making process’ towards private-sector developers. The latter, with the help of the appeals procedure and the right to re-submit failed applications as many times as they like, can now override community objections. The result is enfeebled democratic control and growing issues of injustice as community input is ignored. Developers wheel out repetitive and ‘openly self-serving interpretations of the public good with minimal concern for local communities and other sustainability and justice issues’.
Not according to Cornwall Council though. Amazingly, its leading clique concludes that the Local Plan will put an end to ‘speculative development’. Stable doors have slammed shut yet bolting horses are apparently running amok in the corridors of Lys Kernow. Someone really should tell them; it’s too late. Far from ending it, the Local Plan encourages speculative ‘development’ as it locks us into a build rate 40% higher than in England and a never-ending spiral of housing and population growth. No-one at County Hall knows how to work the brakes, or even where the brakes can be found.
In fact the Council is thoroughly wedded to excessive housing and population growth in order to ‘drive’ the economy. Of course, it also has the handy side-effect of boosting Council Tax receipts and money from the New Homes Bonus at a time of severe cutbacks in local government funding. The current Chief Executive has replaced a predecessor’s ‘graph of doom’ with an ‘arc of opportunity’. A graduate of the neo-liberal privatisation nightmare that was Barnet Council, she sees even higher population growth as Cornwall’s ‘opportunity’, ‘Cornwall’ in this context clearly meaning Cornwall Council.
As all this unfolds, our elected representatives, either at Truro or Westminster, share a collective paralysis. Councillors moan that their hands are tied by central government as they sit on them. Yet they did little to challenge the bizarrely flawed data on the basis of which housing targets were cooked up. Very few of them went out of their way to build bridges to the many campaign groups that have sprung up over the past few years. Not that many tried to work with others outside the Council to build more sustainable policy alternatives. There has been little attempt to exert control over planning officers who generate arguments for an unnecessarily high rate of housing growth, arguments that are then eagerly recycled back to them by developers. There has been no serious questioning of Cornwall Council’s narrow ‘vision’ of ‘more, more, always more’, or its commitment to selling Cornwall as a lifestyle destination.
But what about 2017? In May all 123 Cornwall councillors are up for re-election. It’s time to ask them what they think about what’s going on around them. It’s also time to tell them and all the others standing for election some home truths. We’ve had enough. We want a change in direction. We want to see some energy and commitment from our representatives. If they can’t give us that then at least be honest and explain why they believe suburbanisation and the associated rapid population growth is so good for Cornwall.
Many are saddened, depressed and angered at what they see happening to our towns and villages, to Cornwall and to its countryside. It’s time to turn that anger and despair into hope. It’s time to use the weapon of democracy to call on those who are supposed to represent us to show some passion and put people before profits, communities before developers, and Cornwall before centralist policies.