The latest report from the Centre for Cities – Delivering Change: Building homes where we need them – is a welcome piece of work which identifies the extent of the housing problem in our most successful cities and points the way to some solutions. The solutions are not new, they’ve pretty much all been suggested before, but no politician at local or national level seems brave enough to take the decisions that are needed.
The problem is set out as follows by the report authors:
“There is a political consensus that the UK needs more homes. While this is a national issue, it is most acute in the country’s most successful cities. There is sufficient land that could provide homes in the areas where people want to live, but local and national decision-makers must be bold in identifying it based on the merits of individual sites, rather than based on long standing and often arbitrary designations.”
Our most successful cities are the least affordable places to live – see Figure 1 below.
The focus of the Centre for Cities report is on land allocation as the primary constraint on our ability to deliver enough homes and on providing new homes where infrastructure, jobs and services are in place. They propose three main components that are required to deliver sufficient land for housing in successful cities:
- increasing densities
- working with neighbouring authorities
- re-designating green belt land
The first of these components, densification, basically means identifying all brownfield land and open space in our urban areas that could be built on. This often requires investment from the public sector to assemble land, provide critical infrastructure and finance affordable housing directly, so is not a cheap option. Equally it is also likely to be politically sensitive, as intensive development in existing urban areas frequently brings challenge and dissent from those living close by.
The second component, collaboration across boundaries, is an obvious one, where working together to provide for housing needs across the city region is critical. The focus here, the report says, should be on developing new homes close to railway stations and other key transport routes, which could potentially deliver significant numbers of new homes to meet the needs of our successful cities.
The final component is about evaluating land on its merits rather than existing designations and is aimed at the re-designtation of green belt land as a critical factor that currently constrains the future growth of successful cities. Again, land close to transport links and adjacent to urban areas is the focus for potential development.
The report points out that lack of housing hinders growth and makes our most successful cities unaffordable to many, and this requires political and policy change to make a difference. It also requires politicians to take some potentially unpopular decisions and to be brave in the face of opposition!
The concept of the green belt is to stop sprawl and has to some extent achieved this. However, in many areas where growth occurs, development leapfrogs the green belt and produces an extended form of sprawl, further away from the main urban area. This in itself generates lengthier journeys to work, more time spent traveling, congestion and wider environmental impact. A review of this outdated policy is a must in areas around our most successful and least affordable cities.
So to Bristol, identified as one of only three cities outside of the Greater South East with the least affordable housing in the country, where demand far outstrips supply, making it the 9th least affordable place to live out of 63 UK cities! This matters for many reasons, not least the inequalities exacerbated by the divide between those that own their own homes and those that don’t. Add to that the fact that high housing costs hinder growth, make it difficult for people to access the jobs that are available, make it difficult for businesses to recruit and reduce overall spending power, and you can see the problem. But what’s the solution here in Bristol, how do we address these affordability issues and provide the homes that are needed?
Firstly, the report talks about the role of the suburbs, where 2/3 of people live in Bristol. These are traditionally low density, green areas with plenty of brownfield land and opportunities for densification. However, development of these small and constrained sites is often costly, time consuming and difficult. But there are opportunities that need to be maximised.
Secondly, the need to rethink the green belt around Bristol is highlighted. This is not a new idea and there have been various proposals to build into the green belt to the SW and SE of Bristol in the past. In these areas, where green belt land is often of poor quality and is close to transport infrastructure, such as rail stations, park and ride sites and planned bus rapid transit routes, the viability and potential for development is obvious, but strongly resisted. The green belt acts as a very strong deterrent to growth.
Overall, the Centre for Cities report talks in positive terms about some of the changes currently underway in Bristol, where small initiatives and talk about better strategic planning is mentioned, but is it enough? How can joint working and strategic planning succeed when the approach of at least one neighbouring authority is to turn its back on Bristol and deny the need to help plan for Bristol’s growth?
I applaud Bristol’s ambitions and attempts to accommodate and plan for grown but question our ability to realise this potential as a city within existing administrative and governance boundaries and constraints. Until real change at a political level is instigated Bristol’s affordability crisis will only get worse!
The report also outlines some excellent examples of growth, development and collaboration which maybe Bristol could learn from. The ideas include better use of public land (something that is happening in Bristol), establishing a local tariff or roof tax to fund infrastructure, improving Compulsory Purchase powers to enable land assembly, and green belt swaps in appropriate locations to enable city growth – all worth considering. Alongside these ideas the report also calls for more support from national government, to take the strain off local government and to take responsibility for the housing problem at a national level. The need for a national strategic plan is alluded to, where national government works with city regions to identify, allocate and assemble sites, providing greater financial incentives to make this worthwhile at a local level.
For me a national plan that takes responsibility and control, allocates targets in collaboration with local areas, and provides incentives for new build could just make a difference but will any politicians be brave enough to go down this route in the near future?