Constraints on growth – what’s holding our cities back?

cropped-rivers-of-gold.jpgGrowing 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?

City Mayors or LEPs – who decides?

DSCN0159Following on from my last blog about the need for LEP Economic Plans to take note of poverty and social inclusion issues it seems timely to consider the role of LEPs. From many of the comments received in response to that blog (for example on LinkedIn discussion groups) there appears to be a view that LEPs are there to create jobs and that others should be (and are) responsible for thinking about difficult issues like addressing poverty. Indeed, if you consider that LEPs are supposedly business led and their focus is on jobs growth and GDP growth, then perhaps it is wrong to assume that they would have anything to say about social inclusion or how the jobs they create could be made more accessible to those most in need. Personally I disagree, but clearly there is some opinion out there that says LEPs are small organisations with limited funds and staffing so their focus should be on core issues in order to actually achieve anything.

In my view, this brings into question the whole issue of why we need LEPs, what their role is and why, particularly in cities, they are the right vehicle to deliver on economic growth in isolation. You could level these questions at various aspects of the role of LEPs by asking why they were set up in the first place – was it because the current government had such a low opinion of local authorities that it thought this was a better solution, and they were of course desperate to get rid of the Regional Development Agencies, so had to replace them with something? Or was it because they thought business could do a better job of deciding where investment in roads, buildings and other development should be? You could equally argue about he negative impact these types of quangos have on democratic accountablity, taking decision making away from locally elected politicians and putting it in the hands of appointed boards full of business people who are accountable to no one. Add to that issues around what role local communities have in LEPs and how they can engage with these quangos and their plans and it begins to create an interesting but perhaps negative picture.

Perhaps more importantly, the question that springs to my mind is about LEPs and city regions – when we have combined authorities working across some of our key cities and their hinterland and we have directly elected mayors in some of our core cities, how does this work when you also have LEPs, sometimes covering different spatial areas? Add to that the issue about whether or not you can really consider economic growth without serious attention to issues of poverty and social inclusion (and of course environmental sustainability) then you can see the landscape of decisions, plans and strategies becomes somewhat cluttered – who really holds the power and makes the decisions?

The recent launch by the Centre for Cities of their Think Cities initiative which sees cities as the focus for change and believes empowering cities as the mechanism to tackling a range of urban issues is critical and you can begin to imagine just where some of these clashes and tensions may occur. I can’t help but agree with the Centre for Cities, cities are where the most significant growth will be seen and where the greatest changes can be made to provide solutions to our biggest problems around housing, jobs, public services and skills. But where city authorities have to compete with, or operate through, LEPs this is bound to reduce impact, increase confusion and complexity and water down ideas and change. When you have to get agreement from other councils to every decision, plan and strategy, then too often the lowest common denominator is what you end up with. The idea of directly elected mayors was to create accountable, visible leadership in an area, but by introducing LEPs into the equation the government have significantly weakened the ability of those mayors to deliver on ideas and innovation because they are effectively working with one hand tied behind their backs.

But even ignoring the fact of added confusion and complexity, what about the functions and roles of LEPs, what are they there for and why are they supposedly best placed to deliver on local economic growth? LEPs are charged with providing “strategic leadership on local economic priorities” including planning, housing, transport, skills, jobs etc a pretty big agenda, but when you consider they were set up with little or no funding, have few staff and limited resource, you have to question whether this is just too much? Would they be better focused on areas that clearly require significant input from business, such as the skills agenda and business support? Why should they be responsible for planning or housing issues when these have been core local council domains in the past, and indeed many would argue, should continue to be led by those with the democratic accountability rather than those with potential for conflict and vested interest?

With a reduced role focused on business support and skills I could see a key role for LEPs working across larger geographies, supporting the work of city authorities to deliver on jobs, housing, planning, social inclusion and sustainability (amongst other things). But their current diverse role is clearly too much for many LEPs to grapple with and we are in danger of missing some key links across agendas and of delivering on very little, as we stretch LEPs beyond their capabilities and abilities.

This should be an important issue for Party Manifestos going into the 2015 election. If we are being encouraged to think cities, then we need to address the existing landscape of decision making to properly put cities at the forefront of our economy. For me that means that, at least in city regions, there is no place for LEPs.

Economic Growth & Poverty – LEPs take note!

There is no guarantee that economic growth will reduce poverty – that’s the conclusion of some excellent work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on cities, growth and poverty. I was so pleased to see this report published recently because it reflected the exact point I had been trying to make about the Strategic Economic Plan currently being developed by our Local Enterprise Partnership in the West of England.

My initial views on the West of England LEPs plan for economic growth are set out here in a comment piece for Bristol 24-7 and in an earlier blog here – they’re quite critical about the lack of any attention to inequality of opportunity and the lack of an overall inclusive vision for the city region. The main point being that the plan seeks to focus on GDP/GVA and jobs growth, through key sectors and key locations. None of which does anything directly to address the fact that key areas of the Bristol city region suffer from multiple deprivation and poverty. My contention here is that you can’t have  a plan for economic growth that ignores poverty, the plan needs to be based on that very issue and grow from there. Instead of which what we have is a plan that neatly seeks to sweep whole geographical areas and difficult issues under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist.

The answer of course according to the LEP is to create jobs and grow GDP because that solves all our problems and makes Bristol a more prosperous place. However, as the JRF report points out, productivity and output growth have little short term impact on poverty, and jobs growth will only have a positive impact on those in poverty if the sectors, type and location of jobs are targeted and focused in a way that makes them accessible to those that most need them. I see little evidence in the Strategic Economic Plan for the West of England that suggests this is either their focus or their intention.

To my knowledge, the same areas of Bristol have been in the bottom 10% of the most deprived wards in the country for some considerable time now, they include Ashley, Filwood, Hartcliffe, Lawrence Hill, Southmead and Whitchurch Park. These are all areas where we know there are problems, where unemployment is high, food and fuel poverty are real issues, educational attainment is low and there is a generally a more low skilled workforce. These are also areas that have been the focus of significant levels of regeneration funding and resource over many decades, but yet the problems persist despite these interventions, possibly because we can only ever touch the surface with short term funding or maybe because the interventions were the wrong interventions and not enough has been invested over a long enough period of time?

To my mind the Strategic Economic Plan currently being developed by the business led, unelected, unaccountable quango that is our Local Enterprise Partnership should be where these issues are addressed; where the focus of our attention is on jobs, skills, housing and infrastructure improvements to bring opportunities to the areas that really need them. The reality is that what we have in the West of England is a plan that will merely reinforce the status quo. It will provide jobs in sectors and locations less accessible to those that really need them and will invest funding and opportunities in areas where development is already happening. Why do we need to support and invest more resource in the Science Park, Avonmouth/Severnside, Bath Riverside when these areas are already being developed? Why are they more worthy of infrastructure, funding and support than South Bristol? One has to seriously question the logic that says we will support what is already happening rather than use new resource to make real change where it is most needed. Add to that the fact that the plan is somewhat reluctant to talk about housing which is surely a major cost of living issue for many. Some serious work is needed in this plan to address issues of housing supply and affordability, but once again the plan is found lacking in this respect – perhaps another issue that is just too difficult to deal with?

The danger of the LEPs current approach is we fall into the trap of tackling growth separately to poverty, rather than using growth as an opportunity to address issues of poverty. By doing this we miss the opportunity to really make a difference and we also miss the opportunity to get the most out of growth and realise the true potential of the Bristol city region. With a focus on poverty reduction the economic plan could boost economic growth, productivity, income and spending power as well as reduce the welfare burden. By not addressing poverty we reinforce existing divides and consign whole areas of our city to ongoing poverty and all because we don’t have the vision or ambition to really do something about it.

So what can we change and what needs to happen? It is probably too late to really influence the LEP plan, because let’s face it, they don’t really want to know and will maintain their inherent bias and focus on extracting money from government, to the government’s agenda rather than a local agenda based on need. The answer – an alternative plan? or a groundswell of activity to boost jobs and growth where it is needed? Or just maybe, enough of a challenge to our politicians to make them listen, to be brave enough not to just go along with the LEP and its plan, to change it? One can live in hope!

A Focus on South Bristol – Let’s Redraw the Economic Map of the Bristol City Region

South Bristol has many advantages – it is close to the city centre, surrounded by beautiful countryside and well located in relation to Bristol Airport. It has some lovely houses, in garden suburb layouts, with large gardens and green open spaces close by. But to many it is perceived as inaccessible, with a poor quality environment, unskilled workforce and high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Look at any table of statistics for the Bristol City region – on house prices, crime, educational attainment, skills or employment levels and one thing will quickly become obvious. The central area and the northern fringe are making great strides but South Bristol is lagging behind:

  • The worst 2 areas nationally for lack of attainment amongst children/young people are in Knowle West
  • 6 areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 100 nationally
  • More than a third of people in South Bristol live in areas which fall in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of education, skills and training deprivation
  • Of the most deprived 20 areas in Bristol in terms of education, skills and training, 18 are in South Bristol
  • 35% of people aged 16-74 in South Bristol have no qualifications
  • Four areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of health deprivation and disability
  • Of the worst 10 areas in Bristol in terms of crime, eight are in South Bristol
  • 3 areas in South Bristol are in the worst 50 areas in England in terms of crime.

That’s a sad reflection on Bristol itself and all those who have been, or are, in a position to do something about it. But with vision, leadership and ambition all that can change. So why hasn’t it? We have been talking about South Bristol as an area of multiple deprivation and disadvantage for decades, but how much has actually changed? Yes there have been some improvements in recent years; new schools, the redevelopment of Symes Avenue, new housing at Lakeshore, a new community hospital, skills centre and a leisure centre. But is this the best we can do?

Just what are our aspirations for South Bristol?  From so many points of view it seems once more to be left behind. Do the Local Enterprise Partnership have plans to bring jobs, regeneration, housing and skills to the area or has it been forgotten in their plans or maybe just placed in the too difficult to handle box? Have the Mayor and Bristol City Council got plans and will they work with the local community to see what they want?

From the outside looking in, South Bristol just seems to keep missing out and will continue to lag behind other areas of the city until it features high enough in political aspirations and action.

Rather than allocate South Bristol as an Enterprise Zone or major growth area, like other areas of the city region, the Local Enterprise Partnership instead decided to focus entirely on transport links – the North Fringe to Hengrove BRT route and the South Bristol Link Road. Will this really deliver what is needed for South Bristol or is it just the tip of the iceberg?

South Bristol could be so different but what do we need to do to make it happen and whose job is it?

Is this something the local communities themselves can take control of and outline what they would like different areas of South Bristol to be like, or is it up to the Local Enterprise Partnership to remember to include it in their plans and focus funding on the area, or is it down to the Mayor?

I suspect it should be a combination of all of these but so far there is little evidence to suggest that much is actually happening?

The economic map of the Bristol City region could be redrawn to embrace South Bristol and make it the focus of everyone’s attention but will it ever happen? I’ve been waiting 20 years to see real change and all I can see at the moment is piecemeal, ad hoc, low quality developments that look like no one in authority really cares about the people or the area!