The problems with Cornwall Council’s growth obsession

We’ve seen how Cornwall Council is obsessed by its drive for ‘growth’, which, despite all the flannel surrounding it, turns out to contain at its core the same old-fashioned housing and population growth. There are four fundamental problems with its love affair with ‘growth’. The first I’ve already noted. Why should more of the same old growth have a different effect than the past 60 years of growth? As that growth apparently hasn’t worked shouldn’t Cornwall’s ‘decision-makes’ be looking for other solutions and not continue to rely on an outdated and discredited policy?

The second problem is a question of arithmetic. Cornwall Council’s personnel appears to labour under the delusion that infinite growth in a finite space is a practical proposition. Hunched over their computers, they don’t appear to have looked out of the window lately. More resources cannot be conjured up on demand to cope with endless year on year ‘growth’. The Council boasts of a regional growth rate of 4% a year. No-one in Truro has had the temerity to point out to the leadership cabal that this means the Cornish economy will double every 17 and a half years. And then double again after another 17 and a half. And so on.

It doesn’t take a GCSE in maths to work out that, at that rate, it’ll be 64 times bigger than now in just a hundred years. Even if we’re not talking of a population 64 times bigger and facing the problem of slotting 35 million or so people into Cornwall, the Council needs to tell us how it intends to sustain this rate of growth. Precisely how will it manage a 64-fold growth in consumption when it struggles to manage current levels?

Most rural parts of England and Wales already have a lower population density than Cornwall in summer.

If there was plenty of spare capacity, then one might understand why some growth is contemplated. But there isn’t. Mid and west Cornwall is already among the most densely populated rural parts of Europe. The annual tourist influx is already pushing at or over the limits of capacity.

Moreover, the third, and increasingly salient, problem that the Council and its partners ignore is the growing realisation that we’re living through an unprecedented crisis of biodiversity and species extinction. This news does not seem to have penetrated Cornwall Council or its partners in crime. The ludicrous idea that climate change is caused by human activity is clearly one not shared by Cornwall Council’s leadership.

On page 1 of New Frontiers, the basis for the Council’s request to London for a second devolution deal, it brags that Cornwall can be a ‘test-bed’ for ‘new approaches to the grand challenges facing our society’. The single most pressing ‘grand challenge’ is surely climate change. Odd then, that New Frontiers, while mentioning the word ‘growth’ 119 times, doesn’t once explicitly mention climate change. Even more shockingly, there’s no discernible evidence of any proposed environmental audit of their grandiose growth plans. There’s no calculation of the carbon footprint of building 60,000 houses in the next two decades. Or the infrastructure projects that will ‘unlock’ more housing. Or the spaceport. Or any of the other bombastic schemes that are being run up the flagpole at County Hall.

Countryside west of Truro. To the folk at County Hall and the developers just a great site for housing.

Read the document and you get the impression that its authors live in a time-warp. We’re strangling the marine environment with plastics and killing ourselves on a daily basis by ingesting micro-plastics. But at County Hall the inmates are mysteriously stuck in the 1960s, blithely unaware of the dire effects of human activity on nature and the environment. We may be on the Titanic and the metaphorical icebergs are looming, but the crew remain blissfully in the dark about them.

Finally, the fourth problem should be blatantly obvious, although it’s one that Cornwall’s political and economic elite don’t seem able to recognise, let alone empathise with. It’s the fact that their ‘place-shaping’ schemes are fast destroying what’s left of the Cornishness of Cornwall. They might not care about that. Indeed, some of them may even welcome it, arrogantly and condescendingly dismissing the Cornish sense of heritage as an unwarranted and illegitimate sense of ‘entitlement’ on our part.

Yet, while they’re supremely complacent concerning the costs of growth, one fear stalks their dreams – the possibility of democratic oversight and control over their irresponsible activity. The final blog tomorrow will describe what measures the Council and its mates are taking to prevent that frightening possibility ever taking shape.

Posted in Cornwall Council;, population growth | 1 Comment

Cornwall Council’s love affair with housing and population growth

Go beyond the vision in New Frontiers, the Council’s bid to central government for a second ‘devolution deal’. What do we find? As we have seen, it turns out that the document contains no new approach at all, just more of the same old approach. Admittedly, there’s some new bits and pieces, like references to spaceports, satellites, post-Brexit regulatory powers, data hubs and lithium mining. However, at its heart lies the same old, endless ‘growth’.

Perhaps this is a new sort of growth that doesn’t rest on mass population movement. Maybe our innovative, cutting-edge Council has discovered how to achieve growth that doesn’t have to rely fundamentally on the construction industry. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We read why growth is supposedly under threat. ‘The shortage of new homes is one of the major barriers to achieving sustainable economic growth in the region’. Oh dear, the actual objective turns out to be to build lots of housing for all those in-migrants we need to achieve ‘growth’, although we’re now informed this will be for ‘inclusive workforce growth’ (p.16). As opposed to what exactly?

Not that the officers were exactly honest about this aim. When councillors were permitted to discuss the New Frontiers document at the obscure Customer Services and Support Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee last week, they were told funding from central government was needed to ‘provide more affordable homes for local people’. The only problem is that this means that many, many more unaffordable houses have to be built.

Since the turn of the millennium Cornwall has already experienced a higher rate of building than elsewhere. The Council wants to increase this rate even further.

Although the Council doesn’t see this as a problem at all. In fact, it proudly boasts that it can deliver ‘at least 3,000 homes [sic]’ a year. It admits this will ‘exceed (on a proportionate basis) the Government’s national basis for the increased supply of new homes’ (p.43). Note that this equates to a 20-year target of 60,000 houses, equal to six new Truros, well above even the official target of 52,500. From the Council’s standpoint, injected with liberal amounts of testosterone when it comes to housing and population growth, this pathetically low target is one it confidently expects to surpass with no trouble at all.

Countryside at Redruth earmarked for another suburb

If you’re uneasy, worried or downright alarmed by the current level of building activity going on around Cornish towns then just wait until the Council’s plans come to fruition. It’s asking central government for £60 million to ‘accelerate’ housing delivery through a string of ‘garden villages’. It wants compulsory purchase powers to buy farmland to push these new settlements forward, over the heads of any local opposition presumably. The new utopia of ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’ growth seemingly involves increased dictatorial powers to ‘place-shape’. The market and dictatorship march together, hand in hand.

Furthermore, this growth agenda is driven forward with an over the top, in your face attitude. The Council’s inner Cabinet and senior officers seem to have become dizzy with machismo, striving to prove their masculinity by building houses. ‘You want 52,500. Nah, we’ll give you 60,000. Go on punk, make my day.’ (The genius who dreamed up the title New Frontiers was clearly contemplating the wild west at the time. Pursue this further and you begin to wonder how soon we’ll suffer the same fate as the native Americans.)

Perhaps over-compensating for fears of inadequacy, Council statements become ever more boastful. As the Council’s real powers shrink, so its leadership resorts to self-glorification and braggadocio. As people’s cynicism mounts, so the flood of magniloquent and vain-glorious claims spews forth at regular intervals. This is certainly one area where growth can clearly be proven.

Oddly, all this frenetic macho ‘growth’ is predicted to have no effect at all on what the Council describes as the ‘beautiful and fragile eco-system’ of Cornwall (p.1). We’re told it’s needed to increase the ‘resilience of our communities’, at present presumably hopelessly vulnerable. They’re certainly vulnerable, or at least the councillors they elect seem to be, to the same old policy follies familiar from the 1980s, now dusted down again and foisted on them in a new guise. Yet growth brings with it costs and problems, many of which are causing growing alarm among scientists and others. But not at County Hall it seems.

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Cornwall Council’s ‘big idea’: Growth. Lots of it. And then more.

The ‘big idea’ at the core of the Council’s strategy is ‘growth’. Perhaps the Council’s ideological gurus, most brought into Cornwall at great expense, think this is a new idea. I suppose we can’t blame them for being ignorant of our recent history. More curiously, no-one at County Hall seems to have bothered to inform them that Cornish communities have actually experienced quite a bit of growth since the 1960s. Yet, puzzlingly, we still have chronically low wages, problems in finding affordable places to live, congested roads and town centres populated by charity shops, hair salons and wailing shopkeepers bemoaning deserted streets.

The project class and assorted career escalator types at the top are thus surprised that the ungrateful masses are less than overjoyed by the prospect of even more ‘growth’. They then cast around for ways to try to make it more acceptable. Their advisors persuade them that this can be achieved through the simple device of prefixing words like ‘environmental’, ‘sustainable’, ‘clean’, ‘inclusive’ in front of ‘growth’. Of course, these remain essentially meaningless, as nowhere is the difference spelled out between ‘environmental’ or ‘sustainable’ growth and plain old ‘growth’. A re-packaged ‘growth’ is then placed within the sort of visionary language that most people would agree with, but that remains to all intents and purposes vacuous.

Take the Council’s New Frontiers Appendix 1. This is the basis for their bid to central government for a second ‘devolution deal’. It provides an excellent window into the Cornwall’s real thinking. With a fine sense of irony, it begins ‘Our peninsula is a beautiful and fragile eco-system in which the resilience of our people, environment and economy are inter-dependent’ (p.1). So what should we do with it? Well, let’s build on it at an historically unprecedented rate for starters. This is described as ‘sustainable, inclusive growth that delivers the very best outcomes for everyone living in our region’ (p.4). And, of course, a lot of people who don’t yet live in it, although the document strangely doesn’t get around to mentioning that.

While camouflaged by touchy-feely words, the Council can’t be accused of not being upfront in this document. Confident that few people outside the leadership bubble, central government or the Council will ever read it, there’s no need for the shifty defensiveness more normally seen in strategic planning documents. It’s ‘growth’. Full stop. The challenge is to ‘ensure the continuation of economic growth’ (p.6). The word ‘growth’ appears 119 times in this 56-page document. Growth won’t just be economic; it’ll transform everything. ‘The social benefits of growth must also not be underplayed and we need to ensure that our natural capital grows with it’ (p.7), the document obscurely adds.

Last year only a handful of English counties had a higher housebuilding rate than Cornwall

Nowhere however do the authors of New Frontiers explain how and why the growth we’ve already seen over the past half century and more hasn’t already had the desired effect. Why will miraculous outcomes and all-round joy and happiness flow from growth while the growth of the last half-century produced the problems the growth of the next half-century is supposed to solve? Sixty years or so of some of the highest proportionate in-migration and housebuilding rates in the UK has produced merely a sullen native population glued to their tellies, a mass of consumerist zombies, a new population that seems to survive by grooming each other’s dogs, a seething mass of angry and disaffected Brexit voters, and an unseen minority that indulges in the new sport of consuming fast food and then adding to growing air quality issues by touring the countryside to find a spot to chuck the packaging out? Are these the ‘social benefits of growth’?

Dig deeper in flighty documents of fancy such as New Frontiers and we discover an altogether seedier reality underlies its Orwellian massaging of ‘growth’. Return tomorrow for the next exciting instalment and see how Cornwall Council wants to see even more houses built on all that useless green stuff out there in order to ‘accommodate’ even more people, who will then drive ‘growth’.

Posted in Cornwall Council;, population growth | 3 Comments

Cornwall Council’s choice: Place-shaping, privatisation and policy follies

To understand what might otherwise appear to be the collective insanity gripping a power-crazed elite at Truro we need to set it in the context of major reductions in the revenue support grant central government gives to local government. These amount to a 77% cut in the five years from 2015 and the end of local government grants entirely by 2020. But we need to cast the net even wider to fully grasp what’s going on.

Local government cuts have had two useful benefits for central government. The first is to obfuscate the austerity programme, making local government undertake the most savage cuts. This meant that blame could be neatly diverted from the Tory/Lib Dem and then Tory Government to hapless local councillors. This was made even easier in cases like Cornwall Council where the Council rolled over and refused to criticise government policy openly. It’s also abysmally failed to communicate its problems to the people, preferring to act as a relatively willing handmaiden of the central state.

The second effect was to create panic and paralysis in the corridors of local government, softening it up for the broader privatisation agenda of the Government. This is a perfect example of Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’. In her view crises, whether economic, environmental or political, have been seized upon as opportunities by neo-liberal ideologues to impose their dogma (and in the process make themselves and their mates very, very rich.)

In a context of declining future revenue, Cornwall Council has had to look at how it might weather the coming financial blizzard. As a result, it’s slipped from being the representative and champion of Cornish communities (if it ever was – I’ll leave that one open to debate) to being principally concerned with saving its own institutional skin. This explains the cosying up to developers and the return to a housing and population-led strategy (more houses and more people mean a higher tax base). It also explains the desperate search for ‘partners’, as the Council seeks to spread risk (and blame). It makes sense of the various projects to outsource services or privatise them outright, blurring the line between public and private and in the process conveniently making accountability even more obscure.

It also helps to explain the growing secretiveness of the leadership bunker. As in the Cannes public relations fiasco, the bunker now refuses even its own councillors a say on its strategic direction. Fearful of having its strategy questioned and (God forbid) changed, as it can envisage no alternative, it desperately pleads to councillors to put loyalty to the institution before their loyalty to those who elected them. This is why senior officers are probably supremely relaxed about the prospect of Cornwall’s elected representatives soon suffering a cull on a scale unprecedented in the history of ‘English’ local government. The fewer there are, the more remote becomes the terrifying prospect of effective criticism from within the institution.

Meanwhile, proclamations to the public are marked by a growing air of unreality. Anodyne visions are robotically unveiled. Crocodile tears are copiously shed for the less fortunate even as the services they get are shredded mercilessly. Ridiculously over-ambitious claims are made that the Council is the best in the land and glowing peer reviews carried out by other councils are flourished with pride. Although these are greeted with amused incredulity, irritation and contempt in towns and villages across Cornwall. Arrogant threats to silence critics are made as the Council over-reacts badly to local campaigners. All this comes on top of the long-familiar disingenuous and casual misuse of selected statistics and evidence that has been business as usual for so long. It’s hardly surprising that the gulf between the Council’s leadership and the mass of the public – disillusioned, dispirited and disbelieving or angry, astonished and amazed in turn – widens by the day.

To sum up, Cornwall Council’s leadership clique has determined that the only way it can survive is to resort to the poacher turned gamekeeper strategy. Thoroughly captured by corporate interests, it acts like a corporation. Prevented from regulating developers by changes in the planning laws, it becomes a developer itself. From representing communities, the Council turns to transforming and re-engineering communities, or ‘place-shaping’ in the jargon it prefers. This turns what should happen on its head. Instead of communities being in control of their destiny and shaping their political representatives to achieve their real needs, we have the political superstructure shaping communities to suit its need and the interests of developers, central government and better-off visitors (both permanent and temporary).

Come back tomorrow to find out what Cornwall Council’s big idea is. (No prizes for guessing.)

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Cornwall Council‘s quandary: How to survive in conditions of austerity

What the hell is going on at Cornwall Council? On those extremely rare occasions when people think about local government they probably have a hazy notion that councils provide public services paid for out of our rates and taxes. Decisions are made by councillors, who we elect, and officers loyally carry out those decisions.

Reality is not so straightforward. In the local elections last year, to our eternal shame, the Great Cornish Electorate returned basically the same crew of councillors. Since then councillors have been surprisingly quiet as Cornwall Council’s leadership takes them forward into its own brave new world of private sector local (?) government.

While most councillors were busy practicing their impressions of startled rabbits paralysed by the headlights of the oncoming privatisation train, the Council’s ‘Delivering Homes, Jobs and Communities Task and Finish Group’ was meeting. This was set up to assess the Council’s ‘appetite for risk’. It was also supposed to weigh up financial outcomes and commercial opportunities against social and environmental objectives, although the minutes, which are well worth a read, betray a predictably narrow definition of society and environment.

Then there was a lot of silly, macho posturing in the media about a spaceport based at Newquay airport. The Council tells us that this is the fastest growing airport in the UK, although this isn’t too difficult to achieve as for several years it was the fastest declining airport in the UK. That was followed up by a fanfare of self-congratulation and boisterous back-slapping as the Council announced it was again building council houses. On closer inspection however, these turned out to be council houses that no-one would recognise as council houses. In fact, they seemed suspiciously identical to private developers’ housing. Which wasn’t surprising as the Council had in the meantime mutated into a private developer.

While it was doing that, the Council, using a definition of democracy hitherto unknown, had hived off responsibility for strategic decision-making to a shadowy Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board. This was apparently a ‘key strategic partnership’ but also conveniently makes the decision-making process in Cornwall even more opaque. It removes it to a safe arms-length distance, remote from any possible taint of popular control.

Most recently, we’ve seen the public relations disaster of council officers rushing off eagerly to taste the fleshpots of Cannes in order to prostrate themselves before international investors, hoping to sell Cornwall to them. Suffice it to say that those Tory MPs who were quick to condemn the Lib Dem/Indie leadership for this jaunt were quickly exposed as cynical hypocrites. It turns out they’re up to their neck in the same slimy cesspit of ideological effluent.

Let’s draw a curtain over that distasteful scene. Overall, we now have a widening gulf of perceptions in Cornwall. From inside the leadership bunker the Council is a gleaming beacon of efficiency. They really do seem to believe that the rest of UK local government looks toward Truro with open-mouthed awe, inspired by its go-getting innovative approach and jealous of the way it’s loved and respected by all its residents. Outside the bunker, the word on the street is that Cornwall Council engages in fake consultations, is crap at communicating its ideas, couldn’t organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery, is in bed with developers and is determined to destroy the Cornishness of Cornwall while trampling over its environment. Someone is deluded, that’s for sure.

The Council does have a predicament. To explain its direction of travel we have to first understand how this predicament has arisen. As we shall see, changes in financing local government have combined with a lack of vision, failures of communication (and listening) and a reluctance to abandon 50-year old policy follies to produce the present sad situation. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why Cornwall Council has made the choices it has.

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Cornwall for Change Conference, Saturday, 10 March

Planning in Cornwall, for People or Profit?
A debate and questions.

Cornwall for Change (C4C) and Community Voice on Planning (CoVoP) are holding a conference on 10th March 2018, 2pm – 5pm

The venue is Crossroads Conference Centre, Scorrier, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 5BP

If you’re interested in going along they’re asking you to register at

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Confused, complacent or just kidding us? The environmental costs of Cornwall Council’s ‘environmental growth strategy’

In Cornwall we don’t have any old growth strategy. No, we have an ‘environmental growth strategy’. Back in December 2016, the Council’s ‘vision’ was launched. And what a vision it is. Cunningly pitched far enough in the future so that the majority of us won’t be around to judge how successful it’s been, the Council, presumably in all seriousness, promises us that ‘In 2065, Cornwall’s environment will be naturally diverse, beautiful and healthy, supporting a thriving society, prosperous economy and abundance of wildlife.

This is truly have our cake and eat it time (plus several more cakes and throw in a few pasties).

Does this amount to anything more than the by now predictable doublespeak? Growth is always ‘environmental growth’, more population and houses become ‘strategic job strategies’, externally driven demand is always ‘local need’, unaffordable housing is transformed into ‘affordable’, empty second houses are ‘homes’ etc., etc.

The definition of ‘environmental growth’ is somewhat vague, to say the least – ‘the net gain of our natural systems’. This will be achieved by, among other things, ‘increasing natural capital’ and designing ‘new developments to enhance and support our natural systems’. Unfortunately, the fact that the Council’s housing target is quietly hidden away on page 13, where it briefly states ‘integrating the development of 52,500 houses by 2030’, in print difficult to distinguish from the background colour, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

And then there’s the curious sentence in the Foreword. This states (correctly) that ‘we continue to witness the decline of nature in Cornwall as climate change, population pressure and modern day life impact on our surroundings.’ So logically we should expect the Council’s ‘environmental growth strategy’ to do all it can to challenge climate change and population pressure and reduce their impact. Except that logic is the last thing we should expect. As the Council also wants to ‘accelerate housing delivery’ and is very keen to build the 52,500 (soon to be 57,000) houses of its ‘target’.

The one growth we can be certain we’ll get is not that of nature but of houses and people. And therefore greenhouse gas emissions. While paying lip service and rightly identifying the problems as climate change and population growth on the one hand, on the other the Council’s own policies make those problems worse. Is such a startling contradiction merely the result of dysfunctional policy-making and crass stupidity, or is it mind-boggling complacency? Or two-faced mendacity?

For the other thing the Council’s hyper-growth population-led strategy will bring is a massive annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions in Cornwall. Look at the facts. The carbon cost of building a new house is estimated to be somewhere between 60 and 80 tonnes. Each house then has to be furnished, carpeted and filled with the usual gadgetry. Then there’s the associated extra infrastructure – roads, schools and the like – that are needed. Let’s conservatively assume the carbon cost of that lot adds another 30% to the building cost. Once the new residents have arrived they’ll also add to Cornwall’s greenhouse gas emissions, through their everyday consumption.

Here are the sums:

Building 2,625 houses a year x 70 tonnes = 183,750 tonnes

  • Add 30% for furnishings and infrastructure = 55,000 tonnes
  • And the greenhouse gas emissions of 4,000 more folk @ 5.5 T per person = 22,000 tonnes
  • Which gives us a current total of 260,750 tonnes every year.

That’s the equivalent of the average carbon emission of around 47,000 people, or almost the population of Camborne-Redruth, or nearly three Truros, or two Penzances, or two Newquays, or two St Austells. Every year.

And yet we’re also told we have to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 to stand any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Could Cornwall Council please tell us how it intends to square that with its hyper-growth strategy, one that’s adding 8-9% to our carbon footprint each and every year?

Concerns about the loss of Cornish heritage or its countryside have so far fallen on deaf ears and been insufficient to slow the juggernaut of growth the Council’s leadership clique has jumped onto. Maybe the glaring contradictions and potential implications of its disastrous housing and population growth strategy on its own ‘environmental growth’ vision will penetrate the frozen, sleepy intellectual wasteland that is Lys Kernow. Surely, there must be someone there, either elected or unelected, prepared to stand up, point out the absence of the emperor’s new clothes, work with campaigners and expose the patently unsustainable direction the Council is leading us?

Posted in Cornwall Council;, councillors, discourses and ideologies, environment, population growth | 2 Comments