Thursday, 18 February 2016

The housing target in the Cornwall Local Plan, the debates and MK

In recent weeks, Mebyon Kernow has come in for some criticism that it has failed to do enough to push for a lower housing target during the work towards the Cornwall Local Plan.

I am saddened by this, and I have been asked by a colleague to put the record straight.

Firstly though, on general planning matters, MK councillors have often taken a very strong lead in opposing inappropriate developments – both large and small. Speaking for myself, I am particularly proud of the role I played in fighting the incinerator near St Dennis, producing a 33,000 “proof of evidence” on behalf of the local Parish Council and an associated campaign group for the Public Inquiry. It was certainly a privilege to present the 11,000 closing statement. We have also helped a number of groups with support and guidance, much of which our critics will not have seen.

In terms of the Local Plan and the overall housing target, we have been persistently plugging away for years and, though people may not like the result (largely because of central government pressures). I feel MK’s efforts should be recognised.

At Cornwall Council, I very much took the lead on this matter for MK. In the last Council (2009-2013), I chaired the Planning Policy Advisory Panel (PPAP) and, since 2013, the Environment, Heritage and Planning PAC (later rejigged as the Planning PAC). In this time, I have attended dozens and dozens of meetings, I repeatedly challenged the proposals put to elected members, and twice put forward a detailed proposal for a lower housing target for the Local Plan.

On Thursday 4th August 2011, the Planning Policy Advisory Panel met to consider the officer recommendation to set a housing target of 54,000 new properties for the period 2010 to 2030.

At this meeting, I argued that Cornwall had had growth rates higher than almost all other parts of the United Kingdom and that this could not go on indefinitely. I also challenged (i) ONS projections, (ii) projections on the extent of new households being generated from within Cornwall by the trend towards smaller household sizes, and also (iii) suggested levels of in-migration.

I moved an amendment for 40,000, arguing that the priority was far-reaching policies to maximise the delivery of proper local-needs housing - not high growth dominated by open market housing. The vote was extremely close and the votes were split across parties. Six members supported the 40,000 figure, which was opposed by five others.

The Cabinet member with responsibility for planning chose to ignore the recommendation of PPAP and asked officers to develop an initial target of 48,000 for consultation. At a meeting of the Conservative/Independent Cabinet on 12th October 2011, the figure of 48,000 was agreed for consultation. I attended and argued in favour of the lower figure. The vote in support of 48,000 was five votes to three.

The following year, I chaired another meeting of PPAP (28th September 2012) which again focussed on Cornwall’s housing target for the next two decades.

The officers had tabled a report which recommended that the number of new housing units should total 49,000. They argued this was based on population projections from the ONS.

I noted that, between 1991 and 2010, 42,000 new properties had been built in Cornwall, and argued that the evidence did not merit the proposed increase in the levels of house construction. I presented an alternative proposal for a lower housing target of 38,000 with the support of Camborne Councillor Dave Biggs. This document is available on request.

In making my recommendation for a lower figure, I argued for significantly less growth in Bodmin and Newquay. This certainly brought me considerable criticism from the councillors in those two towns. Members of the PPAP voted by six votes to three to recommend to the ruling Cabinet that the housing target for 2010-2030 should be 38,000, but this was rejected by the Conservative-led Cabinet at a meeting on 7th November 2012.

The Cabinet member recommended a figure of 48,500 new properties for the period 2010-2030, which was endorsed by four votes to three.

The Local Plan finally made it to a meeting of Full Council on Tuesday 12th February 2013. At the start of the debate, I spoke in favour of PPAP’s recommendation of 38,000, which I felt we had backed up with a range of detailed evidence.

The officers’ latest recommendation of 45,400 was voted down, as was a further amendment of 29,000. This was moved by Bert Biscoe, but the proposal had not been worked up in any detail.

Councillors from Bodmin, Falmouth and Newquay then argued for higher housing allocations for their towns. An amendment was moved which started with a target of 38,000 but added 1,900 housing units to Bodmin, 1,100 to Falmouth, and 1,300 to Newquay, bringing the overall housing target to 42,250. MK councillors voted against the amendment, but it was passed by 58 votes to 33.

Following the unitary elections in 2013, I was elected as the Chairman of the Environment, Heritage and Planning PAC. The content of the Local Plan was revisited and a range of meetings were organised.

I sought to engage with members across the authority and asked that they consider the various options including the 38,000 authored by myself and David Biggs, the previous Council’s agreed 42,250 and the officers’ new recommended figure of 47,500 contained within the recent Strategic Housing Market Needs Assessment – which equated to the Government’s so-called “objectively assessed need” as required by the National Planning Policy Framework.

It was clear there was an overwhelming majority of councillors who wished to accept the officer’s recommendation. This was principally founded on an analysis of how Core Strategies and Local Plans had fared, once submitted to a Planning Inspector for public examination – a process which all Plans have to go through. It made sober reading and confirmed that localism is truly a farce. The Coalition had a massive growth agenda and pretty much every single Plan with a target set below projections from the ONS had – after significant delays – been forced to accept higher numbers. It was a disgrace, but it was also a reality.

The PAC worked up two options for Cabinet and Council, as requested by members – namely the view of the previous Council and the officers’ recommendation. No councillors put forward an alternative proposal to the PAC.

The resultant Full Council meeting took place on 14 January 2014, at which the 47,500 target was agreed.

At that meeting, the Conservative Group – the majority of whom had argued for higher numbers in the previous Council – put forward a confused amendment to Full Council for 33,000 properties for the period 2010-2030. But the proposal was not even for 33,000 new units. It had 33,000 properties as a baseline and added that “no area will be allocated a lower figure than their extant consents.” This automatically added another 3,000-plus to the target. The proposal stated that local members be given a period to “request … that a higher number be allocated” which – given the other recent debates – meant that the several thousand properties would have been added to the total. This would have made the target much greater than the 38,000 we had pushed in the previous Council and probably even higher than the 42,250 that was also an option at the time

The MK group did vote against this poorly worked up proposal, and a couple of Conservative councillors spoke to me after the meeting and admitted that they considered the proposal a political stunt to simply get a positive headline! To be fair though, the Tory councillor behind the proposal did push it with the best of intentions.

The Conservative MP Sarah Newton also made a number of claims that the Council could successfully argue for a lower target than was actually agreed.

Around this time, I also took the initiative, on behalf of a cross-party handful of councillors, to write to the local government minister Brandon Lewis seeking a meeting to discuss housing numbers. The government wrote to the Council consenting to such a meeting, but the leadership of the authority decreed that the meeting only be attended by the Cabinet Member. There was nothing I could do about this, even though I had personally secured the meeting. I was pretty angry about it all, but the main outcome of the meeting was that Mr Lewis basically contradicted Sarah Newton and gave no succour whatsoever to those of us arguing for a lower target.

At this point, it had been my intention to put forward additional information for the Examination in Public, but the time leading up to the EiP was when MK was contesting the General Election. This was the one time when I wished that I could have done more, but it was simply not possible with my other commitments.

Obviously people are aware that, at the EiP, the Inspector demanded a range of changes to the document which were consistent with instructions from central government – whatever MPs might say!

The revised document was agreed on 15th December 2015, when councillors had no real option other than to accept the bitter pill of bowing to the Inspector’s will.

At this time, MK decided to focus on trying to get the so-called “eco-community” allocation for West Carclaze and Baal be removed from the document. For the record I have consistently opposed this development since 2007/2008, when I produced the objections agreed by Restormel Borough Council.

The reason for this was that the Government’s Planning Policy Statement, which specified that an eco-town had to be built, was cancelled on 6th March 2015 and it councillors could therefore legitimately reconsider whether the proposed development near Penwithick was appropriate.

I was pretty gutted when the amendment was only supported by eight councillors; namely the four MK councillors plus four independents. I also thought it was also very symbolic of the whole debate.

I hope the above information does show how MK councillors have been worked hard on this issue.

But I would add that this update only covers the key meetings which relate to the housing targets, and it does not record the plethora of briefings and debates which we took part in. This update also doesn’t consider issues relating to the elements in the Local Plan, such as affordable housing. This could be a blog for another day, in terms of how Government policies are destroying the very concept of affordable housing.

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