The revised Local Plan had gone out for consultation with a housing target of 42,250. It re-surfaced in late 2013 with one of 47,500. Planning officers now wanted to add another 5,000 houses, boosting the target to 47,500. The re-named Environment, Heritage and Planning Portfolio Advisory Committee reviewed this in October 2013. By now there was a new Council and some new councillors. Cllr Olivier (Lab, Penzance Central) and Cllr Candy (LD, Trelawny) moved to increase the target to 47,500. They lost. A compromise was however reached and the committee agreed to offer both 47,500 and 42,250 to the Cabinet and full council meetings.
In November 2013 the Cabinet considered the target once more. This time officers produced alarming findings that targets elsewhere that were not based on ‘national’ guidance were being rejected by the Government. The officers ‘strongly advised’ that the target ‘reflect national demographic projections so as to be robust’. The Cabinet had an alternative. They could have stood up to central government diktat, decided to stick to a lower target and produce a ‘robust’ case for special treatment for Cornwall, given its fragile heritage, environmental pressures and the experience of the previous half century. Or they could have challenged the Government on its hopelessly flawed demographic projections. They did neither. Cllr Hannaford (LD, Looe West) and Cllr Wallis (Ind, Porthleven) moved that full council consider both target options.
Having decided not to make a special case, from this point on the issue became not so much what growth rate would be best for Cornish communities, but what the Government was likely to support and what the Council could get away with. This was a stance that left the Council fundamentally defenceless. Any aspirations to exchange the spiral of growth with a much-needed breathing space had been replaced by the politics of fear as councillors haggled over how high they dared to go.
At the full council meeting in January 2014, Cllr Hannaford stated that ”unless there was a robust alternative the set of population projections produced by the ONS was a key component’. Shamefully, no mention was made of the considerably less than robust past performance of these same official projections when it came to Cornwall, where the level of over-estimation has been amongst the highest anywhere.
Cllr Hannaford and Cllr Geoff Brown (LD, Newquay Central) moved a target of 47,500 houses. It’s at this point that the curious argument that the ‘real figure’ was considerably lower than the headline figure appeared. According to Cllr Hannaford, as 7,000 houses had already been built and another 20,000 given planning permission, ‘the real figure was 27,500 houses’. Magically, the 20,000 houses yet to be built had been spirited away into thin air. By this logic, if the Council had got on with it and granted all 47,500 permissions the ‘real’ target would have been zero and everybody would have been happy. Although this, and other arguments, verged on the ludicrous, they were regularly deployed thereafter to mollify worried councillors.
Moreover, in the election of 2013, control of the Council had shifted. From being Tory/Independent it became Lib Dem/Independent. With a new leader, the Conservatives now suddenly revealed themselves to be supporters of a much lower housing target, not the enthusiasts for a high growth strategy they had been before 2013. Cllr Chamberlain (Con, Feock) and Cllr Keeling (Con, Breage) moved an amendment for 33,000 houses. Unfortunately this had neither been worked up in detail nor discussed beforehand with potential supporters in other political groups.
While the proposal for 33,000 came as a surprise to many, the proposers were forced to admit that consents already given over the lower target in some community areas would remain, while community network areas could always demand more if councillors wanted them. As several did, the 33,000 in reality probably amounted to far more than the 38,000 rejected in early 2013.