Readers of the West Briton must have choked on their cornflakes this week when they read its letters column. There was the leader of Cornwall Council, John Pollard, popping up to claim that the Council had been supporting the four aims of the Charter for Cornwall all along. Let’s recap. Here are the draft pledges:
- Reduce Cornwall Council’s excessive housing targets and put local needs first.
- Restore social rented housing and genuinely affordable housing.
- Reduce the number of second homes.
- Support the devolution of strategic planning.
In an amazingly acrobatic display of logic, Cllr Pollard has convinced himself that Cornwall Council meets these objectives. Others may be less inclined to find his claim in any way credible.
What we have here is a rather clever wheeze dreamt up by Cllr Pollard, or perhaps one of his senior officers. This involves flying an outrageous kite to wrongfoot critics and confuse the public. As dismay about the Council’s collusion with developer-led growth mounts up and down Cornwall, it’s no longer enough to paint campaigners for a more balanced approach as nimbys or ‘anti-progress’. Now the anger on the streets is spreading the Council desperately attempts to diffuse opposition by claiming they have the same objectives as the campaigners.
Beware this old wolf clad in new sheep’s clothing.
Let’s investigate some of Cllr Pollard’s assertions a little more closely. Apparently, the 52,500 house target in the Local Plan (a 16% rise on recent build rates) is the only way to reduce the 52,500 target. This is pure Alice in Wonderland. We can only reduce the housing target by first increasing it. We can only get developers under control by first giving them what they want and allowing our planning department to work closely with them.
If they were so keen on a lower target, why didn’t Cllr Pollard and the leadership of the Cornwall Council never question their planners’ uncritical use of questionable projections of population and household growth to argue for ever higher housebuilding targets? Even when those projections were found to be hopelessly flawed, both for Cornwall and more widely? They didn’t bat their collective eyelids when their planners’ arguments for higher housing targets to meet a non-existent demand were then gleefully seized upon by developers and recycled back to the council.
Cllr Pollard repeats the same old moan we regularly hear from councillors. Don’t blame us, we can’t do anything about Government legislation. ‘Our hands are tied’, they whine, hiding behind the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework.
Obviously, they’re constrained by Government policy, but there were many things the Council could have done but chose not to. They could have instructed their officers to work with campaigners outside the Council and produce a robust case for a lower housing target. Instead, senior councillors dismissed campaigners’ arguments (since proved to be accurate), as they uncritically repeated the fake statistics churned out by their officers. When their case to central government was ignored they could have forced the Government to impose a Plan on Cornwall, thus clearly shifting the blame for unsustainable growth onto the Government. They could have mobilised the people of Cornwall behind their campaign for a lower housing target instead of keeping it secret.
It’s too much now to expect us to believe that the Council, which has been meekly submitting all along to the pressure for ever-rising housing targets, has actually been working all the time for a lower target. Especially as a succession of Chief Officers have lauded housing growth as an ‘opportunity’ for Cornwall and a chance to boost Council Tax revenues and obtain infrastructure.
As is par for the course, Cllr Pollard wheels out fake facts. We’re told that the Council wins 85% of appeals. But these are mainly appeals by individuals, which was always the case, not the ones by powerful mass house builders. Then there’s the hoary old one about only 3% of Cornwall being built on. There’s plenty of land out there, runs the argument, so let’s allow developers to make their profits and build on it.
This is a very mysterious ‘fact’ that shifts unpredictably in the telling. Sometimes, we’re told it’s 1%, sometimes it’s been 7%. Seems the council officers who feed this to gullible portfolio holders can’t make their minds up. The figure is actually based on something called the Generalised Land Use Database, mapping surveys carried out in 2001 and 2005, which show that 91% of Cornwall is ‘greenspace’. The methodology behind this survey has been questioned and they were not repeated. Yet even the GLUD dataset showed that the proportion of ‘greenspace’ in Cornwall was declining at a faster rate than in England, something Cllr Pollard unaccountably forgot to inform us.
Fake facts are accompanied by outright denial. Cllr Pollard claims that Cornwall Council is not causing population growth. This is despite the indirect impact of policies such as encouraging tourism, linked for 50 years to in-migration, road building and the ‘Life style Cornwall offer’ the Council is so keen on. Then there’s the direct impact of its housing growth policies. Does Cllr Pollard never get out and look around him?
Trumpeting the Council’s affordable housing policy is all very well but isn’t it all too little too late? In each of the last two years just 10 (ten) houses for social rent were built in Cornwall. Cllr Pollard fails to mention that to build more houses for social rent the Council has to build so-called ‘affordable’ houses that are not affordable as well as sell open market housing. But to whom?
He also skates around the fact that affordable housing is needed to house future in-migrants as much as local residents. Why is the Council so coy about producing data on the destination of affordable housing? And why hasn’t it been more vociferous in condemning central government changes that have undermined genuinely affordable housing?
All this neatly deflects attention from the Council’s abject failure to revise its Home Choice Register, something virtually every other local authority has managed to do. Is it a coincidence that the inflated numbers on this register has allowed developers to cynically use ‘waiting lists’ to boost their speculative housing schemes?
On second homes Cornwall Council was slow to act, leaving it to St Ives Town Council to initiate the breakthrough. Meanwhile, Cornwall Council’s other policies, such as encouraging tourism or boosting the environmentally disastrous growth of Newquay airport make second home ownership more, not less, attractive. Similarly, its uncritical support for the never-ending expansion of Falmouth and Exeter Universities’ campus at Penryn is causing major housing headaches locally.
Finally, Cllr Pollard’s claim that the Council was resolutely pursuing the devolution of planning powers in the face of government opposition is laughable. The fact is that, as soon as it was brusquely told that the Government had no intention of devolving planning powers, Cornwall Council feebly caved in and took it off their shopping list. If it was so important then why wasn’t it a deal-breaker? The so-called ‘deal’ in any case resulted in the unelected Local Enterprise Partnership getting the cash and Cornwall Council carrying the can for implementing central government policies. Some ‘deal’!
The facts are plain. Cornwall Council has miserably failed to pursue the actual policies necessary to make the objectives of the Charter for Cornwall a reality. Indeed, many of its policies directly contradict the Charter and work against its objectives. No amount of misinformation, bluster and spin from Cllr Pollard can conceal the glaring reality that Cornwall Council is part of the problem, not the solution. For a truly democratic settlement in Cornwall that respects and reflects Cornish aspirations, we urgently need a major reform of our democratic institutions. This entails replacing Cornwall Council with a properly functioning and more responsive local government structure and a new, streamlined strategic regional tier at the Cornwall level.
Is Cllr Pollard up for that too?