After launching the Charter for Cornwall campaign we were asked by one sceptic what exactly it was that we wanted.
The question niggled. How do we sum up the big issue facing Cornwall in a sentence or two? We’re quite good at describing what we don’t want but perhaps not so good at saying what we do want. Here I’m using ‘Cornish crisis’ as a temporary shorthand for the social and physical transformation of Cornwall that we’ve seen over the past half century.
Many people are worried, angry, depressed at what they see around them every day, as Cornwall Council rides the juggernaut of ‘growth’ but seems none too certain about the destination. Meanwhile, Cornwall’s environment and its heritage appear to be being sacrificed to the highest bidder, most of them, although not all, found beyond the Tamar.
More and more complain about the pressure on infrastructure and health services, the traffic jams and the crowds. The combination of the Government’s ideologically-driven austerity cuts and the mindless pursuit of growth seems to be producing meltdown in the public sphere.
Many of us focus on the level of housing targets and building proposals, seeking a slowdown or even halt in building, a breathing space for Cornish communities to regain their bearings and restore their spirit. Being anti-‘development’ or anti-population growth is to be expected, given the relatively excessive levels of both that Cornwall has experienced since the 1960s.
Others are unhappy about the current policy drift at County Hall/Lys Kernow. Councillors seem unwilling or unable to focus on the big issue, think beyond the short-term or challenge the growth mantra parroted by the leadership.
Yet all this can be airily dismissed as at best preservationist, at worst backward, a Canute-like refusal of inevitable ‘progress’. (Let’s forget for the moment objections to equating ‘progress’ with capital accumulation and profits for developers, housebuilders and landlords.) Being against ‘development’ is too negative, too easy a target for those who support, either explicitly or implicitly, more housing and population growth. Moreover, it omits the desire for a different, better path.
We could describe the big issue facing Cornwall as housing delivery and the planning system, but that’s much too boring. Journalists wouldn’t get out of bed to cover that, while planners and developers collude in mystifying the planning process, larding it with large amounts of technical jargon.
Cornish nationalists might call it colonisation and the re-settlement of the native population; environmentalists might focus on the danger to the remaining wildlife or the need to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty. Both are too partial and unlikely to attract support beyond their respective constituencies.
So what are our core concepts? It seems to me that those who focus on the Cornish crisis have two dimensions to their argument. One is reactive and the other more pro-active. First, we’re fed up with the undemocratic transformation of our land in the interests mainly of external agents and central policies. To use a familiar and fashionable phrase, we want to take (back) control, even though we might not be sure how, or what to do do with it when we have it.
But there’s a less often articulated pro-active side to our demands. This revolves around balance, quality of life, scale and respect. We want to restore a balance between human needs and our environment, which in recent years has become skewed wildly, to the detriment of the environment. We want more emphasis on quality of life issues rather than just numbers. Not just ‘growth’, building and GVA but real development and happiness. Not targets but guaranteeing basic needs. Not profits but people and communities. Balance goes hand in hand with quality of life and could be said to make up the environmentalist strand of our demands.
Then we have scale. Things seem no longer to be in scale. Cornwall used to be a small-scale society of modest-sized towns and villages, a dispersed settlement structure and a relatively egalitarian society. Now the fashion is for massive top-down projects re-engineering the landscapes in and around our towns. The Cornish heritage is no longer respected, as anyplace housing casually laps up against icons of our history.
As the tokens of Cornishness multiply, real Cornishness shrinks. Use of the revived Cornish language becomes an empty gesture in a society stripped of its sense of place, a mere consumption good for tourists and second-house owners rather than a lightning conductor for identity.
So that’s it. We want more balance, a focus on quality of life issues, respect for Cornwall and its traditions and for the Cornish people. What we have to do is to boil this down into two or three sentences so that the next time someone asks ‘but what do you want’ we have an answer ready to hand. Any suggestions as to the wording of those sentences gratefully received.