Tuesday, 18 January 2022

AFFORDABLE HOUSING NEEDS TO BE AFFORDABLE!



The new administration at the unitary authority has just issued a press release celebrating that Cornwall “delivered the second-highest number of affordable homes in ‘England’ in 2020-21.” This followed the publication of figures from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which shows that a total of 814 affordable homes had been completed to the west of the Tamar last year.

The press release was similar to another one from 12 months ago, put out by the previous administration, when 832 such homes were completed for the year 2019-20.

Obviously, this comparison between council areas of varying size is quite artificial, and I feel it is important that we look beyond the headline figures.

The detailed information shows that 288 of the housing units were for low-cost ownership, discounted sale or shared ownership. In terms of the rental properties, these comprised 47 intermediate rent and 469 for affordable rent, but only ten were for social rent.

It is well-known that I have been a critic of the “affordable rent” concept, which sets rents at 80% of the extremely inflated rent levels that might otherwise be achieved on the open-market.

The level of chargeable rents are high, though supporters of the model point out that rents are capped at LHA (Local Housing Allowance) levels, which is based on the maximum benefit that could be secured to pay for housing costs.

As an example, the LHA figure for the western two-thirds of Cornwall would allow £169.15 a week to be charged for a three-bed property. That could equate to a monthly rent of up to £732.98, which I feel makes a mockery of its description as affordable housing. For North Cornwall, the maximum weekly figure is £149.59, while in South East Cornwall it is £159.95.

By comparison, recent adverts for three-bed social rent properties on the Cornwall Homechoice system showed weekly rents at between £81.91 and £104.76 – a much more reasonable figure.

The affordable rent model was introduced by David Cameron’s Coalition Government about a decade ago. Data from the UK Government shows that the consequence has been a near total replacement of social rent properties with affordable rent ones. For example, in the three years between 2008-09 and 2010-11, just before the government-directed change in approach to subsidised housing, the number of social rent units constructed in Cornwall were 441, 562 and 614 respectively

I do welcome that Cornwall Council is stating the “focus” of its “current development programme” is social rent. But we need to see the UK Government take the same approach, along with local Housing Associations.

This was my article in last week’s Cornish Guardian newspaper.



PROPER HOMES OR HOLIDAY LETS?


On one of my walks during the Christmas and New Year break, I found myself in a cove in West Cornwall. It included a farm complex, which was fenced off and clearly no longer being used for agricultural purposes.

It was a National Trust property and there was a notice which stated that the most recent farm tenancy had ended in October 2018. It added the Trust had a “great opportunity” to manage the farmland “with nature as a priority.”

I understand that the larger modern farm buildings are to be removed and the Trust is investigating ideas for how the older traditional farm buildings could be used to “improve the visitor welcome” to the local area. The farmhouse has already been turned into a holiday let, with the promotional blurb for the Listed house specifying that income raised will “help support important conservation work.”

I would not question the Trust’s commitment to sustainable farming and the protection of historic landscapes and biodiversity enhancements.

But it fills me with sadness to see the loss of another historic holding, where generations have farmed the land. I am very much of the view that organisations seeking to safeguard the countryside, also need to protect the fabric of the human communities that occupy the same space. It is therefore counter-productive and damaging every time a permanent home is lost to become a “second home” or holiday let.

I understand why this happens – it is a financial decision! I had a look at the National Trust’s portfolio of holiday properties and the farmhouse would cost between £1,999 and £3,299 to book it out for a week’s holiday.

The Trust’s website lists over 500 holiday cottages across Cornwall, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Of these, 108 are in Cornwall, which seems to be a very high share of the overall number (at over 20%).

On its site, the National Trust also notes that it owns around 5,000 houses/cottages and aims to be a “professional and fair landlord” that provides “warm, comfortable homes at a fair market rent for people in more than 40 villages.” Its “overall objectives for housing” include seeking to further its work in local areas “through the selection of tenants with suitable skills” and to help “meet identified social housing needs” where it is a significant housing provider.

I have to ask whether the National Trust’s approach to housing in Cornwall is similar or dissimilar to what it does in other parts of the UK? I have written to the Trust to find out and I will report back when I know more.

This was my column in the Cornish Guardian newspaper dated 5th January 2022.

Sunday, 12 December 2021

The 50,000 : what happened after 12th December 2001



This is my article in this coming week's Cornish Guardian.

In last week’s Cornish Guardian, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the delivery of 50,000 declarations, calling for a Cornish Assembly, to 10 Downing St on 12th December 2001. I wish to return to this topic and to share how the Westminster establishment dealt with our demand for greater self-government for Cornwall.

It remains my view that the 50,000 declarations represented a massive statement of intent from the people of Cornwall. When the signatures were being collected, we were aware that the Labour Government had a position that, if a petition of 5% of voters was collected, it would allow a referendum on changes to local government in a particular area. Obviously, our demands were not about “local government,” but having secured the support of more than 10% of the electorate we felt we had won the “moral argument” to put pressure on the UK Government to support devolution for Cornwall.

While there was no formal response from Downing Street, there was hope that our aspirations would be reflected in the forthcoming White Paper. Titled “Your Region, Your Choice,” this was published in May 2002 and studiously ignored Cornwall. Instead, it proposed assemblies for government regions. In the preface, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said: “No region will be forced to have an elected assembly. But where there is public support for one, we believe that people should be given the chance to demonstrate this in a referendum.” But for Cornwall, such words were a nonsense. There was no choice. There was just one option - a 25-35 seat assembly for a “South West” which stretched as far as Bristol.

At the time Cornwall County Council, four of Cornwall’s six district councils and numerous town and parish councils backed the campaign for a Cornish Assembly and/or a referendum, while hundreds and hundreds of people from Cornwall made similar representations.

Sadly, it was to no avail and Tony Blair’s Government refused to even consider the representations for more powers for Cornwall. A subsequent FOI request from MK secured a couple of ministerial briefings from 2002. These set out the “lines to take” when responding to campaigners from Cornwall. One condescendingly stated: “Although the campaign for a Cornish Assembly grabs the headlines, there is a growing but less audible groundswell of informed opinion in favour of a unitary council for Cornwall” adding that the “supporters of a unitary Cornwall could see it nestling happily within a South West Regional Assembly.” I find it so insulting for 50,000 people to be told their opinion is not “informed.”

The campaign for meaningful devolution to Cornwall must and will continue.

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE 50,000 DECLARATIONS



This is my article in this week's Cornish Guardian newspaper:

This coming Sunday (12th December) will mark the 20th anniversary of the delivery of a CD-ROM to 10 Downing Street. The disc contained the names of over 50,000 people who had signed individual declarations calling for a Cornish Assembly.

I am very proud to have authored the declaration and that the campaign was initially launched by Mebyon Kernow, before it was broadened out through the cross-party Cornish Constitutional Convention to garner greater support from across the political spectrum.

It was amazing that, within a period of about 18 months, more than 10% of the Cornish electorate had backed devolution for Cornwall. And I will never forget how the campaign had such energy thanks to the leadership of Paddy McDonough who co-ordinated teams of petitioners that took to the streets, weekend after weekend, to sign up supporters.

It remains one of the greatest disappointments of my political life that the Labour Government of that time ignored the declarations. Instead of helping to build a better and stronger democracy in Cornwall, as they did in Wales and Scotland, they chose to centralise local government even though this was opposed by 80% of residents.

In recent weeks, I have had a few chats about devolution with a Labour councillor. She is rightly exasperated that elected politicians to the west of the Tamar lack the political powers to deal with important political issues. Her particular frustration was Cornwall could not control second homes, though I couldn’t help but point out that it was Tony Blair’s Government which had denied devolution to Cornwall.

One common criticism of supporters of devolution is that we should not be talking about dry topics such as constitutional change or new structures of governance, but instead should focus on the “real issues” facing people.

But if we had won devolution in the 2000s, Cornwall would have the ability to cap the number of second homes and reverse the damaging spread of such properties – just as will soon be happening in Wales. Linked to this, Cornwall would have control over all aspects of planning.

If we had won devolution, Cornwall would have had more say in how the pandemic had been dealt with, just as the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales (Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford) were able to lead in their respective countries.

And fair funding. If we had a meaningful devolution settlement, Cornwall would almost certainly be better off. The devolved administrations have just secured an extra £8.7 billion, while Cornwall’s one principal council is busy making yet more massive cuts while it is waiting to see what crumbs it will get from the local government budget.



Monday, 6 December 2021

CORNWALL NEEDS A PARLIAMENT FOR PARITY WITH SCOTLAND AND WALES



MK press release

Mebyon Kernow strengthens devolution call on 20th anniversary of 50,000 declarations


This coming Sunday (12th December) marks the 20th anniversary of the delivery of more than 50,000 declarations in support of a Cornish Assembly to 10 Downing Street.

To mark the anniversary, Mebyon Kernow has challenged all political parties to support meaningful devolution for Cornwall.

The Party for Cornwall has also confirmed that it strengthened its own policy position on greater self-government for Cornwall at its recent online National Conference. Party members voted to seek devolution parity with Wales and Scotland, by making it clear that Cornwall needs its own Parliament / Senedh Kernow.

Commenting after the vote, MK’s leadership team of Cllrs Dick Cole, Michael Bunney, Loveday Jenkin and Andrew Long said:

“Mebyon Kernow has been at the very forefront of the campaign for devolution to Cornwall for decades and we have always linked this to what has been achieved in Wales and Scotland.

“We have campaigned for a National Assembly of Cornwall, though our policy documents have always made it clear that we want to achieve the powers equivalent to those in the Scottish Parliament.

“The National Assembly in Wales has secured additional powers over the last two decades and been renamed the Welsh Parliament / Senedd Cymru.

“In continuing to seek parity with Wales and Scotland, we are pleased that MK members have chosen to give greater clarity to our ambitions for Cornwall by specifying that our demand for greater powers should be linked to the creation of a Parliament for Cornwall.

“In discussing this shift in emphasis from ‘Assembly” to ‘Parliament,” we noted that the term ‘Assembly’ has been blurred to some degree through calls for a Citizens’ Assemblies, while other political groups continue to undermine the distinction between calls for a ‘National Assembly’ and local government.

“Our message is now unequivocal. Our fellow Celtic nations have their own parliaments, so why not Cornwall?”


Party members were asked their views on this policy clarification in a recent survey. The change was supported by 84% of those who responded, and then endorsed at the virtual National Conference on Saturday 27th November.

Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall acknowledges that other political parties are talking about “devolution,” but that it is not within the context of devolution secured in Wales and Scotland.

The statement from MK’s leadership team continues:

“It is extremely frustrating that when politicians from London-based parties speak about ‘devolution,’ their focus usually tends to be on very limited accommodations between the centre and local government. This is simply not good enough for Cornwall.

“The Conservatives have come up with the concept of ‘county deals’ and the Conservative administration on the unitary authority has confirmed that it is seeking such a deal, which would nonetheless sit within a ‘Great South West’ regional construct. The latest comment from Labour came from their mayor of Greater Manchester, who put forward a proposal for a ‘Devonwall’ metro-mayor.

“It is our view that ‘county deals’ are not devolution at all, while the idea of a cross-Tamar metro-mayor is ridiculous.

“It is time that all politicians in Cornwall showed real ambition for our nation by seeking parity with Scotland and Wales, championing real devolution through the creation of our own Parliament.

“Twenty years on from the 50,000 declarations, it is our challenge to other political parties to come forward with detailed proposals to deliver meaningful devolution to Cornwall, along with a promise of action to make it happen.”