Bristol needs more homes, particularly affordable homes, an undeniable fact, with over 14,000 on the council waiting list and many more people living in overcrowded, unsuitable and poor quality housing. Others are forced to travel long distances everyday to get to work in the city because they can’t afford to live here. So what’s the council doing about it? Well affordable housing was a key issue in the Mayoral election, it was top of the agenda, alongside transport, pushed there by Marvin Rees (Labour candidate) and picked up by the current Mayor in his manifesto. But have we seen any real change?
One part of the answer to this issue was the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Delivery Framework (AHDF) and the Practice Note (AHPN) that went with it. Both a good start to providing a clear policy direction and clear indication of intent to deliver. The AHDF sets out an ambitious programme with an annual programme for the use of its own land while the AHPN provides clarity to developers about what the council expects. Another part of the answer could be in the form of the Bristol Homes Commission, set up by the Mayor last year with the stated aim of identifying solutions that will help to improve the supply of affordable housing in both the short, medium and longer term.
The Homes Commission produced its report last month and it is due to be considered by Cabinet tomorrow (Tuesday 4th August), but what can we hope for as an outcome of this process and will the Homes Commission report make a difference to policy and practice locally? The initial response of the council is now available and doesn’t look that promising to be honest – whilst there are many areas where the officer response is positive, there are just too many that are hesitant, defensive or un-accepting, particularly in relation to the difficult issues.
The focus of the recommendations of the Homes Commission are based around four main areas where in their view significant improvements could be made to improve the delivery of affordable housing in Bristol:
- Land & sites supply
- Planning for housing delivery
- Leadership & systems
- Making best use of strategic assets
The issue about land is an obvious one, where you can’t help but think – but why isn’t that happening anyway? That is, making best use of public land to support corporate priorities, in this case the provision of affordable homes. I guess here the balance is between making as much money as possible out of a public asset or supporting the achievement of a council priority – in theory they should be one and the same, if it’s about making money then that money should be used to provide more homes, or you use the land yourself or in partnership to build those homes. However, it is apparently not that simple and hasn’t exactly been working like that over the years. So perhaps it does need a group of people independent of the council to point this out! Of course it’s a little more complex than that, as it’s also about all publicly owned land, not just council land, and its about combining uses to free up underused land, moving some uses away from valuable land and collaboration with other agencies. This is one area where the council seems to be mostly supportive of the recommendations, so there may be a real opportunity here for some noticeable change, if the vehicle of choice, the Bristol Property Board, is up to the challenge and is given the resources to make it happen.
The second issue, about the planning system, again is pretty obvious but has some interesting recommendations around developing and nurturing an alternative homes sector, where different providers enter the market, such as custom/self build, community led housing schemes and low cost modular homes, helping to reduce the dominance of the volume house builders. Truly a recommendation to be applauded and one which could help to set Bristol apart from other areas – where once we led the way we are now falling behind, so this is a good opportunity to move us back in the right direction. But perhaps one of the most challenging and controversial recommendations in the report is the notion that the council relax its planning policy in the short term and focuses its attention on achieving overall housing targets, building as many new homes as possible in the short term “whilst building up capacity to deliver more affordable new homes over the long term”. Whilst I can see the point about scheme viability and the need for new homes of all tenures, we also have an affordability crisis, compromise now to build more homes overall at the cost of more affordable homes seems a difficult balance to achieve successfully. At what point do you start to push for more affordable homes, are schemes really unviable, and is Bristol really that unattractive a place to develop? Officers of the council rightly raise concerns about this aspect in terms of need, as well as delivering on their own affordable housing targets.
The issue about leadership and culture is an interesting one, which has been the subject of debate for some time in Bristol. The report highlights the positive new change of culture and the prioritisation of housing issues by the Mayor, but they question whether this goes far enough and how embedded a culture of risk aversion and overt conservatism there is within the council, making real change difficult. This is a commonly held perception of the council and which is a tough one to define or change, but I applaud the Commission for raising it and look forward to hearing the council’s response!
The final issue about making best use of strategic assets is undoubtedly the most controversial and politically sensitive. The difficultly the council faces is a limit to their own borrowing to build new council homes, reduced government funding for affordable housing and a planning system that isn’t delivering sufficient affordable homes. So the question is – what is the best approach to securing the funding and resource to deliver on affordable housing in Bristol? Of course the council/Mayor can lobbying for greater borrowing ability, can wait to see if a change in government will switch government support back to bricks and mortar and away from the current benefits subsidy, or they can think the impossible and consider reviewing their policy of stock retention. What this would mean is a full review of whether or not the transfer of some existing council stock would unlock access to significantly more borrowing capacity through the private sector than is currently possible through public sector borrowing, thus enabling improvements to that stock and increase the ability to build new affordable homes new.
The issue of stock transfer in Bristol has been neatly kept off the agenda for many years, with political ideology holding strong. But in this case maybe it is time to reconsider? As I understand it the Commission are suggesting a proper business case is developed, looking at the cost-benefit of continuing with the current policy of stock retention or going forward with a partial stock transfer policy. Whilst I understand people have very strong views about this, I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to have a proper business case developed, to help provide you with an answer that gives you the greatest ability to develop more affordable homes in Bristol. But apparently this is a recommendation too far for officers of the council, their response is pretty straightforward – “not supported”. The sticking point seems to be around partial or mass transfer of stock, with the council happy to consider partial transfers of under performing stock (in very small numbers) but not any larger scale transfer. To me this is a very blinkered view, without a full appraisal how do you know what you could achieve with a different policy?
There’s a lot to consider in all this and it appears alongside 3 other Commission reports on the Cabinet agenda. I hope that the Cabinet, Mayor and Scrutiny will give proper consideration to all the recommendations and take the time that this deserves to debate the issues – providing more affordable homes in Bristol needs to be a top priority, but it also needs brave decisions to be taken now to make sure we provide the homes we need.