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.

Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy?

380451857_ce9bad11e3_zAs party conference season draws to a close are we any closer to knowing how to deal with the housing crisis? Housing has certainly featured on the agenda and been the subject of much discussion at many fringe meetings, but have any of the parties come close to a comprehensive policy approach? Sadly, my initial conclusion would be that once more politicians have failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem and have instead come up with a whole load of ‘initiatives’ that play at the edges of the issue rather than provide a strategic, co-ordinated and coherent plan. We continue along the lines of a “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to housing policy, where pet projects and short term ‘solutions’ are promoted for electoral gain – appealing to target groups rather than providing solutions for those most in need.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent proposals and some that will undoubtedly make a difference to a small number of people. But where’s the plan? From the Tories we got a promise that they would build 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers under 40 which they could buy at 20% below the market rate. An interesting idea perhaps but not one that is going to solve the problem for many! Labour’s announcements were on a grander scale but perhaps lacked a little detail. They talked about building 200,000 homes per year, halting land banking and diversifying the house building industry – all laudable aims but talk is cheap. Where were the policies that many would have expected? The ones that focus on social housing, enabling councils to borrow and build, limiting right to buy options and facing the affordability crisis head on – mostly not there I’m afraid. And so, what have the Liberal Democrats offered us so far on housing? Well perhaps a slightly more comprehensive approach that focuses on building 300,000 homes per year, with new towns and urban extensions as part of the package, more power to local councils to build affordable housing and the ability to suspend right to buy. To be honest they came up with more of what I was expecting from Labour!

We have a housing crisis that means too many people can’t afford to buy or rent decent homes. And on the basis of what we have seen so far from our politicians we can be relatively certain that the comprehensive plans and policies are not going to come from the political parties, so where will the answers come from? We are of course still waiting for the full report from the Lyons Housing Review instigated by Labour, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime there have been a couple of publications that caught my attention. The first, “Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future” written by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson is an excellent attempt to hit back at all those who see planning as the problem and instead takes us back to the pioneers of the planning movement and reminds of what is actually possible when you have “passionate ambition”. The second, “Housing: where’s the plan?” written by Kate Barker is more direct in its criticism, describing our inability to build more housing as the UK’s biggest policy failure. Its focus is on analysing the problem and providing some policy recommendations. Both books are excellent in their own way, they raise some interesting questions, provide a more comprehensive assessment of the problems and suggest some practical solutions.

In Rebuilding Britain the authors talk about access to land and land reform as a critical ingredient of achieving utopia, with smart choices needed along the way. As with the original garden city concept, capturing and redistributing the increase in land values generated by development are seen as central to future large scale development. The characterisation of Britain as a divided nation, as a nation without a plan and  where people are disengaged from politics and planning will resonate with many as some of the major concerns we face as a nation. Their ‘solutions’, or practical steps as they are called in the book, focus on planning and take us through five main areas of change including a fair and efficient society; rebuilding trust; building the homes we need; providing a resilient and low carbon future; and paying for utopia.

Underpinning all of these areas is the need for a new kind of planner, a national plan for England, a new structure for planning and a new kind of government – big change indeed! Quite rightly Ellis & Henderson identify the housing challenge as moving beyond the question of whether we need to build more homes (of course we do), to the question of “where to build them, how we fund them, what the mix is and how do we ensure they are high quality”. Their answer is embedded in a new honesty about the problem, the opportunities and the constraints; about quality not just quantity; and through a varied housing offer including “high-quality social, affordable and market homes”. They do of course focus on ‘well planned new communities’ as a big part of the solution, based on Garden City principles which it is hard to disagree with. But as ever the big question is how you pay for the levels of social housing and infrastructure needed to make these places work. Of course the solution is there, it’s the same as it has always been – capturing the increase in land value for the benefit of the community. That’s the exact same principle as garden cities were based on and it remains the obvious solution now. Indeed it happens to an extent now, through S.106 agreements, Community Infrastructure Levy and planning conditions, but it is ad hoc and prone to difficulties and disagreements over viability. The political acceptability of extracting value from land for the benefit of the community has long been debated but perhaps it is time to revisit this issue with a new debate based on need?

Kate Barker’s book is based on the premise that we need to build more homes at a faster rate but that our ability to do this is held back by competing and vested interests that are inherent in our society and by government failure to address the issues systematically. Instead what we get are short term policies and initiatives that satisfy a few. The dynamics of the housing market perfectly exemplify many of the divisions in our society – the widening gulf in wealth between those who own their home and those that don’t and the increasing inequality between generations that this serves to reinforce. Barker suggests that many would define success in housing terms as “everyone should have access to a decent home at a price they can afford”. Difficult to disagree, but as she explains, the terms are open to extensive interpretation – the difference between need and want for instance?

Barker also addresses the thorny issue of taxing housing when so many people have so much of their wealth already tied up in property. Her solution is a mix of proposals from reforming Stamp Duty, higher council tax bands, and a move to charge Capital Gains Tax on main residence – potentially a rather radical suggestion but one which would help to deliver fairer housing outcomes. In total Barker proposes 11 main policy recommendations, which include providing stronger incentives to local authorities to produce sound housing plans, so they take responsibility for increasing local provision, with greater borrowing powers encouraging them to play a bigger role in land assembly. She also calls for direct financial incentives to those affected by a new development, an attempt to reign in the influence of the Nimbys, which may work but is it the right approach? Barker backs the call for garden cities and urban extensions, with new forms of funding and land assembly, as well as the encouragement of self-build as potentially more acceptable in some areas. Above all what Barker is looking for is a steadier, coherent, long term view of how to manage housing supply to meet housing needs – something I’m sure we can all agree on?

The reasons for our housing crisis are undoubtedly complex and embedded in decades of policy failure. The solutions will also be complicated but need to be built on a coherent plan, that deals with a long term approach to immediate problems and resists the temptation to meddle in short term, pick and mix solutions that satisfy no one!