How did we get into this mess?: 5 From Core Strategy to Local Plan, 2012-13

At the end of 2011, Cornwall Council’s leadership overruled the advice of its own Planning Policy Advisory Panel (PPAP) and opted for a housing target that exceeded the trend rate of building in Cornwall. But even this was not enough for some.

Over the next year, the Core Strategy was renamed by the Tory/Lib Dem Government, with a fine Orwellian flourish, as a ‘Local’ Plan, just as it was becoming patently obvious that it was anything but. The draft submission document re-appeared at the PPAP in September 2012. By now the target had crept up by another 1,000 to 49,000. According to the planning officers this met ‘Cornwall’s position for employment, the balance of homes in the individual communities, the health and wellbeing of the population and the character of Cornwall’.

Council and Government predictions of population growth In Cornwall have consistently over-shot reality. Both prefer to ignore this fact.

Others were less sure that an increase in the building rate did this. Meanwhile, in the interim the first results of the 2011 Census had revealed that Cornwall’s population hadn’t risen at anything like the rate the ONS had predicted and planning officers confidently forecast. In addition, the fall in household size had stalled. Panicking, at first officers suggested that the Census was faulty, as their computer model had ‘sophisticated’ inputs and therefore couldn’t be wrong.

At the PPAP meeting Cllr Wood (Ind, Roche) and Cllr Dolley (Ind, Redruth North) moved that the Panel accept the officers’ report and recommend the Cabinet approve 49,000. The logic of increasing the housing target at a time the data was showing a large decrease in the forecast in-migration was lost on the rest of the Panel. Cllr Cole (MK, St Enoder) and Cllr Biggs (Con, Camborne West) therefore moved 38,000 houses as an amendment. In the end the Panel passed this lower target, by a more convincing margin than a year earlier, six to three with one abstention. The vote was again unrecorded. There was still a chance the opportunity could be taken to put a virtuous circle of declining population growth in place.

But again, the PPAP’s more sustainable recommendation got short shrift from the portfolio holder for Housing. At the Cabinet meeting of November 2012, Cllr Kaczmarek (Ind, Carharrack) put forward 48,500, preferring to concentrate on a disingenuous comparison with the previous Labour Government’s Regional Spatial Strategy, which had suggested a 68,000 target. Yet that target had never been subjected to a consultation or examination process or ever become reality. Despite its fictional status, Cllr Kaczmarek argued that there was ‘a robust justification to reduce the housing target of 68,000 as set out in the RSS, to this proposal for 49,000 [sic] houses’.

The draft Plan, containing a target of 48,500, was duly passed, but only narrowly, by four to three. Again, no voting details are available.

Countryside at Helston destined to be the site of another new settlement

When the draft came to full council in December 2012, there was a flurry of amendments. Worried by moves to re-instate the 38,000, it was agreed to pass the Plan back to the PPAP, before discussing it again in the new year. Cllr Nolan (LD, Truro Redannick), Cllr German (Ind, Roseland) and Cllr Pearce (LD, Bude) recorded their votes against the deferral.

The issue eventually returned to the PPAP at the end of January, 2013. Three proposals were on the table – the Cabinet’s 48,500, the Panel’s 38,000 and another for 29,000. Sensing the way the wind was blowing, officers reluctantly conceded that the Cabinet figure might be reduced to 45,400. Cllr Cole moved the 38,000, Cllr Bull (LD, St Austell Poltair) and Cllr George (LD, Liskeard West) moved an amendment for 29,000. This was lost four votes to seven. Cllr Wood and Cllr Dolley moved an amendment for 45,400. This was also lost three to eight. In the end the Panel voted again, by six to four, for 38,000 houses, with one abstention. (The only current councillor not mentioned above who was a member of that committee was Cllr Maddern (Con, St Buryan)).

The Plan then trundled back to full council. The scene was set for a critical meeting that took place in February 2013.

Posted in Cornwall Council;, councillors, Local Plan, official statistics | 1 Comment

How did we get into this mess?: 4 The early skirmishes, 2011

As we’ll see, the opportunity to bin the mindless reliance on high housing and population growth and put in place more balanced policies was not seized upon by Cornwall Council. To understand why not it’ll help to understand the course of the debates over the housing target.

The road to the final adoption of the ‘Local Plan’, with its excessive housing target of 52,500 minimum, has been a long and rocky one. Way back in the spring of 2011 planning officers had come up with three options for the first round of consultation on what was then called the Core Strategy. One involved 38,000 houses, one was for 57,000, while the ‘medium’ option, was 48,000. Even that was around 7% to 14% higher (depending on which figures you believe) than the most recent rate of housing growth.

Developers were very active calling for far higher housing targets than the trend rate warranted

Almost half of the 369 written responses went for the low option. Two thirds of individuals who responded favoured 38,000 or fewer. No voluntary organisation plumped for more than 38,000 while most of the parish and town councils preferred 38,000 and none went for the high option. In contrast 87% of businesses, most of them with a vested interest in housebuilding, wanted to increase the build rate to 57,000 or even higher.

The 750 people who responded to public displays at supermarkets and the like were more evenly split. Here, the greatest number (43%) went for the medium option. This bears out the normal response to exercises like this. When faced with a decision based on superficial information, people will more often opt for the middle of three options, the seemingly less extreme and safer choice.

More house building was clearly good news for some

After the consultation the officers worked up a recommendation. This went first to the Planning Policy Advisory Panel (PPAP) in August 2011. The planning officers’ recommendation to the PPAP was for 54,000, close to the figure favoured by the developers’ lobby, but well above that wanted by local organisations and town and parish councils.

At the PPAP support for 52,000 was proposed. This was seconded by Cllr Dolley (Ind, Redruth North). Cllr Cole (MK, St Enoder) and Cllr Biggs (Con, Camborne West,), moved an amendment for 40,000. Councillors who have since retired then moved another amendment for 48,000, which was accepted by the proposers of 52,000. The vote on 48,000 was lost six to five. While most of the councillors on the PPAP are no longer on the Council, and in any case the vote went unrecorded, the group breakdown is revealing. Along with Dick Cole, one of the four Tories voted for 40,000, the other three for 48,000. The two Liberal Democrats were split down the middle, one going for 40,000, the other for 48,000. Finally, the four Independents came down three to one for 40,000.

It was all irrelevant. The Cabinet, then controlled by Conservatives and Independents, ignored the PPAP’s advice. Housing and Planning portfolio holder Cllr Kaczmarek (Ind, Carharrack) proposed 48,000 to the Cabinet, saying, rather selectively, ‘this reflects the feedback of the earlier options consultation public events’.

Others wanted the lower figure. Cllr German (Ind, Roseland) and Cllr Burden (Ind, Stokeclimsland) moved an amendment for 40,000. During the discussion ‘concerns were expressed that the lower target would be insufficient to meet Cornwall’s housing needs’ even though a figure very close to it had been sufficient in the previous 20 years. No matter, as 40,000 was rejected five votes to three, with Cllr Kaczmarek and Cllr Toms (now Ind, then Con, Looe East) proposing 48,000 houses as the basis for the second round of consultation.

The first round had ended up with a figure higher than the recent growth trend but not as high as the planning officers or the developers had wanted. Or perhaps the officers’ initial 54,000 was just a negotiating ploy. Whatever the case, the stage was set, as debate then centred on whether 48,000 was enough or too many.

Posted in Cornwall Council;, councillors, Local Plan | 3 Comments

How did we get into this mess?: 3 Why the housing target matters

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.

Cornwall experience a far higgher population growth rate in the half-century from 1961 than the the other countries of the UK

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).

Properties in Cornwll are aggressively marketed in London. ‘Local needs’ anyone?

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.

Population growth rates are predicted to be on the rise. Their Plan is working

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.

Posted in Cornwall Council;, environment, Local Plan, population growth | 1 Comment

How did we get into this mess?: 2 False dawns and lost opportunities

The aim of this series of blogs is to unearth the limited evidence available that might allow us to assess which councillors to re-elect next month. However, first we’ll need to spend a couple of days establishing a context for this, before moving on to the more exciting history of the 52,500 minimum target. As Cornwall’s foremost economist, the late Ron Perry, was keen to observe, Cornwall has enjoyed a series of ‘false dawns’. These were times when things seemed to be taking a turn for the better, only to grind to a halt as opportunities are then left ungrasped. One such dawn came at the end of the 1990s.

In the two decades before 2011 Cornwall’s population growth rate fell substantially.

The 1990s had seen population growth fall from its peak of over 10% a decade in the 1970s and 1980s to 6.4%. This was still one of the highest growth rates in the UK, but it was less unsustainable than that of the 70s and 80s. In those decades, counter-urban flows had appeared to many to be wreaking havoc on Cornwall’s environment and heritage. But in the 1990s there were glimmers of hope. For a start Cornwall’s chronic unemployment seemed to be easing. This was associated with the slowdown in inwards migration.

Cornish towns and villages began to experience the full brunt of counter-urbanisation in the 1960s and 70s.

As Ron had pointed out in the 1980s, jobs growth accompanied by rapid population growth meant that we’d been running fast only to stay in the same spot. New jobs were promptly filled by newcomers. Competition for jobs meant that wage levels in Cornwall remained stubbornly among the lowest in the UK, as counter-urbanisers ‘downshifting’ and seeking a ‘Cornwall lifestyle’ were not deterred from moving. In 1999, the Government finally recognised Cornwall’s predicament, uncoupling it from better-off Devon. The EU duly obliged and delivered Cornwall the highest level of regional aid.

Some saw the counter-urban flows as heralding the end of days for the Cornish

With a slowing population growth rate and the possibility of using grant aid to diversify the Cornish economy away from its over-reliance on tourism, here was an opportunity. All that was needed were consistent policies to build on this and provide a breathing space for communities that had seen massive growth since the 1960s. They could restore their sense of place, community resilience could be nurtured and flower, while a more sustainable economy fit for a post-fossil fuel era could be created.

As the 2010s approached Cornwall Council set about revising its Core Strategy. Here was the opportunity to reduce the housing target to match the demographic trends, wind down population growth further and set a virtuous cycle in motion? But would the Council grasp it?

Posted in Local Plan, planning system, population growth | 1 Comment

How did we get into this mess?: 1 Who do we vote for on May 4th?

People are worried and anxious, dismayed and appalled, angry and even fuming about the massive transformations they’re seeing around them. With the local elections fast approaching, several of them have been asking which councillors voted to turn Cornwall into a replica of the suburban Home Counties.

One of the many ‘development’ sites now found around Cornwall as the suburbanisation plan unfolds.

A good question to ask but one that’s not so easy to answer. The first reason is practical. While all votes in the House of Commons have been recorded since the eighteenth century, such a new-fangled notion is still not mandatory for local government. Although we’re told who proposes and seconds resolutions and amendments, the vast majority of votes at Cornwall Council go unrecorded. Unless you’re there, you’re not told who votes which way. Occasionally, enough councillors will demand a recorded vote and sometimes individual councillors ask for their votes to be recorded. But these instances are rare. How, in that case, voters are supposed to make informed choices about who to vote for remains somewhat mysterious.

The second reason is that resolutions and amendments are often less than clear-cut. For example, councillors have not been directly asked to vote for or against the high growth policy pursued by Cornwall Council’s leadership in the past two councils. Perhaps, hidden in the minutes, there’s a recorded vote on the Council’s economic strategy, with a more sustainable option on offer, but I haven’t found it. If councillors know of one then do tell.

People would particularly like to know how their councillors voted on the housing target that is now part of the amusingly titled ‘Local’ Plan. But the torrid tale of how we got to a target of building a minimum of 52,500 houses in 20 years is a complex one, with U-turns, plot twists, behind the scenes manoeuvrings, misuse of statistics and farcical confusion. Moreover, this target is embedded in a more general high growth economic strategy which fuels ‘growth deals‘ and the like. The core of this strategy (and a large chunk of the ‘growth deal’ dosh) is about building infrastructure (mainly new roads, but other services too) in order to ‘unlock’ land and ‘accelerate’ housing delivery.

It’s possible to pick over the scattered evidence for how councillors’ voted on the housing target. That’s what I’ll be doing here over the next ten days. You’ll come across examples of votes by councillors and names of movers and seconders of resolutions or amendments related to the housing target. But these also come with a very large health warning. The evidence in the Council’s minutes provides us merely with the tip of the iceberg. There may be councillors who consistently voted one way or the other, either for the highest target under debate, or the lowest, but their votes have gone unrecorded and unnoticed. Some will have put in hours behind the scenes working on more genuinely sustainable options, time that of necessity we know nothing about. Others will have done little but turn up and vote.

So, with those caveats in mind, over the next week or two we can unravel the road to 52,500 houses and thus provide a little information that could come in handy to help  you decide who to vote for on May 4th. But first, we need to establish some background. The next two blogs provide the slightly bigger picture.

Posted in councillors, Local Plan | 3 Comments

Cornwall Councillors refuse to reply to Charter for Cornwall

On Monday, 6th March, the Charter for Cornwall steering group sent a message to all 123 sitting Cornwall Councillors. Apart from the handful of councillors with no email address, it was sent in two forms, email and hard copy delivered personally to their pigeon holes at Lys Kernow. The letter informed them of the Charter for Cornwall and asked for their views on the four pledges.

Sadly, the response has been less than overwhelming. Seven sitting councillors have signed up to the four pledges of the Charter. Another handful of Liberal Democrats have told the Charter group they’re happy with the demand for fewer second homes, more social rented housing and the devolution of planning powers to Cornwall. But they’re unwilling to work for a reduction in the excessive housing target Cornwall Council is saddled with. (More on this in the postscript below). Another brace of councillors indicated that they do not support the pledges.

Meanwhile, the silence from the other 111 councillors has been deafening. How might we explain this appalling lack of interest in the issues highlighted in the Charter pledges? Is it that they just can’t be bothered? Too arrogant or too contemptuous of the campaign to waste time replying? Unable to understand why this is an issue for so many or empathise with their concerns?

Whatever the reasons, the tactic appears to be to ignore the Charter and hope that it and the issues it prioritises might just go away.

Elephant?? I can’t see any.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Such tactics do little to dispel the widespread view that councillors are complacently accepting the transformation of Cornwall in the interests of a non-Cornish agenda. Or the notion that councillors are not prepared to be transparent about their complicity in the Council’s unsustainable housing and population growth strategy by refusing to debate it publicly, or even acknowledge it. Or the argument from some that they have a complete absence of vision and are unable to work together to hammer out a more balanced strategy that can better protect and enhance our heritage and environment. Or the claim they are actively colluding in the destruction of Cornwall while passing the buck back to an equally useless bunch of MPs. Or the accusation that they have been thoroughly captured by the developers’ lobby.

Whatever the reason, the failure of the vast majority of Cornwall Councillors to respond to the Charter for Cornwall is a shocking indictment of their willingness to engage with these issues. When we get our chance to vote in May we must remember this.

Postscript
Some councillors have told the Charter group it’s ‘dishonest’ to pretend the Council is able to do anything about its housing target. Yet this is itself a dishonest stance.

It’s dishonest because councillors could have done and still could do several things to increase pressure for a lower target. They could have challenged the faulty projections the housing targets are based on and told their officers to work with campaigners to generate a robust case for a lower target. They didn’t. They could have made the Government’s refusal to consider devolving strategic planning powers to Cornwall in the so-called ‘devolution deal’ a deal breaker. They didn’t.

Furthermore, it’s dishonest in that the majority of councillors have either made light of or wholeheartedly supported the Council leadership’s high housing and population growth strategy, as packaged in their ‘growth deals‘. Lectures about being ‘honest’ are surely a little misplaced coming from councillors who have kept quiet about the implications of this unsustainable strategy. ‘Honesty’ might have involved making the explicit case for the advantages of such a policy. They didn’t. Or by encouraging a genuine public debate over the future direction of Cornwall and its communities. They haven’t.

Posted in Charter for Cornwall, councillors, population growth | Leave a comment

Mutual buck-passing: how politicians shirk their responsibility

The Charter for Cornwall campaign group has contacted all sitting Cornwall Councillors asking them for their views on the four pledges of their Charter. Replies were very promptly received from three senior Liberal Democrats. They stated they were willing to sign up to the pledges on social housing, second homes and the devolution of strategic planning but were unable to support the first pledge and oppose the Council’s excessive housing target.

For the record, here’s the actual wording of that pledge.

I pledge to do everything possible, including working with other councillors across party lines, to reduce Cornwall Council’s excessive housing targets.

Seems modest enough. Indeed, several sympathisers with the campaign felt this wording was far too vague and would allow anyone to sign up. So why is it too contentious for some sitting councillors?

Councillors say …

We need a change of government to get any real change in the total

I suggest you approach the Government … it is Government policy that is creating a problem for Cornwall

the Government has shown that the more resistance locally the more they will interfere from the London!‘ [sic]

What we see here is the technique of mutual buck-passing regularly indulged in by MPs and Cornwall’s local councillors. MPs blame the Council for the excessive and unsustainable levels of housebuilding. Councillors blame the Government. Passing the buck in this manner is convenient and absolves the passer from all blame. However, it’s also a cynical ploy designed to dizzy and disorient the onlooker as the buck periodically whizzes past. Such manoeuvres do little to address the alienation of the voting public or prevent the turn to the simplistic solutions offered by the populist far right.

The truth is that both are to blame. The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework is full of weasel words like localism and ‘sustainable development’. Basically it does the opposite, by loading the dice heavily in favour of developers, making it well-nigh impossible for communities or local planning authorities to stop speculative housing schemes.

But Cornwall Council’s record is equally weaselly. Let’s look at the facts. When the Local Plan process began all voluntary and community groups in Cornwall and the vast majority of Town and Parish Councils wanted a target of 38,000 or fewer. Cornwall Council ignored this and eventually plumped for 48,000. Councillors were swayed by their officers who assured them this was the minimum the Government would accept. The 48,000 target was underpinned by the uncritical use of official data. Every single one of these projections has turned out to be exaggerated or otherwise inaccurate.

Having allowed the planners to generate arguments for continuing a high housing and population growth strategy, those arguments were then seized upon gratefully by the housebuilders. Not believing their luck, they cherry-picked the Council’s own arguments for a higher housing target and threw them back at them at the public examination. As a result another 5,000 was added to the target and we’re stuck with 52,500, a 16% rise on recent, already relatively high building rates.

Meanwhile, despite hiding behind a language of affordability and ‘local needs’, Cornwall Council has been working quietly with the unelected and unaccountable Local Enterprise Partnership to impose a growth strategy on Cornwall that has at its centre a programme of massive housebuilding and population growth. Moreover, by uncritically embracing the ‘Lifestyle Cornwall offer’, Cornwall Council has been actively encouraging population growth and undermining any attempt to moderate or re-balance its growth strategy. Consistency in policy-making has hardly been the hallmark of Council policy.

Are councillors happy with this state of affairs continuing?

The truth is that Cornwall Council’s leadership has been committed to a high growth strategy since 2010. Most councillors have been unwilling or unable to challenge this. Few have bothered to investigate alternatives to an ‘extend and pretend’ policy, expose its long-term unsustainability or properly discuss its effects on the Cornish heritage or environment.

Despite the Liberal Democrat councillors’ denial, there was always an alternative. Councillors could have instructed their officers to produce a more robust case for the lowest possible target from the outset. They could have worked with campaigners and publicly exposed the inaccuracy of the projections used by central government. They could have more vigorously lobbied for special treatment for Cornwall, making more use of the national minority status designated in 2014 to back this up.

They did none of this. So they must shoulder part of the blame for the excessive housing target and an out-of-control developer-led growth policy. It’s too late now to moan about being misunderstood while blaming the Government for all our woes. Yes, of course central government is culpable, but Cornwall Council has colluded in that culpability and our elected representatives have been much too complacent in the face of this. This is exactly why a new broom is needed at Cornwall Council along with an injection of vision.

However, it’s not too late for councillors to recognise that the strategic direction of the past seven years was mistaken and begin to work together to reduce the excessive housing target imposed on Cornwall as part of a plan for a genuinely sustainable future. They could make a start by signing up to the Charter.

Posted in Charter for Cornwall, Cornwall Council;, councillors, planning system, population growth | 2 Comments