The Charter for Cornwall campaign group has contacted all sitting Cornwall Councillors asking them for their views on the four pledges of their Charter. Replies were very promptly received from three senior Liberal Democrats. They stated they were willing to sign up to the pledges on social housing, second homes and the devolution of strategic planning but were unable to support the first pledge and oppose the Council’s excessive housing target.
For the record, here’s the actual wording of that pledge.
I pledge to do everything possible, including working with other councillors across party lines, to reduce Cornwall Council’s excessive housing targets.
Seems modest enough. Indeed, several sympathisers with the campaign felt this wording was far too vague and would allow anyone to sign up. So why is it too contentious for some sitting councillors?
Councillors say …
‘We need a change of government to get any real change in the total‘
‘I suggest you approach the Government … it is Government policy that is creating a problem for Cornwall‘
‘the Government has shown that the more resistance locally the more they will interfere from the London!‘ [sic]
What we see here is the technique of mutual buck-passing regularly indulged in by MPs and Cornwall’s local councillors. MPs blame the Council for the excessive and unsustainable levels of housebuilding. Councillors blame the Government. Passing the buck in this manner is convenient and absolves the passer from all blame. However, it’s also a cynical ploy designed to dizzy and disorient the onlooker as the buck periodically whizzes past. Such manoeuvres do little to address the alienation of the voting public or prevent the turn to the simplistic solutions offered by the populist far right.
The truth is that both are to blame. The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework is full of weasel words like localism and ‘sustainable development’. Basically it does the opposite, by loading the dice heavily in favour of developers, making it well-nigh impossible for communities or local planning authorities to stop speculative housing schemes.
But Cornwall Council’s record is equally weaselly. Let’s look at the facts. When the Local Plan process began all voluntary and community groups in Cornwall and the vast majority of Town and Parish Councils wanted a target of 38,000 or fewer. Cornwall Council ignored this and eventually plumped for 48,000. Councillors were swayed by their officers who assured them this was the minimum the Government would accept. The 48,000 target was underpinned by the uncritical use of official data. Every single one of these projections has turned out to be exaggerated or otherwise inaccurate.
Having allowed the planners to generate arguments for continuing a high housing and population growth strategy, those arguments were then seized upon gratefully by the housebuilders. Not believing their luck, they cherry-picked the Council’s own arguments for a higher housing target and threw them back at them at the public examination. As a result another 5,000 was added to the target and we’re stuck with 52,500, a 16% rise on recent, already relatively high building rates.
Meanwhile, despite hiding behind a language of affordability and ‘local needs’, Cornwall Council has been working quietly with the unelected and unaccountable Local Enterprise Partnership to impose a growth strategy on Cornwall that has at its centre a programme of massive housebuilding and population growth. Moreover, by uncritically embracing the ‘Lifestyle Cornwall offer’, Cornwall Council has been actively encouraging population growth and undermining any attempt to moderate or re-balance its growth strategy. Consistency in policy-making has hardly been the hallmark of Council policy.
The truth is that Cornwall Council’s leadership has been committed to a high growth strategy since 2010. Most councillors have been unwilling or unable to challenge this. Few have bothered to investigate alternatives to an ‘extend and pretend’ policy, expose its long-term unsustainability or properly discuss its effects on the Cornish heritage or environment.
Despite the Liberal Democrat councillors’ denial, there was always an alternative. Councillors could have instructed their officers to produce a more robust case for the lowest possible target from the outset. They could have worked with campaigners and publicly exposed the inaccuracy of the projections used by central government. They could have more vigorously lobbied for special treatment for Cornwall, making more use of the national minority status designated in 2014 to back this up.
They did none of this. So they must shoulder part of the blame for the excessive housing target and an out-of-control developer-led growth policy. It’s too late now to moan about being misunderstood while blaming the Government for all our woes. Yes, of course central government is culpable, but Cornwall Council has colluded in that culpability and our elected representatives have been much too complacent in the face of this. This is exactly why a new broom is needed at Cornwall Council along with an injection of vision.
However, it’s not too late for councillors to recognise that the strategic direction of the past seven years was mistaken and begin to work together to reduce the excessive housing target imposed on Cornwall as part of a plan for a genuinely sustainable future. They could make a start by signing up to the Charter.