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.

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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.

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….

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