Friday, 26 May 2017

The flag bearer for Cornwall

The campaign for a devolved Cornwall appears to be gaining pace. Lydia Stockdale looks at the housing problems driving it forward.

‘It’s no different to being Welsh or Scottish, you’ve got basically the same heritage; the same sorts of traditions,’ says Dick Cole, leader of the Mebyon Kernow political party, explaining what it means to him to be Cornish.

In recent years there’s been a surging sense of Cornish identity among the 500,000 people who live west of the River Tamar, the affable Mr Cole states when Inside Housing meets him at Cornwall’s County Hall in Truro. ‘There’s been a growth in the number of people who identify themselves positively as being Cornish,’ he says.

There are indeed signs that Mebyon Kernow - which means ‘sons of Cornwall’ - is gradually becoming a more popular choice among voters. The party has more than 600 members and 25 representatives on town and parish councils. In 2005 it did not win any seats on Cornwall Council. Less than six months ago it won a by-election in Wendron, taking the number of seats it holds on the 123-strong local authority up to five, four more than the Labour Party. ‘A vast improvement’, sums up Mr Cole.

Formed in 1951, Mebyon Kernow became a bona fide political entity in the 1970s. It aims to one day see Cornwall win the right to self-government through a Cornish Assembly, much like the devolved parliaments that already exist in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Winning votes

But rather than the growing sense of Cornish nationalism, it is Mebyon Kernow’s policies on tackling poverty, unemployment and the need for genuinely affordable housing in the county that could lead to it gaining a bigger voice on Cornwall Council, or eventually winning its first seat within the UK parliament.

Mr Cole, a councillor for St Enoder, stood to become MP for St Austell and Newquay in the 2010 general election - he came fourth. With just over 2,000 votes, he was around 1,300 behind Labour, but beat the UK Independence Party candidate by 250. Liberal Democrat Stephen Gilbert, who went on to become chair of the all-party parliamentary group on housing, won the seat, gaining 20,189 votes.

The Mebyon Kernow leader, who is described by one local housing professional as a ‘reasonable bloke’, seems quietly confident that the tide of opinion could well be turning in his party’s favour.

‘There is a growing dissatisfaction with the three main parties, as shown by Bradford West,’ Mr Cole states, referring to Respect candidate George Galloway’s surprise by-election triumph in West Yorkshire.

The next Cornish local elections take place in May 2013, leaving Mebyon Kernow with 12 months to drum up support. There is usually a two-way battle between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for the majority of council seats, but Mr Cole hopes that voters who are disillusioned with the coalition could opt to abandon national parties and pin their hopes on a party that focuses on local interests instead.

Mebyon Kernow believes Cornwall is currently getting a ‘raw deal’ from Westminster. The so-called ‘pasty tax’ - 20 per cent VAT added to the price of hot savoury food from October - announced by chancellor George Osborne in last month’s Budget is a case-in-point. ‘Here in Cornwall, the people it’s going to hit are the small pasty producers,’ explains Mr Cole.

Housing problems

Hot snacks aside, it’s clear the party could be on to something. The gross domestic product generated by individuals in Cornwall is two thirds of that of the average person in the UK. Workers here earn 20 per cent less than elsewhere. Meanwhile, the average cost of a house in Cornwall is £216,129, just 5 per cent less than the UK average of £228,385.

In fact, housing-related problems account for more than half of the correspondence Mr Cole has with his constituents. ‘I’ve had more people come to me as a councillor in the last two or three years on housing issues than ever before,’ he states.

‘We’re in this terrible place where ordinary working people cannot afford to buy a house or to rent in the private sector,’ he continues. ‘When I was first elected 13 years ago you could buy a new house in my village for £60,000 - if you want to buy one of those houses now, it’s £150,000.’

Many of those who contact Mr Cole ‘are in good jobs, earning a reasonable amount of money, but they get paid, pay their rent, and work themselves silly to get through to the end of the month, by which time they will have nothing, then they get paid again and go back to the start’, he says. ‘Life is just a cycle of eking out enough to exist - that’s wrong.’

Just 12 per cent of Cornwall’s housing stock is social rented - this compares with 16 per cent in the south west and 23 per cent across the whole UK. Mr Cole suspects the Homes and Communities Agency’s affordable homes programme - which sets ‘affordable’ rents at 80 per cent of market rates - will do little to improve this situation.

‘Instead of introducing a rent control act, for example, central government is actually just making the problem worse. It’s tying the affordable element to the out-of-control open market element - I think that’s absolutely barking mad.’

Committing to the cause

The Mebyon Kernow leader says this with passion, but in his case actions speak louder than words. When Cornwall Council absorbed the county’s district councils to become a unitary local authority three years ago, Mr Cole was forced to choose between continuing his work as a councillor and 14-year career as an archaeologist for the local authority - he was not allowed to do both.

Leader, Mebyon Kernow party

Source: Matt Jessop

The married 45-year-old, who comes from what he describes as ‘a traditional, working class, Cornish family’, opted to ditch his full-time job and the salary that came with it to focus on his life in politics, which began when he joined Mebyon Kernow the age of 20. ‘I felt I needed to argue the things I felt were important,’ he says.

Mr Cole now puts in 50 hours a week at the council, a sizeable chunk of which is dedicated to chairing its planning policy panel, which is working its way through the implications of the government’s national planning policy framework, published last month.

‘Planning has to meet the needs of the local area rather than just building big housing estates for the sake of it so some developer can make money,’ says Mr Cole. ‘It’s currently difficult for people who live in small villages and hamlets to build one or two homes. I’ve had discussions with planning officers who’ve asked, “Why do we want to worry about half a dozen houses over there, it’s going to be so much work?”.’

In light of this, it would be logical to expect Mr Cole to be in favour of the NPPF which was brought in under the Localism Act and should, in theory, mean communities are able dictate the kind of development that takes place. But, as it turns out, Mr Cole says he’s ‘fearful’ of the changes it heralds.

A new Cornwall-wide strategy for development is another concern. The south west regional spatial strategy, which recommended 68,200 homes needed to be built in Cornwall over 20 years, has been scrapped. It’s now up to the local authority to decide the level of development needed, and a consultation on Cornwall Council’s core strategy is taking place.

‘It has put forward a figure of 48,000 for the next 20 years - given that there’re around 240,000 homes in Cornwall, it’s significant growth,’ says Mr Cole. ‘It [the strategy] is more about promoting people moving to Cornwall than dealing with the housing issues we’ve already got. We’re arguing for lower levels of growth and focusing that growth on affordable homes for local people.’

In the meantime his party continues to campaign for a Cornish Assembly, which would have control over housing, local government and economic development. In December Jonathan Edwards, a Plaid Cymru MP, tabled an early day motion in parliament calling for Cornish devolution. It marked the 10-year anniversary of Mebyon Kernow’s presentation of a petition with 50,000 signatures backing Cornish devolution to the previous Labour government, which was completely ignored. ‘Only about a dozen MPs supported the EDM, but it got attention,’ says Mr Cole.

Gaining publicity

The subject of a devolved Cornwall went on to receive national media coverage following Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s January announcement that Scotland will hold a referendum on full independence in 2014, which brought the wider subject of how the UK and its constituent parts are governed to the fore.

But for Mebyon Kernow winning local people over is more important than achieving national recognition.

A housing source who did not want to be named says that at the moment Mebyon Kernow attaches itself to ‘emotive issues’ such as ending the right to buy and limiting the number of second homes in Cornwall; however, if it were to gain more power within the council, it would need to develop more detailed policies.

‘Mebyon Kernow has many admirable policies that support the work of social landlords, but if it was to adopt policies such as allocating homes to people who identify their nationality as Cornish, we would start to drift away from them,’ he says.

‘Like every minority party, Mebyon Kernow appeals to the disaffected voter,’ he adds. ‘But like Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party its policies would be further left than the Labour Party, and therefore further left than voters in Cornwall.’

However, he predicts the party could gain around six council seats in next year’s local elections - a relatively small, but significant change as it would mean the party doubling its representation on Cornwall Council.

‘Mebyon Kernow will get seats where its candidates are known as individuals,’ he states.

The man on the street in Cornwall already seems to view the party’s leader as somebody they can trust. Mr Cole smiles as he recalls how people have approached him to pledge their support. The most recent encounter took place the previous weekend in the seaside town of Mevagissey. A local stopped him: ‘He said, “you’ve got my vote next time”.’

Localism in the frame

‘I’m fearful about the national planning policy framework,’ says Mebyon Kernow leader Dick Cole. ‘To take so many planning documents and replace them with the NPPF causes problems and everyone is continuously reading to try to understand the implications.

‘My big fear is that there are so many parishes in Cornwall that need a neighbourhood plan, but have they all got the capacity, the will, to make one?

‘If you don’t have a neighbourhood plan, are you going to have any say in what happens? Now the new system is in place, areas like the one I live in will have to make a plan whether we like it or not as a safeguard. It’s going to be a big job over the next six to 18 months.

‘There is something in the NPPF that says that where “plans are silent”, “the presumption will be in favour of development”. The government will be looking positively at proposals - those proposals could be anything, and that’s worrying.’

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