Tarquin fights back: The Sunday Times response to Cornwall Now

ImageMy post, in response to last week’s Sunday Times ‘Style’ magazine article on Cornwall has generated a lot of debate. I thought it only fair to give the author of the piece, Fleur Britten, a chance to respond. Hats off to Fleur for engaging in the discussion. It would be very easy for a journalist to write a piece and forget about it, so credit to her for explaining her thinking.

I do think though that there was some misunderstanding of the main point of my post. Fleur comments that: “Of course, there will be locals – as there have been for a long time – who will resent tourists, as they are free to.” Unfortunately, this continues a bit of a tradition of seeing any critique of the presentation of Cornwall to visitors as being anti-tourism. As I said in my response, ‘resenting tourists’ is a ridiculous position to take. First, it makes no sense financially – visitors are vital for the Cornish economy. Secondly, it is plain illogical since any time a person leave Cornwall, they becomes a ‘tourist’ themselves! No, my point was that most articles on Cornwall in the national press have a depressing sameness about them, presenting the luxury end of the visitor spectrum which is affordable by only a small urban elite. That inevitably paints a picture of Cornwall as a playground for the wealthy. While I suppose any exposure for Cornwall as a visitor attraction in the national press is welcome, I can’t think of another region of the UK that is written about in such a caricature way. It’s as if articles on Scotland were exclusively about holidays spent grouse shooting and fly fishing while staying in a large castle and being serenaded into breakfast every day by a kilted piper.  

Anyhow, enough of all that. Here is the correspondence between Cornwall Now and the Sunday Times. Please add your thoughts in the comment section of the Blog.

From: Cornwall Now                                                

To: Fleur Britten, Sunday Times 

Re: Sunday’s article on Cornwall by Fleur Britten in the Style Magazine. As you can see, the article got me more than a little miffed. I have posted a response on my blog, copied below.

Kind regards,

Colin Bradbury (St Agnes, Cornwall) 

 

From: Fleur Britten

Dear Colin

Thanks very much for sending in your thoughts regarding my Cornwall feature in Sunday’s Style magazine – we were sorry to learn that you were disappointed by it.  

To address your issues, my role as a journalist is to report on behaviour. Whether we approve or not, this is what is happening in Cornwall, and the reader is free to form their own opinion. To be fair, I don’t think I painted a picture of Cornwall being “just another place for the affluent to go to”, rather that, as described, Cornwall has so much to offer, with its history, its culture, its landscape, its food etc. 

Some Cornish folk have written to me saying they were really pleased with the piece as it will be very good for the Cornish economy. There are many, many places in Cornwall that depend on the tourist pound – it’s not, after all, a new tourist destination. Of course, there will be locals – as there have been for a long time – who will resent tourists, as they are free to. 

In any case, thank you again for taking the trouble to write in. We really do value readers’ opinions. Your comments have been noted and taken on board; I hope that despite recent misgivings you continue to be a valued reader of our publication.

Very best wishes,

Fleur Britten

 

From: Cornwall Now

Dear Fleur,

Thanks very much for taking the time to read my response to your piece. I do appreciate that your job is to report rather than to express approval or disapproval and that’s as it should be. From the perspective of the general reader, I thought that your article was very entertainingly written and I certainly enjoyed it as a piece of prose.

The problem in relation to Cornwall is that the articles written about the county recently tend to be very much of a kind, right down to mentioning the exact same laundry list of ’boutique’ hotels and celebrity chefs. Which means that the descriptions of what Cornwall has to offer are seen through the prism of lunch at Jamie Oliver’s or a weekend at the Idle Rocks. Whether this is the intention of not, the implication seems to be that Cornwall has become another addition to the list of ‘in’ places for a certain set in S.E. England, interchangeable with the Maldives or Chamonix.

Despite the popular view of Cornwall as an insular place, I think there are very, very few people here who resent tourists – I very definitely do not – and we recognise that the economy here would be in dire straits without the tourist pound. However, you can probably understand that in a part of the country that is economically deprived, with many on poor wages in seasonal jobs, the picture of wealthy ladies merrily ploughing at high speed down country lanes in ‘Chelsea Tractors’ and boasting about the number of speeding tickets picked up in the process, is a bit hard to stomach. I suspect that there was an element of caricature in your piece and it works admirably. The problem is that we’ve seen so many of these caricatures in print that it gets a bit old! Just for once, it would be nice to see a view of Cornwall presented in the media that didn’t feature the same-old same-old.

Anyhow, I remain a loyal Sunday Times reader and thanks for your comments.

Regards,

Colin Bradbury

 

From: Fleur Britten

Dear Colin, 

Thank you for your response and for your understanding. It’s very good for us to receive these letters as it does keep us on the rails, and I really appreciate your taking the time to write such a thorough critique in your blog!

Very best wishes,

Fleur

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Load up the Range Rover, Tarquin – we’re off to Cornwall!

Bollinger

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than you and me.”                                                                                   Ernest Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”

I should have known better, I really should. There, in the contents section of the Style magazine that accompanies the Sunday Times, was an article entitled ‘Go West: Why Cornwall is our coolest county’. The fact that it was sandwiched between articles on ‘Sloane Ravers – The New Party Posse’ and ‘AA Gill on How to Wear Sunglasses’ (I’d always assumed you just balanced them on your nose and ears but apparently, if you’re posh, there’s much more to it) should have been sufficient warning. But no, I had to go and read the article anyway, with predictable, blood pressure-raising results.

So apparently, ‘For the new breed of wealthy holiday-maker, Cornwall is now de-rigueur.’ Wealthy visitors are drawn to our corner of the world by chi-chi hotels, haute cuisine and a desire to re-live the halcyon holidays of their childhoods. Seaside holidays are terribly fashionable in a retro and doubtless slightly ironic way at the moment, but these are not like the ones you and I remember. These are seaside holidays in 10,000 pound a week serviced houses (with personal chefs) or luxury boutique hotels, complete with an ‘adventure butler’ to arrange quirky activities for you to brag about at Chelsea dinner parties when you get home. If you have your own second (or third or fourth) home in Cornwall, it will, of course, have ‘monogrammed linen, cinema room and a heated pool by the beach’. And you will go to the same hotels and restaurants as all the other DFLs (Down from London) while you’re here. Have you noticed, by the way, that there appears to be a checklist of hotels and restaurants that journalists are obliged to mention when writing about Cornwall? Watergate Bay, Tresanton, Idle Rocks, Scarlet, Nathan Outlaw, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein. Check, check and check again. Yup, they’re all here. Full (bijou, waterfront views) house.

I was so irritated by the article that I immediately sat down to write a blog post, but then I paused. Was I walking into a cleverly laid trap? This must surely be a spoof, packed as it is with clichés and cardboard cut-out characters. Home-county hooray Henries and Henriettas roaring around Cornish country lanes in their Range Rovers, all the while bemoaning the lack of a Waitrose delivery service but jolly excited to be going to the Veuve Cliquot sponsored ‘Polo on the Beach’ at Watergate Bay. As satire, it would have been brilliant. But then I noticed that it is full of quotes from real people and I realised with horror that it was actually serious.

So this is where I launch into a rant about the iniquities of second homers and the hypocrisy of spending tens of thousands of pounds a week in pursuit of the ‘simple’ joys of a seaside holiday, right? Well actually, I detect something much more sinister lurking below the surface. In the article, the director of an upmarket estate agency describes Cornwall as a ‘playground’. Think about that for a minute. Isn’t a playground somewhere children go to amuse themselves? The rich, it seems, view the world as a series of playgrounds which they move between during the year. Places exist only as backdrops for their playing and partying, with the locals providing the colour and, of course, the discrete, waited-upon-hand-and-foot service which is so essential to getting ‘back to basics’. The head of Visit Cornwall (the Cornish Tourist board) appears to concur: “Nowadays the top-end holiday-maker might have a week in the Seychelles, a week skiing and a week in Cornwall.” So there you have it. Cornwall is just another name on the list of playgrounds for the wealthy to enjoy. Even more alarmingly, those who are responsible for selling Cornwall as a visitor destination seem to agree.

But spare a thought for these poor little rich people. It’s not easy being affluent in 2013, apparently. 40 or 50 years ago, the newly rich didn’t have to pretend that they were after anything other than a good time. They could drive their gold plated Rolls Royces and frolic in baths of champagne with an “I’ve got loads of money and if you don’t like how I spend it you can get stuffed” attitude. Now though, it’s imperative to be tastefully rich, and that is such hard work. These people abhor old-fashioned vulgarity, they want to get ‘back to basics’, they crave ‘authenticity’.

Dismantling the ‘back to basics’ idea makes shooting fish in a barrel look difficult. Back to basics, it seems, is the new ostentation. The owner of a luxury hotel in St Mawes, ‘with it’s own helipad, Nepresso machines in every room and the scent of fig electronically pumped into the air’, who has “loads” of boats moored in the harbour, says that “We live such a false life in so many ways – this is a way of getting back to reality.” I hope he has recovered, since (I assume) his tongue must have been so far in his cheek when he came up with that gem that he risked causing himself permanent injury.

The authenticity angle is even more disturbing. In conversation with the proprietor of yet another boutique Cornish hotel, the author of the article comments “It’s this authenticity that makes it so right for now”. So ‘authenticity’ is trendy, its zeitgeisty, it’s now. What kind of people are we dealing with here, people for whom authenticity is just another fad that will be here one day and gone the next? The real irony of course is that people like this aren’t searching for authenticity at all, at least, not in the sense that mere mortals would understand it. They want their version of it, a sanitised, idealised, version of reality. Their lifestyles and their ‘need’ for luxuries actually erects a huge barrier between them and anything approaching authenticity.

And here’s a thought that will have them choking on their organic asparagus. The best comparison I can think of for this achingly trendy set is with the first wave of English holidaymakers who ventured overseas in the 1960s and 70s. These pioneers flocked to places like Benidorm and Torremolinos. Why? Because the scary prospect of going somewhere ‘foreign’ was made less frightening by the presence of English beer, fish and chips and lots of other Brits. Replace the pints of bitter with glasses of Bollinger, the fish and chips with dinner at Rick Stein’s and the Sharons and Erics with Cressidas and Ruperts and the mindset is exactly the same. This is just another group of people who want to go somewhere superficially different, but crave the comfort of the familiar things that their tribe deem essential to civilised living.

Which brings us full circle to the idea of ‘authenticity’. I wouldn’t expect holiday makers, whatever their social class, to want to learn about the real Cornwall. The fact that as well as its undeniably beautiful landscape, Cornwall also has an industrial (and post-industrial) history that makes it unique. That its peripherality, which is part of its attraction, is also potentially its biggest drawback when it comes to providing jobs for its young people. You don’t come on holiday to hear about that sort of thing. But it really does stick in the throat when journalists paint Cornwall as just another place for the affluent to go to spend their cash. “Look – you can have the same things you’d find in your ski chalet in Switzerland or your boutique hotel in the Maldives!”. They want homogenisation. A very upmarket version of it, but homogenisation nonetheless. And the biggest irony? It may have the sheen of wealth and class about it, but ultimately ‘Polo on the Beach’ is just a more exclusive version of the conga around that hotel swimming pool in Benidorm.

Let’s leave it to the ever-pithy Ernest Hemingway to puncture the pretentious bubble surrounding wealth and taste. He is reputed to have retorted to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s awe-struck assertion that the rich are different to the rest of us with a withering: “Yes, they have more money.”

Hopefully, before too long, some new destination will catch the eye of the style gurus at the Sunday Times and their ilk. Then Tarquin and Annabel will dutifully load their equally absurdly named children into the Range Rover and roar back up the A30 to the next newly-discovered playground. And we’ll be standing at the Tamar to wave them off.

 

Has the sun finally set on South Crofty?

SouthCrofty“Nothing’s as precious, as a hole in the ground” (Peter Garrett, Blue Sky Mine)

The story of efforts to re-start tin production at South Crofty, Cornwall’s last working mine which closed in 1998, has been a rollercoaster ride. But could the announcement a couple of days ago that the mine has been placed in administration be a fatal blow?

The trigger was the decision by 20% shareholder Celeste Mining of Canada to turn off the funding tap. Investment from Celeste appears to have been the key to financing the ongoing development of the mine. But the company is now reviewing its involvement, citing concerns on “operational complexities and higher than anticipated exploration and development expenses at the South Crofty Mine.” The mine has now been placed in administration, operations reduced to ‘care and maintenance’ status, and a substantial proportion of the workforce dismissed.

This highlights a side of the South Crofty story that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. The press has – understandably perhaps – focused on the value of the minerals in the ground beneath Pool. Talk of “billions of pounds worth” of tin and other minerals waiting to be dug out at South Crofty makes great newspaper headlines, but, this is only half the story. The other half – how much it would cost to dig that metal out – seems to be the real issue. When I wrote a story on Crofty for the now defunct Cornish World magazine in 2007, several people I interviewed warned that the costs of bringing the mine back into production would be prohibitive. The main problem is, of course, the same one that has plagued miners for thousands of years; water. The moment the pumps were switched off at Crofty in 1998, water levels in the workings started to rise; 15 years on, the task of de-watering hundreds of kilometers of tunnels would be enormous (and enormously expensive).

Management at Western United Mines, the owners of South Crofty for the last 12 years, remain resolutely up-beat about the prospects of finding new investors willing to make the necessary financial commitment. Their attitude is commendable, but it has to be said that on the face of it, the prospects don’t look good.

Capital investment in the global mining industry – to open new mines and increase production at those already in operation – saw explosive growth in the last few years. Commodity prices soared, boosted by surging demand from a rapidly growing Chinese economy. Tin prices rose from just US$6,000 per tonne when South Crofty closed in 1998 to more than $32,000 by mid 2011. That provided a very positive backdrop for a company like Western United Mines to look for new investment. However, things are very different now. The Chinese economy has slowed sharply and developed world economies are still weak. That doesn’t bode well for commodity prices. The price of tin, for example, has fallen from that $32,000/tonne high to just $20,000 currently. In the big global mining centres like Australia, investment in new production has collapsed.

This matters for South Crofty because it means that the appetite for big spending by the global mining companies  is diminishing rapidly. So the chances of finding another ‘fairy godmother’ to fund the South Crofty project are diminishing by the day. And the fact that the mine is located in the middle of a built-up urban area also pushes up the operating costs. One practical example: the proposed new ore processing plant would have to be built underground to prevent it impacting on the surrounding area, at much higher cost than a surface facility.

Other issues, for example UNESCO’s threat to withdraw Cornwall’s World Heritage Site status if mining is restarted at Crofty, are unfortunate, but are really just a sideshow. The real question, as it has always been, is one of economic viability. Basically, is it possible to re-start mining and profitably extract tin from South Crofty? It is worrying that a global mining company appears to have done the sums and decided that it is not. I really hope that I’m wrong, but it seems  unlikely in the current environment that there will be a queue of other companies waiting to replace Celeste. The sun, it seems. may finally have set on South Crofty.

ShelterBox: A proper Cornish success story

Image“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

I’m just recovering – there’s no other word for it – from a 9 day course run by ShelterBox to train people who are joining their disaster Response Team. As most people in these parts know, Helston-based ShelterBox is a disaster relief agency specialising in sending emergency shelter (tents) and other essential items such as blankets, cooking facilities and tools, to areas of the world affected by natural and man-made disasters. It’s the job of the Response Team to actually deliver the aid, in the organisation’s iconic green boxes, to the disaster zones. Joining the Response Team, which is made up of volunteers from all walks of life and nationalities, is no small undertaking. Those hoping to join the Team must pass an interview and a 4 day selection course before being accepted onto a 9 day intensive training programme aimed at preparing them for the demands of operating in parts of the world that have been hit by earthquakes, floods, civil war and other calamities. As I can testify, it’s a mentally and physically demanding process which tests the ability to absorb information, to work in fluid situations where the rules of the game are often unclear and to understand the complexities involved in getting aid to the needy in often chaotic parts of the world. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done but also one of the most satisfying. I’m now looking forward to the chance to go out and put what I’ve learnt into practice.

But why, you may ask, am I writing about this in a blog about business, politics and culture in Cornwall? Well, although ShelterBox is an international organisation with affiliates around the globe, its base and, I think its heart, remains in  Cornwall. While funds for its operations come from donors around the world, the people of Cornwall in particular have taken ShelterBox to their hearts. That might have something to do with the fact that, like Cornwall, ShelterBox punches above its weight. The organisation’s £15-20 million annual income makes ShelterBox a comparative minnow in the world of humanitarian aid (Oxfam, for example, had revenue of £385 million last year) but its philosophy of reacting quickly and decisively when a disaster occurs means that its profile and impact is disproportionately large. Other aid agency workers, operating within more bureaucratic structures, are frequently envious of the speed with which ShelterBox is able to move when the need arises. Cornwall’s no-nonsense, get-on-with-it approach to life is reflected in the way ShelterBox goes about its business.

But speed doesn’t mean sloppiness. Spend any amount of time with the ShelterBox team and it quickly becomes apparent that all aspects of the business, from operations to training to procurement are constantly under review. In particular, an almost obsessive attention to detail is lavished on the equipment that is sent into the field. One example is their long term partnership with Vango, one of the world’s largest outdoor equipment manufacturers. The ShelterBox/Vango tent has been constantly refined and improved, reflecting a belief that families in a disaster zone deserve the best possible shelter. The same goes for other items of kit like water purifiers and mosquito nets. You sense that Richard Trevithick and other great Cornish innovators of the past would approve.

Another thing that struck me was that ShelterBox pulls people from all over the world to our little corner of the British Isles. My course was made up of individuals from as far afield as California, Texas, New Zealand and Belgium, plus a handful from other parts of the UK (as well as Cornwall itself, of course). Some of them would have never even heard of Cornwall before getting involved with ShelterBox and would certainly not have envisaged spending the best part of two weeks on a windswept airfield on the Lizard Peninsula! Yet here they were, being crammed with state-of-the-art knowledge about global humanitarian operations and participating in exercises simulating deployments to overseas disaster zones. That’s another thing that I think Cornish businessmen and politicians can take from the ShelterBox example. The scale of the organisation’s ambitions, the quality and focus of the people who run it and those who work on a voluntary basis makes a nonsense of the idea that Cornwall’s peripheral location will always make it difficult for businesses to succeed down here.

So as well as being a success story in the world of humanitarian aid, I think that ShelterBox is also a Cornish success story. And, in true Cornish fashion, success has not bred arrogance. You don’t get any sense that the individuals in ShelterBox believe they are better than the average person as a result of what they do. They simply recognise their obligation as human beings not to sit back and ignore the suffering of others. An obligation, to paraphrase Edmund Burke,  for good men and women NOT to do nothing.

Back in the heyday of Cornish mining, they used to say that wherever you went in the world, at the bottom of every hole in the ground you’d find a Cornish miner. These days, in disaster zones from Haiti to Jordan and from Peru to Myanmar, you’ll find a little piece of Cornwall in the shape of those green Shelter boxes. And that, I think, is something that everybody in Cornwall should be very proud of.

There’s tin in them there waters…

TinCoast

Proposals to ‘mine’ the sea bed between St Ives and Perranporth bring out the NIMBY in me… 

Oh dear. I really don’t want to turn into some kind of knee-jerk NIMBY (not in my backyard) type, but I nearly choked on my cup of tea when I read this article on the ‘This is Cornwall’ website. Apparently a company called Marine Minerals Limited is planning to apply for permission to drill/dredge for tin off the north Cornwall coast, between St Ives and Perranporth. According to the article:

“In total the company proposes to extract around two million tonnes per year over a minimum of a ten year period.”

I assume they’re referring to two millions tonnes of sand or silt, not tin (!) I’m no expert, obviously, but twenty million tonnes dredged over a ten year period sounds like an awful lot. This has inevitably  raised concerns over the impact on the marine environment, on the surfing industry that attracts thousands of visitors a year to this coastline and on the tourism industry in general.

I must declare a selfish interest here. I live in St Agnes, and my favourite place in the world is the stretch of coast between Chapel Porth and Trevaunance Cove, right in the middle of the proposed dredging area. The thought of permanent damage being inflicted on the marine environment there is too awful to contemplate. Perhaps the comparison is not valid, but having lived in Hong Kong for many years and seen the irreparable damage done to the (formerly) beautiful coastline there by massive dredging activities, I shudder to think of anything of that kind happening in Cornwall. Of course, the scale would be vastly different, but the lesson from other parts of the world is that marine environments are extremely fragile and once damaged, are gone forever.

Now, in fairness to Marine Minerals Limited, their website shows that they are sensitive to these concerns and are engaging with interested parties, such as Surfers Against Sewage, to discuss the issues. We must overcome our innate NIMBY tendencies and trust that the government agencies charged with examining proposals of this type will do their job and that the project will not go ahead unless the environmental impact can be minimised. I for one will be watching the progress of these plans carefully in the coming months.

So there I was, attempting to end this blog post on an admirably balanced and open-minded note. And then it all went wrong when I came across this statement from the company:

“Should this method of tin extraction move to full production, it would bring significant numbers of jobs and investment to Cornwall, both at sea and on land.”

Why does it seem obligatory for every potentially controversial proposal to include a promise that it will bring an unspecified number of “jobs and investment to Cornwall”? No doubt this line was included at the suggestion of a PR company who thought it would help to win local hearts and minds. Sadly, I think that the Cornish people have become profoundly cynical about these kind of vague promises, having been burnt too many times in the past. My advice to the company would be to stick to hard facts and win (or lose) the argument on that basis.

When ‘good enough’ really isn’t

Shop_Dummies

Settling for second best in a virtual world

As well as being a writer, I am also a photographer. In one of the photography blogs I follow, I came across an interesting article about a new software package that could revolutionise the way that clothes companies show their wares in catalogues and in their general advertising. Clothes companies traditionally hire a photographer to take pictures of real live models wearing their clothes. That approach produces great looking images but is both time consuming and expensive. Now, new CAD (Computer Aided Design) software could make that process redundant. The technology – the kind used in the movies to produce the giant blue creatures in Avatar – means that clothing companies can show ‘virtual’ images of their clothes on a variety of different models. You like the look of that dress, but you’re not sure whether it will suit you as you’re a size 14 red-head and the picture on the website shows it on a size 8 blonde? No problem. At the touch of a button you can see how it will look on somebody like you as the software has a library of physiques, sizes and poses and can realistically wrap the clothes around individuals with a variety of physical characteristics.

Sounds good? Maybe to you, but if you were a photographer earning a living from shooting for clothes manufacturers and retailers, you could see your livelihood evaporate overnight. But why would anybody else care about this? As somebody who used to earn his living from taking photographs, I’m probably biased, but I find it depressing to see yet another step away from reality and into the virtual world which increasingly defines our lives. Not to mention that there is also something slightly disturbing about seeing clothes modeled by computer clones rather than real people. But, hey, it keeps prices down and it’s ‘good enough’, isn’t it?

So what has this got to do with a blog about business and politics in Cornwall?  Well, quite a lot actually. I’ve made a couple of posts recently on the challenges facing our high streets. We’ve seen household names closing across Cornwall (Jessops, JJB Sports) and others under serious threat (HMV). Meanwhile, the controversial proposal for a giant retail park at Coyte Farm is highlighting the decline of the high street in places like St Austell. It’s clear that the 21st Century consumer prizes convenience and price over everything else. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the companies manufacturing the goods, and the retailers who sell them to us, are driven by the need to get the cheapest products to the consumer in the most convenient form. For the producers, that means a ruthless drive to cut manufacturing costs and for the retailers it means utilising internet sales channels and concentrating their remaining ‘bricks and mortar’ activities into ever larger, more efficient (for which read standardised and characterless) sites. If that leads to the ultimate demise of our high streets and independent retailers, well that’s just the price of progress. The goods may be homogenised, the shopping experience sanitised and the old high streets turned into ghost towns, but the trade off between what we pay and what we’re getting is good enough.

Of course, it would be futile to stand King Canute-like on the beach and try to hold back the incoming tide. Although Cornwall is on the periphery of the British Isles, it isn’t immune from the economic and technological forces shaping the rest of the world. But isn’t this a place that has always prided itself on doing things a little differently to the rest of the country? Can’t we at least try to shift the balance, if only a little, away from the ‘good enough’ mentality which seems to have overtaken the rest of the country? Going back to Coyte Farm, surely the bureaucrats who seem ready to throw in the towel as far as St Austell town centre is concerned by approving an off-the-peg 100 acre retail park, owe us something better. We need to see some imagination being applied to the issue, a vision perhaps of a town centre with a mix of large anchor tenants like M&S and smaller independent retailers. The bureaucrats should be looking at how to attract and support the smaller retailers that give a shopping area its distinctive character; if that means radical schemes such as rethinking car parking charges and business rates, then so be it.

Maybe copying other towns and cities in the UK and yielding to the inevitability of the out of town retail park would give us an outcome that is good enough. But there are times when ‘good enough’ really isn’t.

Coyte Farm: Time for some unconventional thinking

“It is better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” (J.M. Keynes)

Until now, I’ve only been half following the debate over proposals for a 100 acre retail park on Coyte Farm on the edge of St Austell, silently bemoaning the advance of the out-of-town battalions at the expense of our town centres. But a letter to the Cornish Guardian from Cornwall Councillor Bert Biscoe stopped me in my tracks. This part in particular:

“Coyte Farm won’t be a town centre…It won’t have a church or a market hall, or a White Hart, or a cinema, or narrow streets to clamber through…or people living there, or a Post Office, or places which evoke memories and poems…”

I must be getting old. A few years ago I would have dismissed this kind of talk as hopeless nostalgia for a way of life that, however attractive, is doomed to disappear. But my reaction on reading Bert’s letter was, ‘Dammit, he’s right’. Why should we just accept this and, more to the point, why should our elected representatives on local and county councils just accept it? Why do councils appear to be so eager to accept that the out of town option is the only answer to the problems of places like St Austell? I think I see two reasons.

Reason One: Everybody else is doing it.

It’s always safer to stay in the crowd. Out of town shopping centres are being approved all over Britain and as a politician, it would take a willingness to stick your head above the parapet to say, ‘Stop! Just because that’s what they’re doing in Kent, Yorkshire or Birmingham doesn’t mean it’s automatically right for Cornwall.’ As the quote at the top of this post says, ‘It is better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally’. If a development like Coyte Farm goes horribly wrong and the centre of St Austell turns into a crime-ridden ghost town, the politicians can at least say ‘well it’s not my fault, it was only what everyone else was doing.’ Is that what we elect councilors to do? I seriously hope not.

Reason Two: Because it’s the easier option

The big developers and national retailers have been doing the out of town thing for years. They’re experts in navigating the planning system and know how to feed catch phrases and buzzwords to the local politicians for them to parrot and sound authoritative. What politician could resist the vacuous modern business rhetoric which includes such gems as ‘category killers’, ‘inward investment’ and ‘a differentiated retail offering, generating a high quality customer experience.’ And then there are the attention-grabbing numbers. The version here is : ‘This development will bring £100 million pounds of investment into Cornwall and create 1,300 jobs in St Austell.”  Wow! How great would it be for any politician to be able to splash those sexy headline numbers on their campaign flyers and claim the credit? Better not to look too closely at whether those numbers are actually real…

All in all, off-the-peg developments like that proposed at Coyte Farm are much easier short term options than the messy business and hard work of the other alternative, which is to think how a town centre based development could be made to work.

But thinking seriously about that alternative would require planners to get away from the simplistic arguments they have been making. The debate has degenerated to the point where the only options are said to be decaying town centres consisting of boarded up units next to pound shops on the one hand, or the abandonment of town centres in favour of out of town concrete deserts on the other.

But how much effort really has gone into looking at the potential to attract the big name retailers like M&S and Sainsbury’s into St Austell town centre? How much under-utilised retail space and brown field land is there in the centre of St Austell? Are we really sure that there isn’t the potential to accommodate big national retailers in the centre of the town? If the 25-50,000 square feet units (which is what the developers behind the Coyte Farm plan say that the big retailers need) were available in the town centre, could Sainsbury’s etc. be persuaded to consider that option?

I’m not one of those who believes that the likes of Sainsbury’s and M&S should be kept out at all costs. Quite the opposite in fact. One of their stores in a town centre can be a powerful positive force. Look at the example of Marks & Spencer in Truro. Located on Lemon Quay in the heart of the city, I suspect that nearby retailers would acknowledge that they have benefitted by having a large national brand name next door. Even Sainsbury’s in Truro is close enough to the city that it most likely acts as a draw which benefits other retailers. The question is not whether the likes of Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer are evil; it’s about where they are located and understanding that they can be used as a magnet to pull consumers into town centres or pull them out.

So until we can be convinced that all options for regenerating the town centre and persuading the big national brands to seriously consider locating their new stores there, plans for Coyte Farm should be put on hold.  Yes, it will be hard work, certainly more work than taking the easy option and concreting over 100 acres of fields on the outskirts of town. But don’t we elect politicians to make the hard decisions rather than the easy ones?

I was struck by something that a director of property investment company, Ellandi said, about their plans for St Austell town centre:

“We have put together a vision for St Austell. This is not an instant gratification thing, it’s about sustainability,”

As the owners of the White River shopping centre in St Austell, Ellandi arguably have most to lose if Coyte Farm goes ahead, so with the best will in the world, they are not impartial. But the comment, ‘This is not an instant gratification thing” really hits home. Unfortunately, for those empowered to make planning related decisions, instant gratification seems to be more attractive than the hard slog to get to another destination, even if that destination is ultimately more desirable. The planning process should involve taking a big picture, long term view. It should ask what our town centres will turn into if they are sucked dry.  It should see the irreversible destruction of another 100 acres of countryside as a last resort, not an easy option justified by the fact that it’s happening everywhere else in Britain. Those employed or elected to represent us owe us that much.

They also owe it to us to keep the developers honest. When I read that a spokesman for Mercian, the company behind the Coyte Farm plan, said “it was not in the firm’s interests to turn St Austell into a ghost town” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It clearly is in their interest to turn St Austell into a ghost town. Their plans depend on attracting the big retailers to their giant new development by taking shoppers from the town centre. I’m sure that Mercian and the other big developers are not like James Bond movie villains, sitting at their desks and stroking white cats while plotting the destruction of town centres across Britain. But they could at least have the decency to acknowledge that this is the side effect of what they are doing. Until then, their credibility will be about on a par with that of a Westminster spin-doctor.

This is also a challenge and an opportunity for the local politicians who say they represent the voice of the people of Cornwall. Making a nuisance of themselves by demanding an honest, open debate on issues like Coyte Farm and insisting that all options have been properly explored would be a concrete example of what a non-mainstream party can offer the Cornish electorate. Do that and they’d have my vote every time.

Mebyon Kernow and the art of the possible

Politics is the art of the possible (Otto Von Bismarck)

Cornish_AssemblyIn a post back in November I argued that Cornwall’s Mebyon Kernow should be encouraged by UKIP’s by-election successes. So I decided to take a look at MK’s website to see how the party’s policies are being presented ahead of important local elections later this year. What I found wasn’t pretty.     

Mebyon Kernow needs to decide what it is for. Here’s my opinion: it is, and always will be, a local party and should focus on what is possible in that role. Anything that detracts from the core goal of getting representatives elected to positions where they can influence policy and improve the lives of Cornish people should be avoided. But while success in Cornwall should be a more than sufficient goal, the MK manifesto is littered with ‘policies’ relating to national and global issues over which the party will never have any influence. It starts with MK’s ‘mission statement’.

‘Mebyon Kernow is a modern and progressive political party, campaigning for a better deal for Cornwall and a fairer, more equitable World.’

It was all looking good right up to those last six words. I’m sure many of us share their desire for a ‘fairer, more equitable World’ but in that quest, wouldn’t you be better off supporting organisations like Oxfam or the UNHCR? They are probably in a better position to deliver it than Mebyon Kernow. We then find an entire section of the manifesto modestly entitled ‘Global Justice’, complete with calls for global nuclear disarmament and writing off third world debt, along with ‘radical reform’ of the global financial sector’. This is about as credible as a Miss World contestant saying that what she really wants is world peace and free kittens for everybody.

Then we get down to UK-specific policies, which are only slightly less ambitious. They include the abolition of the House of Lords, implementation of Proportional Representation and withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. So what are they going to do AFTER lunch…?

Ok, so this stuff might all be pretty bonkers, but what’s the harm in having it in the manifesto? Won’t the electorate just ignore it? Perhaps. But since no sane person believes that a Cornish-based party is ever going to be able to influence those issues, including them in the list of policies makes MK seem deluded. It’s a sad fact of life that all non-mainstream political parties struggle to break free of the ‘lunatic fringe’ tag; the last thing they should do is to hand evidence of their delusions to their detractors.

This global fluff also dilutes the party’s local credentials. Including these grandiose national and international aspirations implies that success in Cornwall alone is not a sufficient goal for MK. This is a very bad message to send to the electorate. It distracts from the core, concrete local issues where a regional party can have an influence. MK needs to identify these issues and make them the absolute focus of their campaigning. What might these be? A short list would include local housing policy, transport, the future of town centre shops vs. out of town supermarkets and the environment (by which I mean specific local issues such as waste management, not global warming); in short, the issues that affect people on a daily basis. The good news is that MK does address some of them, particularly housing, but a more concerted approach to policies in the other key areas is needed.

Unfortunately, as with the global aspirations discussed earlier, generalisations too often triumph over specifics. Who wouldn’t agree with the manifesto’s calls for ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Prosperity For All’? The problem is that these terms are so vague as to be almost meaningless and that limits their electoral appeal to voters who are deeply cynical about vacuous ideological slogans. Again, they need to be fleshed out with specific proposals before anyone will take them seriously.

Moreover, it also appears that few if any of the policies have actually been costed. Voters have been duped far too often by politicians who promise the earth, only to find that there is no money to pay for the policies once they get in power. The MK manifesto comes up badly short in this area as well. And repeating the tired mantra about the need for the UK’s deficit to be reduced while opposing ‘savage cuts’ and talking about the need to defend ‘front line services’ is nowhere near good enough. Those bland words could have come from the manifesto of pretty much any British political party and are equally shallow here.

The only hint as to how MK policies might be paid for comes from the part of the manifesto calling for reform of the national taxation system, replacement of the Council Tax and other measures such as abolition of the Trident nuclear programme. Not only is there a complete lack of specific numbers, but these are also national rather than local issues. Is the manifesto implying that the viability of the party’s proposed solutions for local issues is dependent on changes at the national level? If so, we have a big credibility problem.

Finally we turn to the perennially contentious issue of Cornish nationalism and where that fits in the MK electoral tool-kit. The question of Cornwall’s constitutional status within the UK may have been a powerful driver for MK in the early days, but in 2013 we have to ask how relevant it is to the Cornish electorate. Cornwall’s distinctive character, its remoteness from the centre of political power which often results in inappropriate policies being imposed from Westminster and the need for a stronger local voice should undoubtedly be at the core of MK’s appeal. But this should not mean the party becoming mired in obscure constitutional debates about the historical nature of Cornwall’s relationship to Britain. Regardless of the historical justification for the arguments, the reality is that banging on about a thousand years of English oppression is a political dead-end. The Duchy Charters of 1337 may well support the notion of Cornwall as a separate constitutional entity, but 676 years later, very few people care. That might sound harsh, but 60 years of MK history tells us that those issues have very, very limited appeal to the voters (and at the margin, may even put some voters off).

So when people ask ‘why should I vote MK and support a Cornish Assembly?’, the answer should not be ‘because a 14th century charter proves Cornwall isn’t part of England’. The man or woman on the Camborne omnibus just doesn’t care.  The answer they are looking for is, ‘because we can show that giving more power to people who understand the needs of Cornwall will make your life better’.

In short, MK needs to narrow its focus to the key local issues and explain how they will implement and pay for the clearly thought out policies that will make life in Cornwall better. It’s not as glamorous as campaigning for nuclear disarmament and the eradication of global poverty or arguing endlessly about English oppression, but it’s a damn sight more relevant to the people who they need to vote for them.

Mebyon Kernow is undoubtedly made up of committed individuals who care deeply about Cornwall. We do need a credible alternative to the big Westminster parties and MK is by far the best placed to fill that role. The party owes it to itself, and to the people of Cornwall, to take an honest look at what it is offering voters because the message of previous elections is that something is missing.

Blood on the (high) streets

Closing down

More bad news for high street retailers with the demise of the Jessops photography chain yesterday. The Truro store will now be shuttered and in due course, a ‘For Lease’ sign will appear outside. The slow death of the high street continues.

One has to feel sympathy for staff who have lost their jobs in the midst of a recession, victims of the global threat to bricks-and-mortar retailers from Internet based outlets. The current carnage in the high street raises questions about the prospects for small towns all over the UK. This is particularly relevant to somewhere like Cornwall, characterised as it is by small towns (yes, Truro is technically a city, but only because we got a last-minute cathedral at the end of the nineteenth century…)

Cornwall has no shortage of the big grocery retailers, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and the like constantly sniffing around for potential new store sites. That doubtless explains the decline in town centre butchers and other independent food retailers. What Cornwall doesn’t have is a representative of the one area of bricks-and-mortar retailing that is still thriving in other areas of the UK, namely the mega out of town shopping centre (think Bluewater in Kent or the Trafford Centre in Manchester). For some unfathomable reason, punters still seem happy to empty their wallets to a muzac soundtrack in these soul-sucking concrete, glass and steel bunkers. For better or worse (you can probably guess where I stand on this) we don’t have one of these atrocities in Cornwall. That means that the high street is still highly relevant to Cornish consumers, as the place we go to shop for things we can’t or don’t want to buy online.

So, if we assume that vibrant high streets are an important part of the Cornish landscape, what can be done to stop them turning into a dreary procession of vacant units, interspersed with Starbucks, charity shops and betting shops?

We should ask first why the shops that are doing well on the high street are prospering. Companies like Starbucks are not fools: they are on the high street because they can still make money. A big reason is that there is no competition from online retailers. If you are overtaken by the urge for a big cup of frothy milk masquerading as coffee, you have to go into a coffee shop – ordering one from Amazon is not an option. This also applies to a certain extent to clothes shops as well. So in a nutshell, the high street is still profitable for sellers of goods you can’t buy online (like a cup of coffee or a haircut) or where there is a clear benefit to being able to handle and try the goods before purchase (like clothes).

Where does that leave the retailers that don’t fit into those categories? Well as it happens, Jessops is a good example. They were never going to be able to match companies like Amazon on price, so they had to offer something extra to compensate. In the case of a camera retailer, that could be expert advice or the opportunity to try out a camera or lens – something the customer wouldn’t get from an online purchase. I suspect that one of the reasons for the demise of Jessops was that they didn’t have a wide range of stock and (in my experience at least) the staff weren’t particularly knowledgeable or keen on letting customers handle the goods before purchase. So the customer was losing nothing by just trawling the Web for the cheapest price rather than buying on the high street.

Responding to this kind of challenge is down to the individual companies themselves. If they don’t move quickly there will be more casualties (HMV, Currys, I’m looking at you). But there are some common cost factors, specifically rent and rates, which affect all high street retailers’ viability, and one factor that affects their customers, car parking charges. Most landlords are private companies, so rents are a private sector question, while local government sets rates and car parking charges.

Rents account for the majority of a retailer’s fixed costs. The landlords operate in a free market and have to make a decent return on their assets by charging a fair rent. But as yet more vacant shop units appear in town centres, landlords must surely see that they are in danger of sacrificing their long term prospects by short-sightedly continuing to demand the high rents which helped to push previous tenants out of business in the first place. The more boarded-up shops that appear in a street, the more the value of the other units in the same area is eroded. So why do they do it? On the face of it, it seems crazy for a landlord to prefer to keep a unit empty rather than cut the rent and have a tenant in there. There is a logic to it however. If you’re a landlord who owns multiple properties, dropping the rent on a vacant unit means you run the risk of having existing tenants demand a similar reduction, dragging down returns across your whole rental portfolio. At some point, though, one has to hope that landlords will take a longer-term view; if that means cutting rents to ensure the survival of their customer base and therefore the value of their own assets, that’s what will have to happen.

What about rates and car parking charges? The first is another significant cost to the retailer and the second is a potential barrier to customers coming into town centres to shop. What they both have in common is that they are under the control of the local government rather than the private sector. So in the unlikely event of an outbreak of joined-up thinking in local government, both could be tackled quickly and in a coordinated fashion. If County Hall really believes that Cornwall needs viable, vibrant town centres, why not do something concrete about it rather than sit around hand wringing. How about a cut in business rates for local high street businesses and a trial period in which town-centre car parking charges are abolished? See whether, after 6 or 12 months there has been a positive impact on high street trade and then reassess.

Sure, the middle of a recession is a bad time to suggest policies that would further reduce council revenues. It would, however be a brave experiment which might just work. I’m generally a free-market kind of guy, but there are some areas that require government intervention and this is one of them. It’s quite possible that the short-term revenue sacrifice from cutting rates and car parking charges could be offset by the longer-term social (and financial) benefits of ensuring the survival of the high street. That, of course, would require vision and boldness from our local politicians. I’m not holding my breath….

St Agnes

StAgnesWinter

Something whimsical as winter draws in.

The ocean swells rise from the dark, cold depths of the Atlantic, rolling eastward from the shores of Newfoundland for two thousand miles before making landfall at last on the north coast of Cornwall. The waves unleash the energy built up in their journey on the sheer cliffs that fringe the village. There are sporadic breaches, where the ocean booms and froths in the eyeless sockets of sea caves. On either side of the fortress of St Agnes head, the sea has found other weak points where the rock is softer, grinding out narrow, knife-sharp coves. But these are small victories and the ocean’s assault on the coastline is mostly futile. This is not the gentle, undulating, south coast with its broad river valleys carved by the sea from its soft sedimentary under-belly. No; here are unyielding granite walls rising sheer from the sea, walls which, thousands of years ago, were underwater. The land will not easily relinquish what it has won from the sea.

Inland, the massive granite outcrop of the Beacon stands, sentinel-like, over the village. The view from its summit reveals a place encircled by sea on three sides, moulded and shaped by geology. Level ground is rare here and the village proper lies on one of the few flat areas, the granite spine of St Agnes. The secular and spiritual institutions have taken possession of this scarce resource. Mammon has its shops, pubs and hairdressers. God too has staked his claim; the square, sober, pugnacious Methodist chapel faces off with the older, altogether more reserved Anglican church, which squats close by. The houses here are all Victorian middle class respectability, reflecting the new confidence of a rising commercial elite.

But this island of flatness is the exception, and topography quickly re-imposes its authority. From the village centre, the land drops away sharply, the houses spilling down steep hills to the coves, clinging to the valley sides like limpets fearful of sliding into the sea. Down Town Hill to Peterville and then on to Trevaunance Cove where, on a summer’s day, all is idyllic bucket and spade seaside charm. But next to the café and the pub is the RNLI station with the orange snout of the lifeboat poking out of its house, a dog sniffing the air for the scent of danger. There is a lifeboat here for a reason. Down the beach, visible at low tide, is a mass of scattered granite blocks, remnants of three centuries of futile attempts to build a harbour here. A harbour that was built, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again and finally abandoned. Three hundred years of human endeavour reduced to a jumble of broken rocks by the remorseless sea.

With the granite that encircles the village came the deposits of copper and tin; they, in turn, brought life and death, riches and hardship to the village.  Above the beach, dominating the hillside, are the skeletal remains of the engine houses that once contained the machines engaged in the endless task of pumping water out of the mines. St Agnes’ ‘hard-rock men’ burrowed into the earth in the hope of striking it rich, but were more often rewarded with a dirt-poor life and an early death. Wheal Kitty, Wheal Charlotte, Wheal Ellen, Wheal Harriet: the prospectors liked to name the mines after their wives, daughters and mothers, as if invoking the names of their women would somehow soften the reality of the dirty, dangerous, dispiriting business of wrenching metal from the bowels of the earth.­­­

Here, the past is never very far away. It’s under our feet, burrowing through the mine-workings under our houses while, above our heads, the jutting fingers of the engine house chimneys pierce the sky. And, in case we are inclined to forget, from time to time, an old mineshaft opens up, swallowing a careless sheep or unlucky dog. The past, it seems, won’t let us go.

The names of the places and highways themselves seem like voices from another time, when Cornish, not English, was the mother tongue here. Follow Goonbell down past Gooninnis and Goonlaze, down to Trevellas; or go down Penwinnick Road onto Goonvrea, over to Polbreen Avenue and on to Trelawney Road. A traveler could cross the village from one side to another without encountering a name recognisable on the other side of the Tamar.

I walked on those north coast cliffs early one winter’s morning, breathing air cleansed by its journey across the ocean from the New World. Meanwhile, here in the Old World, the battle between the sea and the land continued as it has ever done.

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