Given the falling population growth rate of the 1990s, Cornwall’s Core Strategy, on which the Council began working in 2010, provided a perfect opportunity to put in place a lower housing target and establish the conditions for a more balanced demographic framework for the future.
In the previous 20 year period, from 1990 to 2010, Cornwall’s housing stock had grown by around 45,000. This was unsustainably high. But the hope was that the next Plan, covering the 20 years from 2010 to 2030, would dampen that growth rate further and build in a virtuous cycle. This hope was to be sorely disappointed as the housing target in the ‘Local Plan’ finally agreed last November ended up as a 52,500 minimum. Far from reducing the rate of growth of the previous two decades, this upped it by 16%.
Some councillors and others have argued this isn’t important and we shouldn’t worry. Even putting aside the cultural and environmental consequences, of which they seem unaware, they are wrong. We should. For three reasons. The first is rather obvious. A target of 52,500 means building the equivalent of over two Camborne-Redruths, or four Falmouth/Penryns or St Austells, or five Truros, Penzances or Newquays, or seven Saltashes, or eight Bodmins, or 12 Liskeards or Launcestons in just 20 years. It also means that some towns – Bodmin, Hayle and Launceston for example – will see expansion of 40% or even more in two decades. By any definition, these are plainly unsustainable growth rates.
Second, it’s manifestly unfair. Between 1961 and 2010 Cornish communities had to cope with one of the fastest growth rates in the UK. It was three times faster than in England, four times faster than Wales and 26 times the rate of Scotland. If that weren’t enough, we’re now being asked to go on shouldering this burden. Both main political parties in Cornwall – Tories and Lib Dems – assure us they want a fairer country or a fair deal for Cornwall. This seems a very odd way to go about it.
Third, this rate locks us into an unsustainable spiral of growth. Basically, a housing target that exceeds recent historic rates of growth will produce a surplus of supply, over and above the aggregate requirements of local communities and incoming migrants. (The issue of affordability is separate from the total quantity of houses and involves distributional policies rather then merely building more houses).
The excess supply in Cornwall will then be marketed upcountry by housebuilders, developers and estate agents, appealing to and helping create a demand for a ‘Cornwall lifestyle’ fuelled by the media and not consistently challenged by decision-makers in Cornwall. This generates further in-migration which pushes up population growth. The ‘projections’ the excessive target is based on, projections that been convincingly shown to be grossly exaggerated in recent decades, then become reality.
This can be seen in the most recent ONS predictions of decadal population growth. It was 6.4% in the 1990s, rising slightly to 6.6% in the 2000s. It’s now predicted to be 7.1% in this decade, and then 8.1% in the 2020s. Even if this rising rate of growth is then stabilised we are looking at a population of well over a million by the end of the century. (It’s currently 557,000).
So how did we get in this mess? Why wasn’t the opportunity presented by a falling growth rate seized on? In the next few blogs we’ll trace the genealogy of the Council’s growth fetish.