11 March 2008

The revised regional special strategy (RSS) of December 2007 proposes that
68 700 houses are built in Cornwall by 2026. For a county of 519 000 people at present that sounds a lot.

Read about the proposals here and perhaps read the parochial and largely hostile Commons debate of 22 January 2008 (beginning at column 381WH) on the strategy for the southwest generally where a reasonable concern was whether there would sufficient investment in infrastructure and Julia Goldsworthy made some positive and relevant points (column 395WH onwards). The Mebyon Kernow (MK) party has damned the proposals and the January 2008 edition of its magazine Cornish Nation called the proposals “Planning gone mad”. There are several objecting online petitions.

The figure of nearly sixty nine thousand may be too many, it may be too few, it may be just right. We do not have a Goldilocks to tell us. The public consultation later this year should help us decide.

As far as I can see the objections seem to be:

(1) 69 000 is too many as this number will damage the environment and create infrastructure problems
(2) what house building happens in Cornwall should be decided only and entirely by people or elected politicians in Cornwall
(3) houses built in Cornwall should be for local needs.

Additionally, some people consider that all new houses built in Cornwall should be affordable, which is not quite the same as (3).

An assumption behind the objections seems to be that if the number of new houses is decided by Cornwall people/politicians and such housing is only for local needs, then sixty nine thousand will be too many. I have seen no argument that shows that sixty nine thousand over twenty years is objectively too many given these assumptions. What we need from the objectors is a clear argument: how and how far will the environment be damaged and is this unavoidable and uncorrectable; what will the infrastructure problems be and can they be overcome; and, given the assumptions in the objections, how many houses should be built to meet all local need (how many for rent, how many for the various purchase schemes and for whole-house market-value purchase) and where should they be built. I realise this is a strategy not a program but it isn’t enough just to say sixty nine thousand is too many or to say a future Cornish housing board will work out the details.

More can be demanded of the RSS too. A vast house building program has been proposed which requires rigorous evidence-based justification and, although the figures are not arbitrary, more detailed explanation is needed. The RSS process should explore fully the objectors’ concerns about environment and infrastructure.

I have other worries.

I have explained before the advantages and drawbacks of localism and frankly I wonder whether, if left to a decision by the neighbourhood, any affordable housing would be built anywhere in England. At present central government, able to act for the whole country and able to limit the power of local self-interest, lays down expectations and some regulations about affordable housing. How would the RSS objectors deal with local objections and get their houses built?

I think too that mixing what should be evidence-based arguments about housing numbers with the nationalist politics of Cornish devolutionary powers and the electoral status of the regional authorities making the proposals makes it easier for the objections to be dismissed as aspects of separatism.

I’m unclear exactly what the argument in (3) means as there is an ambiguity about the term “local needs”. I assume the prime objection is to second homes and that there should be, as MK says, a focus on “affordable homes to meet local needs.” That appears to leave some room for market-value houses for aspiring and entrepreneurial locals and migrants to Cornwall.

In the meantime let me offer up some public data. The number on the affordable housing waiting list for Cornwall was 18 768 last spring. 532 affordable houses had been built the previous year, 501 nett, though this delivery rate may be speeding up now. These figures refer only to affordable houses not market-value houses and only to people already here and already old enough for a house. Are sixty nine thousand over twenty years wholly implausible?

Other posts on affordable housing and Cornwall
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 1
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 2
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 3
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 4
Housing the people in Cornwall