Strategic planning or resistance to growth?

The first stage of developing a new strategic plan for the future development of the Bristol city region – an Issues and Options Paper – was launched this week by the West of England local authorities, on 9th November 2015. The purpose of the plan is to provide a framework for future employment and housing delivery over the next 20 years to enable the West of England to compete with other city regions. It recognises that not enough homes have been built in our area in the recent past and that this has limited supply and pushed up house prices, creating a demand for much more affordable housing in the future.

There has been a long, complex and mostly negative approach to strategic planning in our area for many decades. This has been reflected in the attitudes of many of our local politicians towards planning properly for growth. There has been a resistance to providing new homes in the right place and in the numbers needed. The arguments have largely been about limiting new housing numbers and how we can stop new housing growth, rather than about creating communities and meeting need, or even encouraging growth. Many of these arguments have been couched in terms of a lack of necessary infrastructure to accommodate new housing growth. The four Unitary Authorities (Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset) are therefore also developing a Joint Transport Study, which will feed into the new strategic plan. This is being consulted on separately.

The Issues and Options paper is the first stage in the process of drawing up the new strategic plan. it starts by setting out the scale of growth anticipated over the next 20 years, then goes on to suggest various locational options for future housing and employment sites. Whilst the document provides options on location and constantly reminds us that ‘ no decisions have been made yet’, it actually fails to provide an opportunity to debate or discuss the overall level of growth we should be aiming for. Apparently this has already been decided through ‘an independent, technical process’ using population and migration projections (the Strategic Housing Market Assessment – SHMA). There’s no debate about whether we should go for low, medium or high growth options. We are provided with a number and told this is the number of new homes needed and all we now have to do is decide where they should go. Whilst the plan will cover Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset (BANES), North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, future housing numbers assessed for BANES are not included alongside the other three authorities. This makes for a slightly unusual approach to planning for the right housing numbers across the whole of the plan area.

The document offers a vision, which talks about the aim for the West of England to be one of the “fastest growing and most prosperous sub regions” in Europe, yet the level of growth proposed is actually quite limited. The consultation is based on a proposed need of 85,000 homes between 2016-2036 across the sub region (excluding BANES), 29,100 of which are identified as needing to be affordable homes. So we have a plan that covers all 4 unitary authorities, but a housing number that is based on need in only three of those areas. According to the document the local authorities already have in place plans to provide for 56,000 new homes so this plan only needs to plan for an additional 29,000 over the 20 year period. This assumes that existing identified sites actually come to fruition as planned and deliver on the numbers and types of houses anticipated. This could be quite a stretch in terms of assumptions given previous experience particularly where it relates to affordable housing.

When it comes to assessing where the development goes, then the document focuses initially on intensification, brownfield development and small urban sites that will make up over 60% of the growth required. It then considers a range of types of locations that identify the proposed options for areas of new growth, that is, urban intensification, urban extensions, town expansion, a potential new settlement and further dispersed growth across a number of settlements. Much of the work on spatial options seems to take as its starting point some of the suggestions made previously in the Regional Spatial Strategy, which was scrapped by the previous government in 2010, before it could be approved and implemented. The new plan suggests the potential for urban extensions around Bristol; town expansion in Clevedon, Nailsea, Portishead, Keynsham, Yate and Thornbury; and a range of smaller settlements across the area identified for small scale developments. No attempt has been made to identify an option for a new settlement.


The document raises a number of quite interesting questions about the future development of the sub region. Whilst the vision talks about reducing the gap between disadvantaged and other communities, the options themselves pay little attention to these issues, with a focus on providing for the minimum levels of growth that make the least impact on the extensive greenbelt. It talks about sustainable development and creating communities, but continues to push for urban cramming and higher density development of brownfield land in our towns and cities, whilst at the same time forcing people to travel beyond the greenbelt (48% of the sub region is greenbelt) in longer, unsustainable commuting patterns. How this provides for growth that will see the West of England as one of the fastest growth sub regions in Europe, or indeed does anything to help narrow the gap between the wealthiest and those most in need, isn’t quite clear. The spatial options don’t appear to be based on supporting growth around the most disadvantaged areas of the sub region, nor is there any real detail on how the levels of affordable housing will be achieved.

Overall it is a perplexing document that seemingly fails to get to grips with the real issues. It provides for little by way of real options and choices and narrows the debate in a way that is less than helpful. Basically it lacks any vision, innovation or creativity. The types of development and approach are the same that have been talked about for decades. There’s very little that is new or interesting, especially in terms of transport, the other big issue we face in the West of England. If this is to be the start of an ongoing process, then let’s hope enough people get involved and tell our politicians and planners to come up with something more relevant, more ambitious and that recognises the benefits that can come from growth if it is planned for properly, comprehensively and imaginatively.

This post first appeared on the Bristol Wire


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