Celtic cousins 1: Cornish renewal in action

Tim Williams finds that Cornwall has played a better hand than Wales with its European funds

I am rarely uplifted by news from the UK but my recent visit to Blighty has warmed the cockles of my heart (wherever and whatever a cockle is). To be specific, my experience of Cornwall gave me a boost. This was most unexpected because (a) the economy has been as badly affected in that region as anywhere in the UK and wasn’t robust even in the boom years; and (b) I had at best a mixed experience down there when running an Urban Regeneration Company in the ex-mining heartlands of Cornwall, around Camborne Pool and Redruth  – more my fault than anyone else’s – and hadn’t anticipated seeing the area bring a smile to my face. I was mistaken.

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Don’t get me wrong. The area is not bucking the UK economic trend and the long-term structural issues remain. Essentially, it went through post-industrial dislocation from a high value engineering economy at the peak of the mining boom in the 19th Century through de-population and depression in the 20th Century during which many of the more talented and entrepreneurial left for more ebullient economies in Australia and beyond. South Wales and the North of England have been through similar cycles. The differences between West Cornwall’s experience and those of Wales and the North are however as interesting as the similarities.

On the one hand, being even further away from London and having no city of its own, Cornwall didn’t really see much new private sector investment during the boom years. Also, not having a big urban population, it wasn’t really a prime candidate for big public sector bucks. To be fair, the Regional Development Agency for the region had a massive area to cover. Its investment was inevitably targeted more outside Cornwall than in and also had to respond to a lot of competing pressures for investment in many areas of Cornwall itself. English Partnerships took a leadership role in the area and pro rata put more investment into it than many other areas in its jurisdiction. In fact, they were passionate about the opportunities and needs of the area, despite getting some flak from local nationalist opinion because of the ‘English’ in their title.

On the other hand, Cornwall was a recipient of European structural funds and being a beautiful county did attract the attentions and money of second home buyers and what became known as the Rock Crowd who largely filled Rick Stein’s restaurants. My area didn’t see as much of the Euro-funding as we would have liked. However, I do think that the Euro-investment in the new Combined Universities for Cornwall project (at Falmouth) was a strategic game changer for all of Cornwall, since before that it had had no university at all. I would also say that the investment in high speed broadband in the county has helped bring entrepreneurs to Cornwall. In that regard the Euro-money has been better spent in Cornwall than in Wales, which has seen no game-changing strategic investment of which I am aware.

What was missing in the Camborne, Pool and Redruth area for decades was much new private investment in housing, some new higher value jobs and an imaginative, iconic, project, perhaps respecting the area’s history whilst looking forward. The area is not on the coast and has a lot of the leftovers of its industrial past – including a deal of social housing in need of repair and renewal. As a result it did not immediately appeal to second home buyers or residential developers. The community like many in the UK had also got into a bit of a rut in relation to change from without and tended to say no to development whilst wanting to see renewal and new jobs.

Whilst none of these fundamentals was going to be changed overnight and the economy remains fragile, I was encouraged by a few things I saw on my visit after Christmas. One was new housing at Dolcoath in Camborne. The second was some new economic and housing developments in Pool. Most impressively, the third was a great new venue. This is the mining museum/leisure attraction at Robinson’s Shaft in Pool, called Heartlands. The last astonished my by the professionalism of its implementation and the excellence of its design. Largely funded by the National Lottery it bears the imprint of many local exemplars and heroes who I will embarrass by naming in this piece. I will go there first and come back to the housing developments.

The core inspiration for Heartlands I guess was to ensure the preservation and re-presentation of one of Cornwall’s key historical mining assets in Robinson’s Shaft. And those who run and oversee Heartlands have done a great job in securing that objective. But they are doing so much more in what I think is now one of Cornwall’s finest public spaces. It has an innovative park for kids, a performance venue, retail outlets, some incubator units, a café and a commemoration of Cornish emigration. And it is all done with great attention to design, architecture and materials. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Go there – as regeneration professionals or as visitors seeking a good family day out.

And the exemplars and heroes? Sorry guys but here goes. If memory serves, it was Scott James and David Sillifant of Kerrier Council (now absorbed into a unitary Cornwall, something I supported when working for David Miliband on local government reorganisation) who kicked the idea off and did so with a combination of Cornish patriotism and public sector nous – and some élan. Although not a formal Urban Regeneration Company project some of our officers played supportive roles. We were the only Urban Regeneration Company to have a dedicated urban design capacity in-house and I noted when I went to Heartlands that our superb urban designer Tim Kellett was involved in its design. I’m not surprised.

Finally – though there I am sure there were other local heroes in involved including the Urban Regeneration Company board, chief executive and team, leading County Council staff and politicians – I would name the local Pool Councillor and community leader, Malcolm Moyle who has been at the heart of most initiatives in the vicinity for decades and chairs the board which oversaw the Heartlands project. Well done all. It looks great and shows what a combination of local leadership, brains and cash can do even in challenging circumstances. I confess to shedding a tear when I saw it but then I’m a known girl’s blouse!

English Partnerships and the Homes and Communities Agency (the housing and regeneration delivery agency for England) have played a key role in the development of new quality housing in both Pool and Camborne. I was really impressed by the design quality of the new housing in Camborne town centre. This has been developed by a partnership between Linden Homes (Galliford Try), Devon and Cornwall Housing Association, the Homes and Communities Agency and indeed the Urban Regeneration Company.

Although the global financial crisis intervened to slow down the development and limit it to the current 90 homes, in contrast with the planned 400, a beach-head for housing led regeneration has been established. Again, have a look at it. I would say it’s the same sort of quality as English Partnership’s award winning development at Upton and hugely better than the market normally delivered in this area. When it is completed it will have a density sufficient to support local services, employment and a more vibrant town centre. Again, Mr Kellett played a fine part in this process as did the English Partnership team led by David Warburton and his Exeter colleagues who really put their heart and soul, and a lot of cash, time and skill into this residential component of the regeneration program. They also seem to have found the right partners in what was Midas Homes. There is a long way to go but it is a great step forward in the supply of quality affordable and much needed middle income homes locally. Both were required for urban regeneration.

English Partnerships and the Homes and Communities Agency took a long term view of the opportunities in the area. They also avoided taking a narrow view. They helped buy land for some road investment and the re-design needed to enable the new housing developments and Heartlands to take place. The County Council backed the roads package as part of their contribution to the Urban Regeneration Company and the regeneration programme. The result has been new manufacturing, retail and  office jobs in key sites around Redruth and Pool near the A30.

Again, do not be mistaken. Camborne and Redruth town centres remain in peril as do many such town centres. It is also not clear what impact unresolved and as yet undelivered plans to bring tin mining back to Pool will have on wider regeneration and residential activity. I note only that nine years ago I was sceptical about the capacity of tin mining to return, and eight years since I left, not an ounce of marketable tin has been produced. More jobs have been created by Heartlands and the other projects in the area than by efforts to revive tin-ming. I do not think that the tin price will ever rise to levels that will bring a serious number of high value jobs to the area. Even if it were to, most of those jobs would have to be open to workers from all over the EU not just local Cornish lads .

More importantly one mine will not recreate what was most important about 19th Century Cornwall – its broad and innovative engineering sector. I also cannot see how commodities mining can co-exist with the creation of new residential development in what is a very urban space. This isn’t Western Australia we are talking about. Someone having the right to mine 40 yards below any house in the area will destroy the housing potential of the district which many have spent a decade trying to create. I think the area needs to move forward not back. And it has been doing so in really challenging circumstances and times.

All in all Cornwall’s experience is more indicative of the challenges facing much of the UK than East London has been, with its unique Olympic impetus and benefit from being so close to the economic action. It success is are thus all the more impressive.

Tim Williams who blogs here, is director of the Publicani consultancy and is currently working on projects in Australia, where he now lives, and the UK. He is a former special advisor to the Blair government and the Welsh Government. Prior to moving to Australia in December 2010 he was managing director of Navigant Consulting.

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