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.

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?

South Bristol Link – Last Act or Final Curtain?

And so, momentum is once more building on the South Bristol Link. And the same old arguments are coming out from the same old sources, when to most of us it is an old solution to the wrong problem.

It is very clear that this a solution borne more from the existence and availability of a government funding stream than any real consideration of what South Bristol really needs or indeed wants. Politicians are warned constantly that they need to support this, and the other BRT schemes, otherwise we’ll lose the funding – so we end up with imperfect schemes and so called ‘solutions’  that don’t even begin to address the real problems, all because we are too scared to admit we got it wrong and because people don’t want to be accused of losing us government money.

I despair, I really do – how can our politicians, councils, LEP and businesses be that short sighted. Do they really believe that building a road with no beginning and end will sort out the problems we face in some areas of South Bristol, a road that essentially goes nowhere. At best it will help a small proportion of residents in South Bristol to move around the area better (by car) and at worst it will destroy communities and cut neighbourhoods off from one another. Remember, we are not talking about a residential road here, we are talking about 4 lanes of motorised traffic, 2 bus lanes and 2 car/lorry/van lanes being ploughed through what was once a residential street – see diagram below borrowed from the TravelWest website and compare it with the one below that, King George’s Road as it is now (from the Evening Post). How can anyone see that as an improvement and a benefit to local residents?

brt5339286-large

This scheme has been voted out on many occasions in the past, indeed I remember voting against it at least twice when I was a councillor, because the harm it will do to South Bristol and its communities is far greater than any perceived benefit.

The road will bring thousands of jobs, it’ll help open up South Bristol and better connect people to where they work, least that’s what its supporters say. But quite how does a road do that?

Thousands of new jobs will, we are told, be created by unlocking South Bristol. So a road that goes from the Long Ashton Park & Ride to Hengrove Park, across greenbelt land and through residential roads and green space will somehow bring jobs, and thousands of them at that! Quite where or what these jobs will be is unclear. Do the plans for the road include plans for new development – NO. Do the plans for the road include new business or office parks – NO. So how will this bring thousands of jobs to South Bristol and where will they go?

It’ll open up South Bristol? Well it might provide a better ‘rat-run’ for commuters from the Chew Valley and from Keynsham/Bath area to race through South Bristol to get to where they work and yes, ok, it might just help some residents get to the city centre or North/West of Bristol. But the benefits to South Bristol residents and communities are at best marginal. What would help far more to address the problems of access to South Bristol would be a complete redesign and reconfiguration of the major bottleneck that is the Parson Street Interchange and Winterstoke Road traffic chaos. That’s the main access point to South Bristol and that’s where the problem is. Why not focus on that, or is it just too difficult?

There will of course be one area that benefits from the road, not the bit that goes through South Bristol, but the bit that provides a link between the A370 and the A38 and that is where most of the support for this whole road comes from – the residents of Barrow Gurney, who at long last will get their by-pass. Not something to be dismissed lightly, a solution to relieving the pressure on Barrow is certainly needed, but why make the residents of South Bristol suffer by building the rest of the road? I’d support a Barrow by-pass but not as part of the South Bristol Link.

North Somerset Planning Committee are considering this today (7th November) and Bristol Council will consider the planning application later this month. I for one hope they turn it down again. I hope this is the final curtain for this scheme, but sadly, I think the pressure not to lose funding will prevail and the wrong decision will be taken for all the wrong reasons with this being the final act that sees us lumbered with a road to nowhere!

 

Update – North Somerset Planning Committee approve the application by 10 votes to 5.

Next up Bristol S&E Area Planning Committee on Nov 27th.

The South Bristol Link – A Road to Nowhere?

The idea of a completing the Bristol ring road by providing the missing links in South & East Bristol has been around a long time. The route across South Bristol has been protected for decades but somehow to date it has never been delivered. Every time it has reared its ugly head environmental campaigners, politicians and local communities have opposed it and the final decision has never been made to implement.

And so it seems we are going round that very same loop all over again. The ring road, or the South Bristol Link as it is now called, is back on the agenda and planning applications have been submitted to Bristol and North Somerset Councils. The environmental lobby and local people are rachetting up their opposition and the LEP and business groups are pulling together their supporters ready for yet another battle. Continue reading