The Cornish Local Plan (formerly the ‘Core Strategy), which will be endorsed by the Cabinet of Cornwall Council before being submitted to the Secretary of State this month, is a source of great anxiety. It will be tested by an Inspector as to whether or not it is ‘sound’. Soundness is a subjective quality around which we can already see a pseudo-science of inconsistency beginning to take root. The debate around the Core Strategy has been dominated by the argument about how many houses should be built in the next 20 years. The halfway-house figure of 49000 has not even won the approval of the Single Issue Panel set up the Council under the Chairmanship of Councillor Cole – the Panel has proposed a significantly lower number, whilst others, me included, suggest that an even lower figure again would be most appropriate.
We do so because the Cornish experience strongly suggests that the issue of supply and demand is not about houses but about money – the reason why there is inequality in housing in Cornwall is not that there is not enough houses – there are plenty of houses – many of which, due to 2nd homes, change of use and holiday lets – are not within the general housing stock, where they should be. The problem is one of affordability, not of under-supply. It is very difficult to envisage a further supply of houses, even to the highest extremity of desire, actually causing a radical reduction in prices. The truth is, no matter the price, there will be a lender who will find the money, and as long as there is a money supply to foster increasing house prices, more and more people will be simply frozen out of the housing ‘market’.
Cornish people can’t afford mortgages. The ‘buy-to-let’ fashion has linked rents to loan repayments and broken the relationship between rent and incomes. This has been reinforced by the Government which now required Housing Association to charge no less than 80% of ‘market’ rents. With mortgages running at over 15-times salary, even for cheaper Cornish housing, this is mad, because social landlords are now being required to price their target tenants out of their properties, even though most of these properties have either been commandeered from Council Housing stock, or built with public subsidy.
During the Cold War we spoke of Mutually Assured Destruction. Now the pneumonic might easily represent Mutually Assured Denial.
Of course, property developers, apeing the outlandish position adopted by the demised ‘Regional Spatial Strategy’, would prefer to see 60,000, or even 72,000. Again, a pseudo-science of prediction, supported by melodramatic justifications rooted in registrations of households in ‘housing need’, and quantified by theoretical trends derived from census data, has grown up around the higher figures. The trend analysts and homelessness gurus predict a growth in population in Cornwall of 100,000 over the next 20 years or so. This is on top of the highest level of population growth of any British region in the past 50 years. The notion is that, if you build houses, you will accommodate those who move to Cornwall, and you will resolve the housing ‘crisis’.
In anticipation of this fait accompli, and with the voices of senior public officials claiming that the only way to protect vital public services in an era of austerity is to increase the population (even though all those extra people will require public services!), we have seen Cornwall Council grant consent for 1500 houses at Threemilestone, with the developer asserting that the key ‘Northern Access Route’ will only be built if it is jointly paid for by developers of land which will accommodate a further 1500 houses. It has already shifted one of Truro’s two secondary schools to Threremilestone, occupying Higher Besore Farm, a holding taken from the County Farms Estate, and constructed a ‘park and ride’ scheme which is of dubious value to the viability of Truro town centre (even though it was justified on the grounds of investing in the town centre).
One of the more outlandish aspects of this pre-emptive, pre-Local Plan bonanza has been the campaign to build a stadium at Threemilestone – a project which Cornwall Council ultimately voted to not contribute to, but which has re-emerged amidst a flurry of rhetoric but no apparent business plan! A Cornish stadium could be a good thing but it needs to be sited where it can function well as a venue – most likely at Newquay, close to the airport, where it would not only be within the influence of a business community that understands promotion and entertainment, but which would greatly enhance the scale of potential audience to which it could market its wares by dint of the air connection and quality, internationally competitive holiday experience offered by Newquay – in other words, it would be good trade!
The fundamental flaw of the Cornish Local Plan (Core Strategy) is that it is founded on contradiction – the strategic objective is to enhance and sustain the dispersed settlement pattern, the distinctive character and unique landscapes of Cornwall; the policies all require development in a few major lumps – dispersal is the object; the policy is centralism. Is this ‘sound’? I fear not!
The economic strategy for Cornwall, as published by the Cornwall Local Enterprise Partnership and endorsed by Cornwall Council, depicts three key pillars – farming, food processing and tourism – as our key activities. The one thing they have in common (apart from complementing each other) is that they all need land and landscape – it is their fundamental resource: No Land, No Food; No food, no processing; No landscape, No Visitors; No visitors, No Brand, No Market, No Economy! It is this economic strategy that is to generate wealth for the existing population, and to employ those of the 100,000 new mouths allegedly coming our way thanks to the plentiful supply of houses to be built, which Cornish people will, by and large, be unable to afford, and will continue to be on the Housing Register – a mechanism which, by the way, tends to contain as many households in need as there are 2nd homes in Cornwall!
All these houses, and the business parks, stadia, roads, sewage farms and amenities, will consume land – ironically, most of the land will be around our market towns, and this is our best agricultural land. The Core Strategy (it doesn’t feel much like a local plan!) ignores the value of agricultural land – it states that it will safeguard Grades 1 and 2 land (which is a minimal area), leaving Grades 3a & 3b unprotected and, thereby, according to its own self-fulfilling policy-prophecy, available to be consumed. Most of Cornwall’s agricultural activity occurs on 3a and 3b land – our livestock graze it and our vegetable growers cultivate it. The Core Strategy consultation documents suggested that only ‘five per cent of land is developed, the rest is not!’ Indeed, this was asserted as a ‘key fact’!
It is nonsense to say such a thing. An average field is highly developed – soil management, drainage, bio-diversity provision, wind protection, hedges and gates – if you compare an average Cornish field it is as developed – in a different way, for a different purpose – as a housing estate. Farming is, indeed, Cornwall’s most productive economic activity, sensitive to many diffuse market pressures, vulnerable to disease and requiring high levels of skill amongst those who practise the profession. It also manages the land in such a way as to provide tourism with its greatest visitor attraction – the Cornish landscape, for which it receives no dividend (or even thanks most of the time!).
Will all this population growth occur? Well perhaps not! The effects of climate change and our responses to it are quickly changing society. The availability of new technologies are helping with this and also offering new ways of doing things which may well alter lifestyles – nothing, however, will detract from the necessity to grow food in efficient and productive ways – why, even 2nd home-owners will fight each other if they are hungry!
One of the structures which is most in need of change to adapt to climate change, is the British food distribution matrix. This is currently overseen and operated by supermarkets. However, just as the housing market is an edifice founded on the institutionalisation of debt, so the supermarket is an institution founded on the generation of carbon. In a society and a global marketplace increasingly focused on sustainability, climate change management and effecting maximum benefit from technology it is nor than likely that the current model of large supermarkets competing around the outside of towns will fail unless it radically changes. Timescales for change are shortening – rapid melt of ice-caps, lack of bio-security in global trade (eg Ash Die Back!), self-help and resilience replacing consumerism and social dependence – all these things and more tend to suggest that multi-thousand square feet supermarkets are on their last legs – most especially if they rely on petrol stations to keep them going.
It is entirely right that opposition should be mounted to a large supermarket at Threemilestone. It will have a negative impact on Truro town centre and place even more pressure on transport infrastructure. If it is consented then it should be required to pay for the development of Hugus rail halt, just as the rumoured John Lewis on the Carrick site (once, recently and famously, unsuitable for Waitrose to select as part of its sequential testing!) should pay for the Claremont Terrace Halt – each of these would greatly improve accessibility, reduce carbon significantly, offer different and less environmentally harmful park and ride options (at Blackwater and Probus) and improve the competitiveness of Truro town centre – no simply as a shopping centre and glorified coffee shop, but as a focus for the professions and commerce – a necessary part of the economic ecology of a successful town centre.
The urgency with which the case against needs to be mounted is growing daily, but so too is the likelihood that, even if consent is granted to completely eradicate farming on the western moorland between Truro and Chiverton, that all this proposed development will not happen – the times they are a changin’ – although times only change if people make them change – So, Grab yer Pens and Placards, Comrades – The next phase of the Battle for Cornish Land must now commence.
12th November 2012