G stands for greenwash?

Bulldozer and felled trees at the Carbis Bay Hotel. Photo from the Carbis Bay Beach Developments Facebook group

As Cornwall prepares to host the G7 summit, destruction of the natural environment by the Carbis Bay Hotel is not a good look.

Environmental campaigners in Cornwall have been expressing horror at the decision by the Carbis Bay Hotel – where G7 leaders will be convening in June – to destroy a swathe of coastal scrubland, including several mature trees, to make way for expanded facilities ahead of the summit.

The luxury hotel, which forms part of a privately-owned 125-acre estate that also features a 25-acre stretch of beach, a range of self-catering properties and a spa, makes much of its eco credentials. This was no doubt one reason why it was chosen as a venue by Boris Johnson’s government, which is also seeking to present itself as a leader on climate and environment in the year that it hosts both the G7 meeting (11-13 June) and the COP26 climate conference.

Cornwall Council’s planning enforcement team was asked to investigate the incident after Tim Dwelly, the Council’s cabinet member for economy and planning, said that he understood that the hotel did not have planning permission for the work.

On 8 March – four days after the work to clear the site had begun – the hotel submitted a planning application for “retention and completion of 3 single-storey structures to provide 9 meetings rooms, and access pathway”.

Well over a hundred objections have since been submitted. But as many of the people who have lodged these have pointed out, it’s unclear what point there is in seeking to prevent destruction that has already happened.

Late last week, Cornwall Council issued a statement to say:

“Cornwall Council have investigated these works and determined that planning permission is needed […] When buildings works are being carried out that need planning permission, we advise owners that they may have to remove the buildings if they do not gain permission.

“Planning legislation does not give us powers to stop works whilst we determine the application, but we urge owners to do so.”

There is some uncertainty over the extent of the damage that has been done. It appears that there were not – as some had claimed –  badger setts on the land in question, as these had already been removed by the hotel in 2015. But as local ecologist Peter Nason noted in his objection, the list of plant and animal species likely to be affected by the loss of mature woodland is a long one, including 20 breeding bird species:

“This strip of coastal woodland has now been destroyed and its wildlife will take decades or even centuries to recover back to its original form.”

Lisa Arthur at the site. Photo courtesy of Lisa Arthur

Lisa Arthur of the Green Party told Radio Cornwall that the hotel’s actions would damage the biodiversity of this coastal habitat.

“About ten trees have been completely cut down – there is nothing left of them,” she said, while pointing out that what is described in the planning application as a “pathway” to the new buildings appears to be rather more than that, as it involves placement of concrete footings.

Responding to claims that the trees were “merely” sycamores, she said:

“Nature takes its own course. Sycamores are native to the area and they are the things that have chosen to seed themselves there. I’m assuming the hotel is going to plant some sort of hardy ‘exotic’ succulent to replace them, which may look better for the resort. But local wildlife would probably disagree, especially when it comes to nesting season.”

The proprietors of the Carbis Bay Hotel have issued a statement that has only succeeded in adding insult to injury. After boasting that it is “one of the UK’s best and greenest destinations, in one of the most beautiful bays in the country,” it went on to claim that objections to its behaviour were all due to a “misunderstanding on social media” and that it would be “replacing the scrubland with a plethora of trees and plants more suited to the coastal environment”.

It did not explain why planning permission had only been sought after work on the site had begun.

Screenshot of the hotel’s website

The Carbis Bay holiday complex has faced strong criticism from local people for some years. In 2018, it added a number of new beach lodges, a large events venue and retail facilities, prompting complaints that it was turning the distinctive Cornish coastline into something more like Benidorm or the ‘Costa del Cornwall’.

While the hotel has some local support for its claim to be bringing money into Cornwall’s economy, many question whether this should come at the cost of environmental destruction. And, as Catrina Davies has argued powerfully for West Country Voices, Cornwall’s over-reliance on tourism has not succeeded in creating many good, sustainable jobs for local people.

Cornwall’s overdependence on the tourist economy has been starkly highlighted by the pandemic, which at a stroke deprived many people here of their livelihoods. As we come out of lockdown, we should be thinking hard about how we can build a greener and more resilient economy.

Eco-tourism will certainly have a part to play in this. But eco-tourism that involves the destruction of the natural world is plainly a contradiction in terms.

With Biden having replaced Trump as US president, this year’s  G7 summit has a real chance to create a strong international framework for action on the climate and ecological emergency.

But it does not bode well that the government hosting the summit at Carbis Bay in June is claiming to be a world-leader on climate and environment while simultaneously cutting taxes on domestic flights and planning thousands of miles of new roads.

We had better hope that what we’ve seen in Carbis Bay in recent days is not a sign that the G in G7 will turn out to stand for ‘greenwash’.

The Carbis Bay Beach Developments Facebook group, which has brought together local people to resist the destruction of the local environment, is organising a socially distanced protest on the beach at Carbis Bay on 3 April.