West of England Devolution

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgThe announcement in the Budget that the West of England had signed a devolution deal with Government came as a bit of a surprise to many. This was partially because the deals have been shrouded in so much secrecy that even many of our local politicians didn’t know what was happening and what would be included, let alone the local residents. It was also a bit of a surprise when you consider the general level of local opposition to the notion of a combined authority and a metro-mayor. This opposition has been pretty much unanimous amongst local politicians, with few supporting the idea of a city-region mayor, and most suggesting that current, informal arrangements are sufficient and that there is no need for any form of formal structure. So definitely surprising to see that all four leaders have signed up to a deal that includes arrangements for a metro-mayor and combined authority structure.

There are a number of questions that initially spring to my mind when considering this whole devolution agenda. Firstly, if we weren’t part of it would it matter? Secondly, is what’s included worth it? Thirdly, is this the right structure for our area? Lastly, what’s missing? I’ll take these questions in turn and share my thoughts.

So to begin, would it matter if we hadn’t agreed a deal and if when this deal is taken to each of the four local councils for agreement it all falls apart, do we care? Which, let’s face it, given the initial response from some quarters is quite likely. North Somerset have already made it pretty clear they don’t agree and don’t feel their area benefits enough from the deal and the MP for North East Somerset has clearly stated that he is firmly opposed to any such deal with the structure imposed by his own government. One of the important issues to consider here is where else has signed devolution deals. The government’s aim was to have all the Core Cities signed up to deals with a metro-mayor and combined authority in place. So far, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff have signed deals whilst negotiations are continuing in Nottingham and Leeds. So if Bristol were not to be part of this process we might well lose out in comparison to other key cities in England and Wales. By lose out I mean both competitively and in terms of perception. So it just might matter, we would lose the extra funding on offer and suffer a further loss of credibility with government, something this area has suffered from for many years.

My second question was is the deal worth it? Is there enough in this deal to make it worthwhile accepting an imposed structure that has little support locally (although to be fair there has been little real public debate about this)? The content of the deal covers transport, housing, planning, skills and business support, key issues that arguably need a more strategic approach, across local council boundaries. It brings in extra resources, around £30m a year for thirty years and extra powers to decide things locally around transport, adult education and employment support. It also opens up a more positive dialogue with government about future powers and resources, that might not be on offer otherwise. So in terms of the first two questions then I can understand why the deal has been done, we don’t want to lose out and this is the only option on offer, so we probably do need to be part of it.

The question of structure seems to be the one everyone is focused on. Is a metro-mayor right for the West of England when we already have a Bristol mayor? Is a combined authority needed? To some degree the question is pointless as Osborne made it very clear from the start of this process that devolution deals for cities would have to agree to this structure, it’s an issue that didn’t appear to be up for debate. So if we want the deal we have to accept the structure. Whatever the rights and wrongs and irony of a devolution process that imposes a structure, that is all that’s on offer. Other cities have been equally reticent about agreeing to the idea of a metro-mayor and combined authority, but in order to progress their devolution deal they have accepted it (reluctantly) as part of the process. It seems we will have to do the same.

Personally I think there are some merits in the approach and would certainly advocate the need for a combined authority. Whilst we have had an informal structure for some time, it is less than effective. At the moment, decisions made by the LEP or Strategic Leaders Board have to go back to each of the four local authorities for formal approval, a process that can take months. So a formal structure that cuts out that process has to be good for speeding up decision making. It will also have a focus on strategic issues, something much needed round here.

The issue of a metro-mayor is perhaps more controversial. How would this strategic mayor work with the Bristol mayor? Would there be overlaps of role and confusion as a result? I’m not against the idea personally as I believe that two strong leadership roles promoting our city and city region has to be a good thing and can only benefit the area in the long run, but I can understand why some might be opposed to it.

My final question was about what’s missing from the deal, what more could we have included if only the process had been a little more collaborative, open and transparent? The point about transparency came through very strongly in relation to some research I was involved in as part of a Political Studies Association Research Commission which looked at informal governance as part of the devolution process. The research found that many areas had very real concerns about the lack of openness during the process and the lack of engagement of other politicians and stakeholders was a concern that those involved thought might lead to problems later on. The issue here is about ownership, if you don’t involve people in the process they don’t have any ownership of the output. So one would expect some local politicians, as elected representatives, to have concerns about the content of deals and the process by which they have been agreed. For me it also seems a shame that the process excluded people who might just have provided some interesting and useful ideas to the content of bids.

Looking at the issues that really matter in the West of England and those that need a level of strategic thinking to provide workable solutions, then the bid covers the most obvious broad areas, although health is currently missing from the equation. However, when looking at what is contained one could ask a few questions about how limited the content is. Why haven’t we been more bold in our asks?

If I just look at the whole issue of housing, a major problem in the West of England that we have failed to address strategically for many years. The proposals in the deal are based around a fund to support infrastructure, stronger strategic planning powers and development corporations to overcome barriers to development. These seem pretty good on paper and the infrastructure fund is certainly to be welcomed, providing additional funds and also long term certainty against which borrowing can take place.

The notion of Mayoral Development Corporations is an interesting one. Bristol doesn’t exactly have fond memories of its own Development Corporation. But if these can help to unblock strategic sites to deliver housing then it’s a good call, as long as the process doesn’t trample all over local representatives and local communities as their predecessors did.

But what else could have been included to help deal with the housing crisis in our area? Is there much that local councils can actually do given the central policy we are working within? Well, yes maybe. All you have to do is look around at some of the innovative ideas being tried elsewhere to see that there are other options. How about asking government if we could suspend the right to buy on council properties across the patch or in certain areas, or even just for new build council housing? Why not, parts of Wales have? How about taxing developers for stalled sites, charging them a tax on unbuilt properties, could this have been included? What about commitments to use more public land to build affordable and social housing, releasing councils from the need to secure the best price for land? The problem with many of these devolution deals is that they have involved a small number of people in a rushed process, so has been little time for creative thinking or even the sharing of ideas. Maybe, now the deal is done, other things can be added?

I’ll end on a final note that has bugged me all throughout the process of debate about devolution in the West of England and that is the constant reference to recreating Avon. As far as I can see we are not setting up a County Structure with politicians and officers in a massive bureaucracy. What is proposed is one additional politician – the metro-mayor, and some form of supporting infrastructure around a Combined Authority. Perhaps for the purposes of debate it would be useful for our political leaders to elaborate on this and share thoughts on what that structure might look like, how many people (if any) it would employ and how much it would cost. All this talk of Avon makes people think about something very different and expensive, instead we should be thinking about a new structure that can help strategic delivery.

 

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.

Overall

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

 

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?

On the blog – what’s popular?

tessaThe most popular of my blogs this quarter are a mix of new ones written during the last few months and the resurgence of one I wrote last year on planning (interesting that it keeps getting hits). There’s a bit of a mix here of housing, academia, planning and governance issues, which about sums up my blog really!

Thank you for taking the time to engage with my blog and hope you enjoy my posts, even if you don’t agree with them?

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.