A One City Plan for Bristol


Mayor Marvin Rees introduced the idea of a “One City Plan” for Bristol at his inauguration speech back in May 2016.  He talked about the need for Bristol to have a big vision, looking to the future, rather than just getting caught up in immediate issues and projects. His focus was on developing a vision that addressed the big issues collaboratively, as a collective endeavour:

  • ensuring Bristol doesn’t have any areas in the top 10 of the most deprived areas in the country;
  • breaking the link between economic background and educational attainment and health inequalities; and
  • doing development in a way that reduces inequality.

So why does Bristol need such a “Plan”? What’s wrong with all the ones we’ve got? The idea of a ‘One City Plan’ as suggested by the Mayor, is that we produce a plan for the whole city, not just a land use plan or a city council plan, but a plan that brings people, institutions, business and the council together in common interest, that covers all the big issues and looks further ahead to the kind of Bristol we want in the future. So this time we have to do it differently, make it a plan people can sign up to, that all the key agencies and businesses in the city have a stake in, and that residents are involved in creating.

The Plan could be an opportunity to set out how we would like to see Bristol in the future. Thinking far enough ahead enables us to be bold and visionary as well as practical, ambitious as well as realistic. It could be where we get that real chance to address the ‘big issues’ that we shy away from in other strategies and plans, or where we finally manage to link things together well enough to generate positive change.

Many US cities have big plans and visions that seek to address poverty and inequality, taking these as the starting point for change, but looking further into the future than most of our plans do. For example, the Philadelphia Plan – Shared Prosperity Philadelphia: Our Plan to Fight Poverty 2013, or the Toronto Poverty Strategy –  TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy  and the New York City Plan – OneNYC Plan.

Other cities, such as Chicago have a long history of visionary plans, bringing public and private sectors together to set out their vision for the future, celebrated recently in the centennial programme, 100 years after Burnham’s first Plan of Chicago (1909). The Plan was about thinking big, as Burnham aptly puts it:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

All of these Plans focus on collective impact, common agendas, shared measurement systems and continuous communication – all themes that are important to city development and are needed to make change happen, as the TO Prosperity Strategy points out: “why expect different results if we continue doing things the same way?” That’s exactly the point, for too long we’ve done things the same way and expected change, doing things differently may just provide the change we want. That’s how I see the potential of the One City Plan.

The idea of a strategic level shared vision for the future of the city is a bold idea that has the potential to really make a difference to the key challenges we face as a city. It’s where the Mayor’s city office can bring people and organisations together to work collaboratively to set out a long term, simple but ambitious vision, with measurable and achievable short, medium and long term objectives and targets. It needs to be about addressing the root causes of problems rather than just the symptoms, about providing sustainable solutions and not ducking the difficult issues as we so often do.

In an era where local government and other public services are being decimated by unnecessary cuts it’s ever more important to work collaboratively, to combine efforts and resources to address the challenges we face. The One City Plan could be an opportunity to do just that. I’ll be interested to see how this idea develops in Bristol.

The Housing White Paper – diversifying the market


BCLT and United Communities Scheme, Lockleaze, Bristol

The long awaited Housing White Paper hit the headlines recently, with its promise of ‘fixing our broken housing market’. There’s was a lot of fanfare and a lot of promises but my overall impression was one of ‘so what’s new?’. The White Paper covered four main themes and it would be difficult to argue against any of these:

  • Planning for the right homes in the right places
  • Building homes faster
  • Diversifying the market
  • Helping people now

But will they really make any difference? The White Paper is a mixture of blame and bland. The blame is clearly apportioned to local councils and the planning system (again), whilst the solutions are more of the same kind of things we have been trying for decades, which it would be fair to say don’t really work.

The idea of planning for the right homes in the right places might make you think that things are about to change, that we will get more affordable and social housing in places where house price increases outstrip wage increases and where demand is highest. But what does the White Paper actually say about this? Well once more a lot of the focus is on the planning system, getting the right plans in place, simplifying processes to make it easier for both developers and communities to follow these new plans whilst at the same time protecting the green belt and building at higher densities on brownfield land. I think we may have heard most of this before, and to be honest it doesn’t really work or make much of a difference.

Building homes faster is clearly something we need to improve on but I’m not entirely sure focusing on the planning system once more is really going to help, or that yet another exploration of how developers contribute to infrastructure is needed. Where I do find myself agreeing is with the points about growing the construction workforce and encouraging modern methods of construction, something that is much needed to change the way we view house building (I’ll return to this later).

Diversifying the market is the next step in this debate, where support and encouragement for smaller building companies, small sites and custom build are a welcome addition, as is the notion that the government might actually encourage more building by councils. Although I fear that the extension of right to buy to homes built via arms-length housing companies set up by councils may well fly in the face of this making any difference at all.

Helping people now is clearly a necessity and whilst there is something in the White Paper about homelessness I would have expected to see more given the increasing problem of rough sleeping and those at risk of homelessness. Sadly some of the focus still seems to be on helping people to buy their own homes, a policy that hardly seems to have helped in the areas where access to affordable housing is most difficult. There is at least some acknowledgement that not everyone can own their own home and that the private rented sector is increasing, bringing with it associated problems of rising rents and insecurity of tenure. In response to this the government have announced plans to change the definition of ‘affordable housing’ to include affordable private rented housing and to introduce longer-term tenancies, although quite what this means is less clear. What we need alongside these changes is more support for new social housing, something that is sadly missing from the White Paper. What remains clear to many, but seems not to be accepted by this current government, is that without truly affordable, social rented housing being provided to replace that lost through right to buy we are unlikely to solve our housing crisis.

In addition, one of the biggest problems we have in the UK is that commercial developers dominate our housing market. The ten largest house building firms build about 60% of all new private homes in the UK. So how do we change this? How do we get more smaller builders involved, more community led schemes, self build, co-housing, what’s holding this back? The answer is mostly about access to land and finance. The government response in the White Paper is set out below:

Step 3: Diversifying the market
  • Backing small and medium-sized builders to grow, including through the Home Building Fund;
  • Supporting custom-build homes with greater access to land and finance, giving more people more choice over the design of their home;
  • Bringing in new contractors through our Accelerated Construction programme that can build homes more quickly than traditional builders;
  • Encouraging more institutional investors into housing, including for building more homes for private rent, and encouraging family- friendly tenancies;
  • Supporting housing associations and local authorities to build more homes; and
  • Boosting productivity and innovation by encouraging modern methods of construction in house building.

There’s a lot to be applauded here but there’s still a long way to go before small builders, custom build and modular build will make a significant contribution to building the homes that are needed. But the examples are there for us to learn from. Across the country co-housing projects are being developed, small sites taken on by community land trusts and self builders, as well as innovative new ideas about factory based construction. What we need is a steady build up of this type of activity, supported by local and national government, by increasing the availability of public land specially designated for affordable and community housing and a steady flow of small sites attractive to smaller building companies.

The modular construction factory due to be opened in Basildon by Swann Housing Association is an excellent example of this new thinking, where 500 new affordable homes will be factory built using new technology. A scheme by Bristol Community Land Trust in Lockleaze is a great example of a new type of co-housing development, with the CLT working in partnership with a local Housing Association to develop 49 new homes, including shared facilities, consisting of affordable rented accommodation and low cost home ownership. In terms of modular construction locally, then look no further than Ecomotive’s proposals for the SNUG Home, enabling people to custom build their own affordable, sustainable home using a simple timber framed module.

The challenge with all of these things is to bring them out of the ‘project’ realm to the mainstream of house building. With support in terms of land and finance, council commitment and the creativity of local people, this may just be possible.

What next for Bristol Housing?

IMG_1624You might wonder what there is left to say about housing in Bristol with all the debate that’s occurred over the last few months? We seem to have had all the main mayoral candidates talking about it, making promises and pledges in their manifestos and statements. We’ve also had it mentioned in media interviews and articles, as well as at hustings meetings across the board. But what about the housing hustings meeting itself, did anything different come up and were there any real solutions to our housing problems?

Overall there seemed to be a lot of common ground, with the five main candidates all agreeing that we need to build more homes and George Ferguson, the current Mayor, saying plans were in place to do just that. The Conservative candidate, Charles Lucas, constantly referred to the need to build more homes, whatever type or sector, just build, seemed to be his main answer to the housing crisis, alongside making it easier for developers to build by relaxing planning regulations – everyone agreed with the first part of this statement! There was also agreement over the need for some form of housing company to enable the council to build more homes, but quite what this looks like and how it will operate is less than clear at the moment.

IMG_1625George Ferguson expressed the view that we need to tear up the rulebook and be more creative. That’s why he’s set up the Bristol Homes Board, bringing partners from all sectors together to tackle Bristol’s housing problem. He also talked a lot about the Devolution Deal and how this would help to address housing issues. I have to say that I’ve read the deal and I still can’t quite see how it will make that much difference, assuming it’s finally approved by all our local councils, but apparently there’s something in there that will help deliver housing.

The Liberal Democrat candidate, Kay Barnard, seemed to have a bit of an issue with council staff and their lack of expertise/experience in certain areas. In answer to several questions she suggested the need for training, as staff at the council simply don’t have the skills to deliver more homes. Other issues she seemed keen on were the idea of creating an arms length company to deliver homes as has been used in Liverpool, Manchester and Sutton (I’ve yet to check what these look like). She also expressed concern that many housing schemes that have been delivered in Bristol have had little affordable housing included as part of the deal, in her words “the planners need to be tougher”.

From Tony Dyer, the Green Party candidate, we had a thoughtful response to many of the issues, with social and affordable housing taking centre stage and the need to build social houses for rent expressed clearly as a priority. Using council owned land to deliver better quality affordable housing was also a key concern, holding onto land and maintaining control a clear way forward (also expressed by Marvin Rees). Tony also mentioned the impact of government policy and how this has made it even harder for council’s to build social housing, at the same time as encouraging loss of council housing through the right to buy. This is why he is in favour of developing a Bristol Housing Company, to protect new and existing stock from being sold off, as well as to help develop new council homes.

Charles Lucas added to his comment about building more homes by flying in the face of national Tory policy and agreeing that this should be across all sectors, including building social housing for rent and increasing the council housing stock in the city. He also made clear that he thought the planning department was under-resourced, and that in order to attract developers into Bristol we need to have a more efficient planning response that makes it easier for developers.

Marvin Rees , the Labour Party candidate, set out his priorities as building more homes, keeping hold of council land and using the increase in value from development to build more homes. Homes and communities are at the top of Marvin’s agenda and he believes this should be an absolute priority now. Marvin also raised the point about choices, with limited budgets choices have to be made about where resources are spent, there’s money  and land that could have been used to deliver more homes but other priorities were clearly more important. Marvin talked about meetings he’d had with organisations who want to invest and build in Bristol but have found it too difficult, so they have gone elsewhere, illustrating the need for a culture change at the council. This claim was refuted by George, who suggested that it used to be an issue, but is less so now. 

All candidates agreed that the council needed to make the best use of council and other publicly owned land to deliver affordable housing in the city. How this is done and how you can break down the very considerable barriers that seem to exist was less clear from the debate. The intention is there, but we also heard from people in the audience involved in community led housing initiatives who have witnessed those barriers first hand, who claim dealing with the council is impossible, slow and ponderous to the extreme. There are communities in Bristol that have identified space for housing through their neighbourhood planning processes, spaces communities are willing to see developed, but which have stalled because of issues over land ownership, planning, and council commitment. What they see instead is the council selling off public land in their areas for private developers to build on with limited input from the community. What they would prefer is community led development, on sites identified by the community, where they have a real say over the type of housing, what it looks like and what facilities are needed alongside it. All these communities want is a commitment from the council to support a different way of doing things. Surely there must be scope for Bristol to do so much more in working with communities to make this happen?

The debate actually started with a question about homelessness which brings us back to why we need to build more homes, particularly affordable and social housing. Tony made the point that it is a disgrace that people sleep on the streets in a city like Bristol and he issued an apology on behalf of all politicians that not enough was being done to prevent homelessness. All candidates agreed it was unacceptable to have rough sleepers, whilst Marvin added to this and made the point that the homeless are not invisible, they do exist and we need to acknowledge that and rethink the way we think about housing. There are places doing more innovative work on homelessness, Bristol could do well to look at other examples of how to tackle the problem.

There was also a discussion about how to make the private rented sector (PRS) work better for people. Most of the candidates agreed with the Ethical Lettings Charter promoted by Acorn as part of their campaign promoting a new more ethical approach to renting a home in Bristol. Marvin talked about the need for a different set of tools to manage this form of housing, tools which are not currently available but are needed in this changing housing market where private rental is becoming increasingly more common. The Acorn campaign was formed because people believed the politicians and decision makers were not doing their job properly, they were not seen to be protecting tenants or using the powers they already have very effectively. Most agreed this should change.

What the housing hustings did illustrate well was that housing is a big issue, it’s an issue lots of people care about and it’s a political issue. On a Friday evening, on a bank holiday weekend, lots of people turned up to listen, heckle and support the discussion on “what next for Bristol housing”. The issues are obvious, the solutions are available, but somehow we’re not quite doing enough to make enough of a difference. The question is who will make that change and make things happen differently? Hopefully, we’ll know more after the election!

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


What’s popular on the blog?

DSCN0141As I haven’t written much recently on my blog I thought I’d take a look and see what’s been popular over the last few months. I thought it might help me to decide what to write about next and see what people are interested in. So here goes, a bit of a mixture of topics, some older some newer seem to have attracted attention.

The most popular is actually one I wrote up after I gave a talk to some of my fellow PhD students in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. The talk was about using social media as a researcher and was aimed at trying to interest phd researchers in the notion of engaging with a wider audience, connecting outside of academia and entering the world of social media to promote themselves and their research. It was a tough audience as many academics are somewhat sceptical about social media. Not sure how my talk went down, but the blogpost seems to have been well received and remains popular!

The other posts that have hit popularity over the last few months include one I wrote back in May on devolution, a topic that is of course hitting the news again at the moment, and one I wrote in July about constraints on growth, another topic that seems to remain popular. More recent posts have been on the Bristol mayoral election and one on neighbourhood planning, both receiving quite a bit of attention. The full top five list is as follows:

It’s probably about time I wrote another one about housing, but it kind of feels like everything has already been said. It’s such a depressing time to talk about housing policy at the moment, as we slowly but surely watch it all unravel, being systematically destroyed by a government interested only in home ownership, whilst ignoring the very real housing need that exists in many of our cities and towns, which will never be adequately provided for by the private sector.

Neighbourhood Plans – nimbyism or localism?

la1There’s an important referendum going on this week, that is, the Long Ashton Neighbourhood Development  Plan is going to the vote! I’ll confess now that I haven’t been particularly involved in this process. I was interested to begin with and took part in some discussions, but the prevailing view of the 3 or 4 people involved at the time was somewhat different to mine. The process then moved around with different people involved, until just 2 or 3 people kind of took it on as a project. I have lots of admiration for those who spent their time developing the Plan, who produced questionnaires and sought feedback, I just don’t agree with the end product!

To call it a development plan would suggest that it actually proposes some development, but this is certainly not the case. The whole Plan is premised on three main principles. Firstly, that no land be allocated for housing development. Second, that separation from Bristol is an absolute must. Third, the green belt must be protected at all costs. For me this just about says it all, it’s a plan that does little to accept that an area, just over 1 mile from the city centre of Bristol, in a prime commuter zone, where cycling and bus journeys are reasonable, has a role to play in the future development of the city region.

It’s not enough to say no more development, no more houses, protect every piece of green space at all cost. There’s no realism about the plan, it’s based on deep seated prejudice and dislike of Bristol and does nothing to support the idea of sustainable communities. Sadly, of course, the Plan will probably be approved, by a small minority of people living in the village who can be bothered to go out and vote and who at least may have heard of the Plan. It probably also reflects the narrow views of many living in the village, who despite working in Bristol and going to Bristol for leisure, seem to want nothing to do with the city once they get home. It certainly reflects the views of many of the local politicians on North Somerset Council, whose Core Strategy is currently under re-examination because of their refusal to accept that the housing need in the area is significant and they need to plan for it. Indeed, even our own Parish Council seem to view housing in any form as a real negative. Recent discussion at a Parish Council meeting about new housing development suggested that they would rather not insist on affordable housing as part of the scheme as that would just bring the ‘wrong’ sort of people into the village from places like Weston-super-Mare. Other discussions have suggested that the housing need is purely because of people moving out of Bristol and we shouldn’t had to accommodate them!

There’s a lot to be commended in the Plan in terms of it’s protection of local spaces and buildings, it’s connection with what’s important to the local community, and supporting local retail and jobs. However, this notion of “an area of separation” is bizarre, it’s all about creating a visual and actual separation from the City of Bristol, when in any other area, where administrative boundaries had been drawn sensibly, Long Ashton would already be part of the city. To produce a Plan on the basis that this ‘separation’ is critical seems not only strange but completely unrealistic. With the South Bristol Link currently being developed, the Long Ashton Park & Ride and David Lloyd Leisure Centre, already linking the edge of the village with Ashton Vale and South Bristol, the connection is already there. Indeed, with the development of the new road it is unlikely that further development in what is currently Green Belt will be successfully resisted in the future. Therefore the Plan is likely to fail on one of its key principles, and to a point, already has – the current separation is a mere field or two between houses in the village and the Long Ashton Park & Ride site.

The Plan talks about Long Ashton as a ‘small rural settlement’ which is not a term I would use for the village – it’s a linear extension to Bristol, which has seen significant growth over recent decades, because of its proximity to the centre of Bristol. I guess that’s why local people are so resistant to more development, there’s a feeling that Long Ashton has taken more than its fair share of new housing. That may be the case, but there’s a reason for that, its proximity to Bristol makes it an obvious place to extend and expand. Otherwise you push new housing further away, jumping the greenbelt and make commuter journeys even longer.

I would like to have seen more creativity and innovation in the Plan. At the moment it reads like a standard planning document produced by a local authority. Although occasionally it does go beyond some of the Core Strategy policies, this is not always in a positive way. The notion that any new housing ‘must’ include adequate off road parking appropriate to the number of bedrooms, seems to be a step back to the 1980s where we continue to assume that all households will have at least 2 cars and we must plan for them. On a positive, the Plan talks about food growing, but equates this with the need for all new housing to have adequate garden space. Again, this will lead us back to the sprawl estates of the 1980s, low density, unsustainable development, dominated by the car. Is that what we really want in Long Ashton?

I’m sure the Plan will be approved but I’m not sure it’ll make much difference. We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, housing growth is needed and a plan that refuses to acknowledge that does’t deserve to make any difference.

NB. the results are now in – 94.8% voted in favour on a 33.6% turnout

To find out more and read the plan visit the Long Ashton Parish Council website.

How to solve the housing crisis?

2015-02-27 08.57.21This morning I went along to my first General Election 2015 debate. It was organised by a group of professional bodies representing planners, architects and surveyors, and focused on the built environment’ that is housing, planning and infrastructure. It had a good line up of candidates, from the 5 main parties, and was chaired by David Garmston from BBC Points West. Whilst I didn’t expect to hear lots of new ideas and policies, I was hoping for some key pointers on how we can improve our infrastructure, build more houses and make planning a more positive and engaged process that delivers quality places. To be fair, there were some interesting points, but mostly it was just the same old stuff, the same ideas and policies that are clearly not working very well at the moment and haven’t for some time. I was left feeling slightly less than inspired and struggling to really define the difference between the main parties (I’ll exclude the Greens and UKIP from that comment, as they did stand out as different, but not necessarily in a good way).

In relation to housing, one of the things that struck me from the debate was that, if you put to one side the argument about how many houses, the solutions to the housing crisis appear to be quite simple and the candidates appeared largely to be in agreement on both the problem and the solutions. The main thrust of the discussion was around the following issues:

  • It’s a problem of supply, we need to build more houses to keep up with demand
  • Housing affordability is a real issue in Bristol and the West of England
  • Need to focus on a mixture of tenures and types to meet the changing need
  • Need to reduce resistance to new housing development by working with and engaging communities in the debate
  • Need for a longer term view and vision for housing
  • Incentivise house building, ‘use it or lose’ in relation to land banking
  • Housebuilders not keeping up with the demand and Housing Associations not filling the gap left by local councils

Very little of this would come as a surprise to anyone involved in discussions about housing policy and development. So will anything really change after the election? Whoever is elected, there seems to be little by way of new policy ideas to help solve the housing crisis, just a restatement and reprioritising of existing policy. Where are the radical new policies that might actually make a difference? What about stopping the right to buy on all new council housing and allowing councils to borrow more so they can fund new social housing, that’s then available for all those that need it, without the fear of losing it in a few years to private landlords? What about prioritising public land and buildings for new housing developments, so the control of phasing, quality, design and planning rests with the public sector and communities rather than developers and house builders? What about changing the way we build houses, modernising our building methods to build more off site, using different skills and processes? Is it really that hard to extend our thinking beyond the very narrow confines of recent and current policy? Surely if it’s not working, it’s time for a rethink?

There was also a debate about the skills shortage and how this impacts upon the housing crisis and our ability to build new homes. The most entertaining element of the debate was definitely listening to the UKIP candidate tie himself in knots about the positives of immigration when we need people compared to the negatives they spin out most the time! Other than that there were some serious points about how the focus on encouraging people into a university education has actually been damaging to our skills base. The point being that we are losing the ‘vocational’ skills because these are somehow seen as inferior, when we should be promoting a parity of esteem for all vocational and university courses and skills.

The discussion about governance and devolution was quite encouraging and significantly different to what you would hear if you had five local councillors on the panel rather than five parliamentary candidates. Indeed, if there were any local councillors in the room I imagine they would have been somewhat annoyed and maybe a little embarrassed by the debate. The main point seemed to be that the history of the apparent inability of the four councils that make up the West of England to actually work together in any real and meaningful way has tarnished our ability to make the most of the opportunities available to us. Despite the best endeavours of the Local Enterprise Partnership, the Mayor and other council leaders, there is still clearly a very strong perception in Government that the Bristol city region has not yet got its act together. This means the potential benefits of more power, accountability, responsibility and resource are less likely to come our way and more likely to go to places like Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and others who seem to be able to put political differences to one side for the benefit of their city regions. We can’t even agree that we need a formal integrated transport authority for the Bristol city region, which to most people would seem obvious, but not to our local political leaders. Let alone agree that any other form of formal structures and agreements to cover strategic planning, housing and growth are needed or would provide any benefit to the area. There seemed to be general agreement from the panel that this leaves the city region in a position where it could well be left behind by other city regions, as they forge ahead with formal partnerships and arrangements. That’s not to say that we should just fall in line with central government dictat, but that we should be able to overcome local political differences, to do what is best for the city region – at the moment that doesn’t appear to be happening.

It was an interesting debate around some really important issues, but I can’t help but feel the confines of the debate are too narrow and we’re missing out on some of the solutions and ideas that might come from wider debate and more innovative, creative thinking.

Back to work – blog summary!

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgSo, a cheeky little post here for those of you who managed to stay off twitter and other social media over the holiday period. I wrote four blogs over christmas and the new year, which you may have missed, so here’s a summary and list to make things easy for you as you ease your way back into work!

  1. Top of the blogs 2014 – a summary of my most popular posts throughout the year. They cover politics, housing, Bristol and economic growth issues, pretty much as you’d expect really. The most read, by a long way, is the one entitled “Time for grown up politics” a plea for a focus on issues rather than personalities!
  2. From practice to academia: a personal conundrum – where I discuss the challenge of trying to think like an academic after so many years out there in practice, using theory as the foundation of thought rather than experience. Not an easy balance to get right.
  3. Top of the blogs: my favourite reads – a collection of the blogs I read regularly, an eclectic mix that covers housing, politics, policy, planning and Bristol. I’d recommend all of them as a good read, informative and interesting.
  4. A housing wish list for 2015 – mischievously subtitled “what I’d do if I was in charge” this is a post about housing, in Bristol mostly, and what I would focus on as a priority if only I had the opportunity to influence things!

So that’s it, you are now up to date with my blog and ramblings over the holiday season. Now it’s back to work, which for me means writing another assignment!

My housing wish list for 2015

DSCN0159The start of a new year is a good time both to reflect and think ahead. It’s a good time to be visionary, to think longer term and to overcome the mistakes of the past. So it seemed to me like a pretty good time to consider where next for housing? What would I do if I had any influence or responsibility for housing in Bristol. What would I do differently? What would I change and how could the system work better? Now, of course, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and come up with ideas, because it isn’t actually my job to implement any of this, or make the changes, or take the difficult decisions. So I’ll start with that as a caveat, I know it’s harder than you think and local politicians, the Mayor and others face tough decisions over budget cuts, prioritisation and are lobbied from all sides. I also know lots is being done locally to make changes for the better. But I also know more could be done!

In terms of local housing provision now is the time to be bold, to take some tough decisions and to prioritise the delivery of new, affordable, sustainable housing in the numbers that are needed to meet demand. It’s no good playing around the edges of this any longer, it absolutely has to be a priority for funding, land, resources, time and energy from all involved. Forget the excuses and start delivering.

My wish list includes both local and national changes, and will undoubtedly miss out lots of things that could also be done, but these would be my priorities.

First and foremost I would take a local decision to scrap the Right to Buy (RtB) on any new build council homes and to reduce the discount available for existing homes. I would challenge the government on their policy, as Brighton Council are, and ask that this be controlled locally. It might only be a temporary decision, that can be revisited in a few years, but for now, we are losing more social homes every year than we are building – how does that make sense? Many of those sold under RtB end up with private landlords, renting them back to people at higher rents, subsidised through housing benefits – again, how can that be right? So come on George, Mark and others, be bold, push for local control.

Secondly, another ask of government, that is, to increase the limit on borrowing capacity so local councils can borrow more against existing housing revenue. Current limits are too low and greatly restrict the ability of councils to build new social housing, or to use the funds to support affordable housing through other providers. Subsidised housing requires a public subsidy, and this needs to be in the form of capital investment not through the benefits system as is currently the case. If greater powers and resources are available to cities, then this is one that we should shout loudest about. Give councils the ability to build/fund new social housing.

Thirdly, the council has a responsibility to use its land to support council priorities, so prioritise housing and find the land and buildings to enable more new homes to be built. This land needs to be available at the right price and in the right places, so new affordable houses can be provided, close to jobs and transport infrastructure, where people want to live. I’d like to see some pilot schemes to show what is possible, to bring new ideas, innovation and creativity to the housing market in Bristol. During 2015, the year Bristol is European Green Capital, why not showcase some custom and kit build houses, using more efficient construction processes and providing sustainable homes at affordable prices? Why not illustrate how conversion of empty office buildings can provide new affordable homes in local neighbourhoods, as well as focus on empty homes and bringing those back into use? Why not use land in public ownership to do something different, to move away from volume build new estates that could be anywhere, and choose local designers and builders with a bit more vision to provide quality homes at affordable prices? Above all, prioritise council land for housing and get on with it!

Fourthly, do something to toughen up our planning officers. All too frequently over the last couple of years we have seen planning agreements renegotiated on key sites so affordable housing provision is either totally removed or reduced to negligible numbers. All developers have to do is threaten to stall development and we roll over and do anything they want just to get things moving. We are also too slack when it comes to design and quality issues – Bristol is a fantastic city but we are slowly ruining it with poor, ill thought out design on many new developments. A plea to our planners to do more, challenge more and say NO! Otherwise we’ll end up with more institutional, brash architecture, where any notion of local design and quality is sadly lacking, and the end result is just horrible.

Finally, let’s have a comprehensive plan for housing. This ‘wish’ applies both locally and nationally, but here the focus is on Bristol. We need a plan that covers all sectors and opportunities, that is proactive, that shows leadership and commitment, above all we need a comprehensive, long term plan for addressing Bristol’s housing crisis. Only then can we see the solutions, the resources and the decisions that are needed to make a difference in the short and medium term. Elements of this plan exist but we need more – more decisions, more resources, and more affordable homes.

Top of the Blogs – my favourite reads

As someone who writes the odd blog myself, I also read quite a few that other people write. These cover a range of topics but are mostly focused on politics, planning and housing, as well as a few about Bristol. I tend to use blogs to keep me up to date with what is going on, to find out what others are thinking and talking about and to challenge my own thinking.

So, here’s my top ten list of the ones I read regularly, in no particular order, the best of the best!

  1. Municipal Dreams – a blog about municipal reformers and a time when we used to build public housing, with grand visions and dreams;
  2. Jones the Planner – a blog about planning, architecture, cities and design, covering many of my areas of interest and always a challenging read;
  3. Guerrilla Policy – a great collection of blogs from lots of different bloggers (including me) on many different topics, always worth a look to catch up on what’s going on and who’s writing blogs;
  4. Alex’s Archives – a blog I’ve been reading for a couple of years now, covering housing, economics and policy process amongst other things and coincidently written by my PhD supervisor;
  5. Paul Cairney  – a blog about politics and public policy, and a valuable resource for any public policy student. I used his 1000 words blogs regularly during my MSc as a quick introduction to new topics;
  6. Jules Birch – a blog mostly about housing, from someone who seems to know a lot about housing and who I find myself agreeing with regularly;
  7. Red Brick – a housing policy forum, linked to the Labour Housing Group, but challenging to both left and right;
  8. Policy & Politics – a blog linked to Policy & Politics Journal, covering a whole load of policy issues (I may have written a couple on there myself);
  9. Joseph Rowntree Foundation – for regular commentary on social issues, poverty and housing backed up with research evidence and information;
  10. Bristol blogs – a compilation of blogs about Bristol (including mine) which cover a whole load of topics about what’s going on locally. I couldn’t leave a heading about Bristol blogs without a special mention for two of my favourites – The Bristolian, because well it really is different and so anti-establishedment; and Stockwood Pete, because it’s a good local blog that I enjoy.