Bristol Green Capital 2015 – time for positive thinking?

DSCN0141The launch of Bristol Green Capital (BGC) takes place this weekend, with light shows, circus acts and no little fanfare. It’s a great recognition of all the city has done over many years to push itself forward as a “green” city, at the forefront of environmental agendas, and leading the way on green issues. It’s an opportunity to recognise that we are not there yet and there’s still a long way to go in improving the city from an environmental perspective. But it is also an opportunity to recognise all the hard work that many individuals and organisations have done across the city for several decades. Bristol isn’t green capital because of a small number of projects and ideas incorporated in a series of bids over the last few years, it’s green capital because of the longstanding commitment people in the city have had to improving the environment, providing education on sustainability issues,and leading the way when it comes to projects and activities to support green issues.

As a Bristol city councillor (between 1994 and 2002) I led the council’s work on green initiatives and sustainable development. I was responsible for setting up our work on Local Agenda 21, involving local communities from across the city in the development of ideas to make our city greener and more sustainable. I am partly responsible for things like the CREATE Centre and the Eco Home, both initiatives at the forefront of thinking at the time. I was invited to speak at local government meetings across the country and in Europe to talk about the great work Bristol was doing on environmental issues in the 1990s. We were definitely seen as leading the way, others were jealous of what we had done and wanted to learn from us. I believe that could still be the case if we get things right during BGC year.

I was also the chief executive of the Western Partnership for Sustainable Development (WPSD), set up by the four councils, the chamber of commerce and a number of third sector environmental organisations, to develop environmental initiatives across the West of England. We delivered an environment festival back then, that has continued and grown since. Sadly at the time, apart from Bristol, the other councils were reluctant to provide funding, and keeping the organisation gaining was a real struggle. But it did serve to pave the way for partnership working on environmental issues in a way that was innovative and creative at the time and much of which has held strong to this day – public, private and community sectors working together on a common agenda is undoubtedly the only way real progress can be made.

You might wonder why I am tracking back to history, talking about stuff that is a good 10-15 years ago? Well, mostly because things seems be coming full circle – back then we led the way on environmental issues, now with BGC we’re seen to be leading again and have an opportunity to showcase just what Bristol can do. Whilst I haven’t been involved in BGC I do feel a real affinity with the concept and the idea because of my past involvement in sustainability issues in Bristol. I do believe that, despite a few misgivings, a whole lot of good will come from this year as Green Capital. It really is an opportunity to showcase Bristol on a European stage. I hope all those that have contributed over many years are still involved and will seize the chance to highlight their work and I hope the communities of Bristol continue to engage with the ideas and initiatives as they develop throughout the year. For sure, mistakes have been made along the way and there has been an element of negativity about some of the process to date, but now it’s here perhaps we need to embrace the concept and make it work?

I look forward to a year of serious debate about sustainability issues, and about how we can make Bristol greener, more sustainable and a better place to live. I look forward to seeing progress on improving Bristol’s transport system, reducing car use, and reducing pollution. Above all, I look forward to seeing people engage in the process, from across the city, and to seeing tangible improvements in local neighbourhoods. I’m not sure what the official measures of success are for BGC but no doubt we’ll all judge on the basis of what we believe to be important – I know I will.

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.

A Decent Home?

hufIn Bristol and the UK we have large numbers of people who can no longer afford a decent home. They are stuck living with parents, or in private rented accommodation that is overcrowded, expensive and in poor condition and they have been denied the opportunity of moving into social housing because the council stock has been sold off under the Right to Buy and council’s have been constrained in their ability to replace it with new housing. Yet housing still doesn’t feature as a top political priority – sure we hear the nice words about how they all want to build more, as long as it doesn’t cost anything and government doesn’t need to invest in it. Just what does it take to create the change we need?

We’ve had all the political talk at Party Conferences about how this is a critical moment for housing policy, we’ve had the Lyons Housing Review and we’ve had some policy commitments. But I’m not entirely sure anyone really believes that the politicians nationally and locally are truly committed to making housing a priority and that the initiatives and policy ideas they have come up with will actually solve the problem – I remain mostly unconvinced, although there are indeed some interesting and good policies and commitments, they’re just not comprehensive or radical enough. They’re not going to see large numbers of new homes built or enough empty homes brought back into use to meet existing or future need.

In Bristol we have had plans and strategies on affordable housing, we have had the report of the Homes Commission and we have seen some new social housing built for the first time in a long while. However, we are still no where near providing sufficient new homes for those that need them, I’ll talk about some of the reasons for this in a future blog. We’re failing a whole generation of young people and forcing others to live further and further away from where they work. Something has to change but how?

Back in 1975, nearly 40 years ago, the Director of Housing at Bristol City Council published a Green Paper on housing with the following title:

“A Decent Home!! (A paper to stimulate thought and encourage participation so that policies can be evolved to tackle effectively the Housing problems of this great city.)”

What a great idea, perhaps it’s time to have that very debate again in Bristol and to encourage participation from neighbourhoods across our city. To discuss some alternative solutions to housing provision instead of focusing on a system that clearly doesn’t work? To involve those seeking a decent home but who can’t afford what is on offer and who have given up on a social housing system that has been reduced to a residual service. Maybe it’s also time to listen to those who have solutions but are marginalised, as their solutions don’t support the traditional mainstream approach to housing?

I’m not suggesting there are easy solutions by any means, but there are options that we seldom fully explore, that don’t fit with mainstream thinking, that appear on the surface to be for “others” and not for everyone. I’ll briefly raise just two of these to illustrate the point: conversion of offices and kit build housing.

Firstly, the idea of converting empty office buildings into affordable housing for those who cannot afford to buy or rent at the moment is something that is taking hold in Bristol. A group called ‘Abolish Empty Office Buildings‘ (AEOB) has just purchased their first building to prove that “ordinary people can refurbish office buildings, create social housing communities and produce a modest return for investors”. There are many empty office buildings throughout the city and in local neighbourhoods which could be brought back into use in this way, but there is currently little incentive for owners to do this. More usually they are left empty or converted into luxury apartments or student accommodation – none of which does anything to help those in need of affordable housing.

The idea of local communities raising the money for themselves to buy empty sites and property, convert and then maintain ownership has got to be a more sensible option than waiting for the volume house builders or government to sort the problem out. It brings control back to local people and communities, a principle I’m totally in favour of and where we have many excellent examples from the past. Perhaps the best is that of the ‘plotlanders’ of South East England in the early 20th Century, where areas of disused agricultural land were sold off in small plots to people wanting to build their own holiday home or small holding, these were then gradually improved and extended into permanent homes. These were fiercely independent communities, who had built their own homes, without help from those in power, they’d done it through self help and mutual aid – an interesting concept where people come together in voluntary cooperation without the need for state intervention, authority and control. These types of examples in recent times are, however, all too infrequent and unsuccessful, often written off as the fringe activity of a radical few and stifled by regulation and enforcement action. I look forward to seeing how the AEOB group and campaign progresses in Bristol and beyond, it’s just the kind of activity we’re crying out for and I applaud the group for their vision and action.

The second example is a little more mainstream, but gaining support and acceptance appears to be just as difficult. The idea of ‘kit housing’ has been around for some time and indeed is pretty standard in France and Germany where volume house builders do not rule the market. The beauty of kit housing is that it is factory built, it’s cheaper and can be erected on site pretty quickly. There are many companies out there providing this form of housing, from the original and more expensive Huf Haus, to relative newcomers to the arena like Apple Green Homes. I’ll confess that I’ve always wanted to live in a Huf Haus but could never afford it, but the idea of a kit house appeals to me, maybe I’ll investigate my options further. But on a grander scale than my ambitions, imagine if Bristol could be one of the first in the country to develop this idea further, where the council were brave enough to provide the land and support such a development. It would certainly fit neatly with Bristol’s Green Capital programme – kit housing is energy efficient, they generate less waste in the building process and use more sustainable materials. What’s not to like – they’re also cheaper!

What this second example needs are identified sites which the council, or other landowner, are prepared to provide upfront but are willing to wait for a return on investment until the build is complete – it’s an investment programme with a guaranteed return, both in terms of money and affordable housing. The key question here is do council’s have the flexibility to broker this kind of deal and even if they can, will they? There’s a challenge there for Bristol and other cities to make this happen. And there’s a challenge to all of us to support these different initiatives to help effect the change that is needed.