So how did we get ourselves into this mess? Let’s sum up. During the ‘debate’ in the final meeting to rubber-stamp a housing target of 52,500 houses last November, a succession of councillors lectured campaigners on their ‘lack of understanding’ of how ‘constrained the Council was’. But could councillors have done anything different?
It’s clear councillors weren’t entirely constrained by central government. They had some choices at certain stages of the long process of producing the ‘Local’ Plan. The critical lost opportunity came in the early days of the Plan, when a genuinely ‘robust’ case for a lower target might have been mounted and consistently stuck to. So why didn’t this happen? A number of factors can be suggested.
The planning officers were clearly captured from the beginning by the developers’ lobby and persistently peddled dubious data to undermine arguments for a lower housing target. Their arguments for higher housing targets of up to 54,000 gave the developers a weapon that could be turned back against the Council to undermine arguments for a lower target. Basically, councillors allowed their officers to shoot themselves in the foot.
Those councillors who were concerned enough to work hard for a lower target didn’t coordinate their opposition early enough across party group lines or make use of campaigners outside the Council. At the start the initiative was left to Cllrs Cole and Biggs and the Planning Policy Advisory Panel, while those Conservatives who later argued for a lower target built no bridges to others to persuade them to take up Sarah Newton MP’s claim that the Council could come up with a lower target and call the Government’s bluff.
By the winter of 2013/14, when it was becoming apparent the Government was pressing hard for higher housing numbers and rejecting Local Plans right, left and centre, the only option for the Council was to construct a case for special treatment. The later Framework Convention status granted to the Cornish could have greatly strengthened this. The Council could also have worked with campaigners to challenge the flawed datasets used by the Government. It could have been a lot more forthright in pointing out their inaccuracies when applied to Cornwall. It chose to do none of this. Having effectively thrown in the towel at this point it was then vulnerable to central government bullying.
Any arguments against a higher housing target were also fundamentally compromised by the Council’s embrace of a high economic growth strategy. If the latter goes unquestioned, then the former will inevitably follow. This was particularly the case in the 2009-13 Tory/Ind-led Council but did not change markedly when Lib Dems took over, again with the help of Independents.
As a postscript, a lot more honesty from the Council wouldn’t go amiss. This Plan is a disaster for Cornwall, for Cornishness and for our environment as it guarantees the continuation of a culturally, economically and environmentally unsustainable growth rate. Yet, instead of admitting this openly, the Council assures us the Plan will ‘allow a more sustainable Cornwall to be built’, ‘create sustainable viable communities’. ‘support economic development and the environment while meeting the needs of residents’. People can see this is hogwash. So it’s hardly surprising they blame the Council for the crisis of hyper-‘development’ in Cornwall.
Stop making a banquet from a pig’s ear. If the Government has forced an excessive housing target on us then make that clear. If this housing target meets the demand for profits from developers rather than local needs then admit the truth. The flannel about sustainability fools nobody.