Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Update on the Cornwall Local Plan

Cornwall Council has today voted to consult on a new draft of the Cornwall Local Plan with a housing target of 47,500 for the period 2010-2030. Later in the year, a version will be presented to central government for an examination in public.

Sadly, much of the debate has been less about what is right for Cornwall, and more about what figure we could get past central government.

I would like to give a full update on what has happened today and what has happened in recent months.

In the last Council, I argued for a housing target of around 38,000. With the support of (retired) councillor David Biggs, I challenged the flawed ONS projections – and the veracity of other data – which had been used by planning officers to justify higher housing numbers in the region of 48,000-54,000.

Our philosophy was that areas which wanted higher growth should take those decisions for themselves through Neighbourhood Plans.

The target of 38,000 won the support of the members of the old Planning Policy Panel – but was rejected by the Conservative-led Cabinet. This was the second time that Cabinet had ignored its advisory panel and pushed for a higher number than we had recommended.

In early 2012, Full Council finally agreed a figure of 42,250 for the public consultation, which took place prior to the May elections.

Since then – in my role as Chairman of the Environment, Heritage and Planning PAC – I have sought to engage members in the work on the Local Plan,

I hosted an informal meeting of the PAC to which all members were invited. Options presented to that meeting included the 38,000 authored by myself and David Biggs, the previous Council’s agreed 42,250 and the officers’ recommended figure of 47,500 contained within the recent Strategic Housing Market Needs Assessment – which equates to the Government’s so-called “objectively assessed need” as required by the National Planning Policy Framework.

This meeting also received 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 has a massive growth agenda and pretty much every single Plan with a target set below projections from the ONS have – after significant delays – been forced to accept higher numbers. It is a disgrace, but it is also a reality.

At that meeting, over two-thirds of the members present indicated that they – some begrudgingly – intended to support the higher figure, because they perceived there was little or no chance that a lower target would be accepted at examination.

Given the prevailing will of the members of the unitary authority, I told members that I would independently present detailed evidence for an alternative lower target to the Inquiry.

And that is what I still intend to do.

I think it is accurate to say that most members of the Environment, Heritage and Planning PAC would have preferred a lower target – but they worked up two options for Cabinet and Council, as requested by members – namely the view of the previous Council and the officers’ recommendation.

No lower options were presented to the PAC and, last week, I was surprised to see the Conservative Group – the majority of whom had argued for higher numbers in the last Council – put forward an amendment to Full Council for 33,000 properties for the period 2010-2030.

MPs and prospective MPs had been making political hay in recent days with press releases and tweets – implying that the Government would accept a target of 33,000, though there was absolutely no evidence that this was indeed the case.

The proposal was not even for 33,000 new units.

It was for 33,000 properties, “though no area will be allocated a lower than their extant consents” – which will automatically add another 3,000 to the target – and that local members could “request … that a higher number be allocated” which – given recent debates – would add thousands more to the total.

The MK group voted against this poorly worked up proposal masquerading as a target of 33,000. And one thing is sure, if it had been agreed, the final figure would have been much greater than the 38,000 that was not supported in the last Council.

The MK group also did not support the target of 47,500. In the final vote, we abstained because no alternative proposal had been tabled, which could be supported, and a consultation document needed to be agreed.

During this consultation, the MK group will continue to challenge the Coalition Government to allow Cornwall Council to set its own housing target – and to work up detailed evidence for a sustainable lower housing target which we will present to the public examination.

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