When historians come to write up how we allowed Cornwall to become a nondescript suburban desert, all dormitory villages, commuters, supermarkets and second homes, they’ll focus on two scandals. The first of these is the way Cornwall Council’s planners have scorned the possibilities presented by the lower population growth rates of the 1990s and 2000s.
In the last two decades population in Cornwall grew at around 6-7% a decade. While remaining unsustainably high, this was well short of the peaks of 10%+ a decade that we experienced in the 1970s and 80s. An opportunity had finally appeared for planners to argue that, as growth rates were clearly falling, the long-term trend was unmistakeably downwards. This in turn could have opened the door for policies to facilitate a lower growth rate, thus stimulating a virtuous circle of a declining rate of population growth and holding out the prospect of stability at some point in the future.
But no. There are of course bigger factors involved in the failure of the Council’s planners to countenance such a course. The principal one is the way the idiotic twin ideologies of growth at all costs and neo-liberal ‘deregulation’ of markets have policy-makers firmly in their grasp, having first sucked out their brain cells.
The planners like to pretend it’s just a technical issue. Like an old 78 record stuck in its groove, they repeat the mantra that future housing delivery must be based on estimates of population growth (among other things) that are in turn based on official population projections. These latter are churned out by a sophisticated population model and calculated by complex computer programs. We are assured in all seriousness that the model is so sophisticated that it can’t possibly be ‘wrong’, as its inputs are ‘right’.
Yet, if not wrong, in the Cornish case it’s spewed out distorted and inaccurate projections. Like all models, if you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out. And the projections based on the planners’ model are most definitely rubbish.
We now have data for population growth for the first two years of the Council’s grand Local Plan. So we can test these against the planners’ predictions. As late as November 2013 in their Housing Evidence Base: Population Briefing Note, the planners were predicting the following annual growth.
These were based on the 2011 population projections for Cornwall produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). These very precisely (as they have an even more precise model) confidently projected Cornwall’s population growth for the two years in question as follows …
In July 2013 the Council’s consultants had produced its Strategic Housing Market Needs Assessment (SHMNA). This was a little less gung-ho and, although producing no explicit tabular data for explicit comparison, stumped up a bar chart (p.135) which indicated growth would be roughly as follows.
So what’s actually happened? How accurate have these various projections been? First, we must note that the planners in November 2013 claimed that ‘natural change [the difference between births and deaths] is predicted to remain positive throughout the next ten year period’ (p.8). Such confidence ought to have dissipated entirely in the light of the latest data.
Births and deaths; Cornwall 2011-13
When we turn to the actual estimated population growth we have to rely on the ONS’s mid-year estimates. The latest version provides this picture …
How odd. That’s a 27% lower population growth than the Council’s estimate and even 7% below the lower SHMNA estimate, on which the 47,500 house target was based.
But wait. The mid-year estimates are exactly that – estimates. In the decade from 2001 to 2011 the ONS’s mid year estimates consistently over-estimated Cornwall’s population growth. In nine years out of ten in fact, it later admitted that it had been over-generous in allocating population to Cornwall. And not just a little over-generous either.
Here’s the ONS estimates for the first two years of the 2000s. They first estimated growth like this.
But they later revised this downwards to this.
Their first estimate had overshot by 21% and they only became aware of this error when the 2011 Census results were published.
So what you may be asking, as drowsiness creeps rapidly on. This may well look dreary, technical and boring. But it’s anything but. They want us to think it’s technical and boring because then nobody questions it. Because, on the basis of these projections and estimates Cornwall gets neatly locked into a regime of continuing excessively high population growth.
If we adjust the ONS mid-year estimates for 2011-13 to allow for the inbuilt tendency to exaggerate Cornwall’s population growth we can estimate that the real population growth in these first two years of the plan is more likely to have been nearer 6,200 to 6,300. Interestingly, this is almost exactly the average population growth since 1991, which has been 3,150 a year.
More interestingly, it implies a housing target, even to meet external demand, that should be considerably lower than the minimum 47,500 target adopted. What we instead have is an open invitation for speculative housing schemes that will ultimately result in the re-injection of higher population growth back into the system.
If the first scandal – the planners’ faulty figures – isn’t bad enough, the second is even worse. This has been the incompetence and inability of the vast majority of our elected representatives to question their planning officers or to respond to facts like those above. They have no excuse. For two years or more now, some of us have been generating evidence that the projections being used as the basis for strategic planning are grossly inaccurate. But we’ve been ignored.
Councillors have had a great opportunity to construct a robust case for a lower housing target based on lower growth projections but also on issues like adverse environmental and economic impacts, capacity and Cornwall’s special position as home to one of the UK’s national minorities. But they’ve spurned it and allowed their leaders to mislead and lie to the public. To their everlasting shame.