There was a briefing this afternoon for councillors to learn more about the proposed eco-town for the clay area of mid Cornwall.
My concerns about the project are less to do with the redevelopment of derelict clay pits or about the new housing, but about how to make sure that the new communities can function properly and that people at the other end of the Duchy - including those of us here in Launceston - neither have to pay for the development nor will lose out on badly needed regeneration money because it is sucked into the eco-town project.
I am happy in principle that the eco-town (actually it won't be a single town but a series of smaller communities across the vast clay area) is a good way of redeveloping the area. China Clay produced (and still produces) a good income and lots of jobs for mid Cornwall. But many of the pits have reached the end of their useful life and it is right that we look for appropriate ways to redevelop them. The Eden Project is a great example of what can be done, but we shouldn't be looking for endless copycats. They simply won't work.
But, just as the Olympic Games have sucked National Lottery money and regeneration funds away from the rest of the UK into East London (much of the rest of London has also missed out), I am concerned that the rest of us will see all of Cornwall's regeneration monies be sent towards St Austell. I received reassurances on this from the officers today in that only the convergence funding earmarked for mid Cornwall will be used for the eco-town and other convergence monies will be left untouched. But I am still worried that external grants will be refused to good projects in Cornwall on the basis that we already have got more than our fair share and it is all going to this one project. That's not a reason on its own to reject the eco-town, but it does mean that we have to be on our guard.
The second worry is about how the complete development will be paid for. Of course, any developer will pay for the houses themselves. But in Cornwall we have been traditionally very bad about getting the funds for the community infrastructure - the schools, doctors surgeries, roads, drains, community halls, play areas and so forth. If the developer doesn't pay for these then Cornish taxpayers have to. These are not 'planning gain'. They are the basic needs of the new community and it should be the developer of this site who foots the bill. Otherwise the costs will fall to council taxpayers in the rest of Cornwall. When Launceston has missed out on regeneration funding and council projects for many years and urgently needs funds spent on our own infrastructure, it seems entirely wrong that our money should be spent elsewhere.
Again, although it is still an issue we need to keep a careful eye on, I am happy as a result of this briefing that we have a group of officers who, in this case, understand the need to make the development 'wash its own face' and, they say, a developer who wants to outline the community infrastructure they will put in place before they start building the houses.
Earlier I mentioned 'planning gain'. This is the benefit to the neighbouring communities that a council is able to get from large scale developers via what are known as Section 106 agreements. These should be real, concrete benefits to the rest of the clay country (and possibly to Cornwall as a whole). When we are looking at a £1bn project, these can be quite substantial and I emphasised to the officers and members the need to take this issue seriously.
The eco-town project still has the potential to swallow up funding and attention for many years to come but, as a result of the briefing and chatting to officers and members today, I'm less concerned that the project will be to the detriment of communities such as Launceston.
Former Truro and St Austell MP Matthew Taylor has been announced as the chair of the eco-town project. I think he is a superb champion for the area and I will be looking to him (as well as Cornwall Council) to make sure that the eco-town project is the success that its proponents claim it will be.