Letter to Cllr John Pollard, the Leader of Cornwall Council, from Cllr Candy Atherton’s with her concerns about the Housing Crisis in Falmouth
I am writing concerning growth at Falmouth and Tremough. I am writing in a personal capacity but believe these views would be widely supported in the town and Falmouth Town Council chamber.
As you know I thought the universities would bring prosperity to Falmouth and supported the original Combined Universities in Cornwall plan with a cap on numbers of 5000. I was told at the time by Professor Alan Livingston, the driver of the project, that the students would live on the campus and that the university would be spread across Cornwall with the hub at Tremough. He failed to mention that on campus living would be for just the first year, after that they would seek housing in the towns - some went to Penryn but the preferred destination of students then and now is Falmouth.
When I was selected to stand in Smithick ward I was struck how run down the area had become. It used to be a middle income area with neat lawns, curtains and well kept gardens. Sadly many houses were now in multiple occupation and standards much lower. As soon as I was elected I asked Falmouth Town Council to charge me to seek an Article 4 Direction to limit the growth of further HMOs in Falmouth. It was unanimously supported. Since that time the issue of growing numbers of HMOs has spread across the town.
It took nearly a year - in the teeth of huge opposition from Cornwall Council officers before Geoff Brown and Edwina Hannaford agreed to support an Article 4. I was then asked to work on a Neighbourhood Plan to support it. This was a mistake as it has held up the Article 4.
The NP is now two thirds completed and we will go to Referendum within the year. I am hopeful that the Article 4 Direction notices will go up imminently although Cornwall Council is not paying for the statutory requirement that every road in the town has 2 notices displayed - a Cornwall Council responsibility under the Article 4. Once again I have had to go to Falmouth Town Council to seek the funds.
In the meantime there has been further increases in HMOs across Falmouth. Four new lettings agencies have recently opened in the town. Yesterday 2 of my friends were informed by their landlords that they would have to move their families, again, from their rented properties as they were needed for students. Time and again we are seeing this happen and the town is in a ferment.
Some people recognise that the students have brought prosperity to Falmouth and that the students bring an added dimension to the town but others, probably the majority, do not see the advantages and fear for Falmouth's future. I can sympathise with this view.
Falmouth won the Sunday Times Best Town to Live in the South West last weekend. I think Best Town to visit would be more appropriate as our festivals and events are fantastic. For people in the town it is a different matter. We have 1000 plus on the Housing Register locally. More and more people are being pushed out of the town unable to afford housing as they see owners of housing cashing in and buying more houses and opening them as HMOs. Many of these owners do not live in Falmouth or even Cornwall.
Thursday through to Sunday the town can be filled with students and young people out partying till closing time - 3am. Local people find it hard to sleep and yet have to get up the next morning for work. Some students decide to practice their drums at 12 midnight driving residents mad. Parking is a nightmare - I am getting at least one complaint about parking a day.
Since I was elected this anger and anxiety has grown. People fear for their property prices, for their peace of mind and see little good from the development of the universities. I recognise that the universities have assisted the town and that many people locally have full time jobs working or providing services but it is a double edged sword.
I believe the universities have just seen the economic drivers and not the impact upon the town. I have described them as behaving like ostriches, oblivious of the way their business is changing the town. And let me be clear John - universities are now a business and not a public service.
Since the cap on student numbers was lifted by the government the Falmouth University has lost all government funding and can only raise revenue via tuition fees - which have not risen. Exeter is in a stronger position but in order to survive Falmouth argues it has to increase income - never mind the impact on the town.
I understand that the universities by-passed the town and Cornwall Council and lobbied the Local Plan Inspector for growth even though the universities do not have planning permission to go beyond 5000. As a result the Inspector has asked Cornwall Council to say how these extra student numbers will be housed. Nearly 3000 extra students. The universities say the students only want to live in Falmouth.
I say the people of Falmouth would also like the right to live in Falmouth but are not being given the choice.
Falmouth is under massive pressure to increase housing numbers and the student numbers are not taken into account - they are extra to our increased housing numbers. Developers are circling like wolves grabbing every last patch of land to settle as many students as possible in halls of residence - in Falmouth.
Even the student body has now risen up demanding that the universities stop growing until the housing crisis is tackled. They came to Falmouth Town Council asking for councillors to join with them in opposing the growth plans. Many students say that the small size of Falmouth attracted them to the town and that attraction may well be lost if growth continues unhindered.
Cornwall Council officers have to respond to the Local Plan Inspector and are busy proposing sites. I do not blame them - they are caught between a rock and a hard place. I think there needs to be some hard thinking by Cornwall Council about the whole issue of expansion and its implications. Should Cornwall Council not insist that any expansion is confined to the university campus or other towns across Cornwall rather than just rushing to push students into Falmouth?
The people of Falmouth have had enough. To date neither of the Vice Chancellors have met with the town to discuss their plans. The Mayor of Falmouth and I recently met with senior staff including the CEO, and made clear the problems. It appears to have been a revelation to them and they accidentally left us on an email trail where they were discussing whether to be open or not about student growth numbers. I note that the new Cornwall Council Chief Executive has met with the Vice Chancellors and has stated publicly she will do all in her power to help them grow. When I complained I was offered a meeting - in 2 months time.
Now we learn in the Budget that Business Rates are going to be lifted from small businesses - presumably those landlords who already do not pay Council Tax will now not even pay Business Rates. There is not even an Environmental Health Officer Falmouth Town Council can call on to deal with the 3 day parties. Falmouth Town Council were unable to hire one from Cornwall Council to be available at key dates - Christmas, Freshers, end of term etc.
My argument is if the universities wish to grow they should grow on their campus or in other towns as was the original plan. That students should be pleased that there is accommodation for them to live in - something the town does not get. I believe the very fabric of the town will be ripped apart if people do not wake up and understand the anger felt in the town for the town and by individuals who feel threatened by expansion.
With no portfolio holders in Falmouth I fear that the Cornwall Council Cabinet and senior staff see the growth of the university as just a positive for Cornwall and that Falmouth is moaning. That is not the truth. The growth has come at a price and it is time Cornwall Council woke up to the realities.
I repeat - I believe any student housing growth should be restricted to the campus and not allowed in Falmouth town. That growth, if allowed, should be in other towns which would be to the benefit of all of Cornwall's wider economy.
I hope that Cornwall Council will understand the concerns and address them across the council.
Cllr Candy Atherton
Labour councillor for Falmouth Smithick - Town and Cornwall Council
Copied in: Falmouth Packet and West Briton