Growing our successful cities is very much the topic of debate at the moment. With discussions about devolution, combined authorities, metro-mayors and growing the economy, cities are the centre of attention for much of our future planning and aspirations. One of the key question that emerges from this debate is whether or not cities are up to the challenge. In some areas, such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds we can see the challenge being welcomed and responses to government demands met pretty quickly. In other areas, perhaps where growth is already positive and complacency the order of the day, then responses are slower, more deliberate and less positive. The recent report by IPPR and Shelter “Growing Cities” takes a look at four growing cities identified as being held back by chronic housing pressures – York, Cambridge, Oxford and Bristol. For anyone living in and around Bristol, the fact that Bristol features will come as no surprise, we’ve been struggling with how to deliver housing growth for many years. The report discusses the need for better tools and powers to enable cities to build more homes with local support – this is about better planning, not less planning as is the popular call of our current government. The report identifies four main areas where change is needed:
- Co-operation across local authority boundaries
- Unlocking stalled sites
- New models of development
- Overcoming the limits of growth: green belts
These issues have consistently been identified by research and reports as limiting housing growth, but whilst solutions have been offered few have actually been adopted, at least not ones that make any noticeable difference. So, what would addressing each of these issues mean in the Bristol area and how likely is it that things will actually change? I’ll take each issue in turn and discuss some of the points raised by the report and how they could play out in this area. Firstly, co-operation across local authority boundaries is something that has been discussed endlessly in the Bristol city region and I have blogged about before – see “the devolution debate” “a mayor for greater Bristol” and “a confusion of governance“. In particular, the idea of co-operating on housing growth seems to be something that Bristol and its neighbouring authorities have a real problem with. Bristol and South Gloucestershire as a successful economic hub have to some degree focused on how and where to deliver housing growth, and to some extent seem to be able to work together on aspects of this process. The same could not be true across Bristol’s southern border, into North Somerset, where the whole idea of housing growth seems to generate only negative comment and response. Indeed in the latest issue of North Somerset Life (the council’s own regular newsletter for residents) the council leader, Nigel Ashton, once more took the opportunity to rant about housing:
“We are waiting for the Secretary of State to make a final decision on the number of homes we will forced to allow developers to build between now and 2026. At the moment it looks like 21,000 which we think is too many. At the same time, we have tentative estimates from regional discussions which will decide how many more dwellings we will have to provide in the next planning period of another ten years, up to 2036. North Somerset’s share could be another 15,000. This is all because the Government listens to developers’ views of the need for more dwellings, not the local authority.”
An interesting take on how his own Government assesses housing need and demand! One of the critical issues about this debate is that North Somerset Council (NSC) refuse to acknowledge that they have any role in providing housing to support the needs of the city region. Their only concern is to provide sufficient housing for North Somerset residents and not the ‘overspill’ associated with Bristol. So, it is safe to say, that unless sensible housing numbers are imposed on NSC, they will do little to co-operate with Bristol on housing matters. This is a situation exacerbated by the ridiculously tight boundaries surrounding the city and the fact that most of the land for expansion is outside of the control of Bristol city council. The idea suggested in the Growing Cities report is for greater incentives for co-operation and increased penalties where that doesn’t happen. The idea of setting up a Joint Strategic Planning Authority and a Local Homes Agency to provide strategic direction and pro-active planning is a good one and something that is much needed in the Bristol city region.
The second point about stalled sites is also critical. To date, what seems to have happened with too many of the stalled sites in Bristol is that permissions have been re-negotiated and development supported at the cost of affordable housing provision. So anything that changes this current imbalance of power away from developers holding all the cards, and back to local councils who do want to kick start development, has got to be a good starting point. Changing the powers within the planning system to enable councils to unblock sites in favour of quicker development could work, but you need a willing council to begin with.
The third suggestion is about providing power to local councils to proactively drive new large scale development through the designation of New Homes Zones (NHZ). Large sites in this country take decades to develop from start to finish. One of the important aspects of this approach is the freezing of land values (plus an element of compensation) as soon as the NHZ is designated which would generate significantly increased ability to provide for new affordable homes, infrastructure and services. In Bristol, within the council boundary, there would be little opportunity to designate such a NHZ as the land is just not available, but on the outskirts in NSC or South Gloucestershire, the potential is there but would it be realised?
The final suggestion is about encouraging sensible ways to grow our cities with urban extensions close to existing city boundaries. In Bristol this is not a new idea, the much maligned Regional Spatial Strategy proposed several urban extensions to the city, particularly to the south east and south west of the city. These extensions would inevitably be in what is currently designated as green belt around the city. But just consider the alternative, we continue to build on every possible site in the city, with all the consequent problems and issues for quality of life that this brings, or we jump the green belt and provide for unsustainable settlements further away from our cities. Surely a re-assessment of our green belt is needed? The Growing Cities report suggests setting up Green Belt Community Trusts to help strike a better balance and identify the possibility of building small, sustainable suburbs or extensions where infrastructure already exists. Another good suggestion, but it is one that requires a significant change of attitude.
The Growing Cities report is full of good suggestions and ideas, and practical solutions that could indeed make a difference. However, to make the change and deliver the homes that are needed will require a significant change of attitude, perception and willingness on the part of local politicians, planners and communities. Otherwise, we will continue to see the resistance to change, growth and development that have plagued the area for decades. That leadership and direction needs to come from the Bristol Mayor, the other council leaders, the Local Enterprise Partnership and from local communities themselves. Sadly, evidence from some quarters on the desire for change is somewhat lacking. Perhaps it’s time for politicians and partnerships to step up to the challenge before it’s too late?