The aim of this series of blogs is to unearth the limited evidence available that might allow us to assess which councillors to re-elect next month. However, first we’ll need to spend a couple of days establishing a context for this, before moving on to the more exciting history of the 52,500 minimum target. As Cornwall’s foremost economist, the late Ron Perry, was keen to observe, Cornwall has enjoyed a series of ‘false dawns’. These were times when things seemed to be taking a turn for the better, only to grind to a halt as opportunities are then left ungrasped. One such dawn came at the end of the 1990s.
The 1990s had seen population growth fall from its peak of over 10% a decade in the 1970s and 1980s to 6.4%. This was still one of the highest growth rates in the UK, but it was less unsustainable than that of the 70s and 80s. In those decades, counter-urban flows had appeared to many to be wreaking havoc on Cornwall’s environment and heritage. But in the 1990s there were glimmers of hope. For a start Cornwall’s chronic unemployment seemed to be easing. This was associated with the slowdown in inwards migration.
As Ron had pointed out in the 1980s, jobs growth accompanied by rapid population growth meant that we’d been running fast only to stay in the same spot. New jobs were promptly filled by newcomers. Competition for jobs meant that wage levels in Cornwall remained stubbornly among the lowest in the UK, as counter-urbanisers ‘downshifting’ and seeking a ‘Cornwall lifestyle’ were not deterred from moving. In 1999, the Government finally recognised Cornwall’s predicament, uncoupling it from better-off Devon. The EU duly obliged and delivered Cornwall the highest level of regional aid.
With a slowing population growth rate and the possibility of using grant aid to diversify the Cornish economy away from its over-reliance on tourism, here was an opportunity. All that was needed were consistent policies to build on this and provide a breathing space for communities that had seen massive growth since the 1960s. They could restore their sense of place, community resilience could be nurtured and flower, while a more sustainable economy fit for a post-fossil fuel era could be created.
As the 2010s approached Cornwall Council set about revising its Core Strategy. Here was the opportunity to reduce the housing target to match the demographic trends, wind down population growth further and set a virtuous cycle in motion? But would the Council grasp it?