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.


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


Why we need Planning “Champions”

DSCN0268In the July edition of The Planner I wrote an opinion piece on why we need more planning champions, both locally and nationally (see article below). Part of the purpose of the comment piece was a response to the local election results, but actually when writing it I came to the view that these results were unlikely to have a major impact on planning  locally, at least not in the short term. What seemed more interesting as an issue was how local politicians deal with planning and what they know about planning before they are elected.

This is important because even in this world of cabinet and scrutiny, or mayoral systems, we still have planning committees where real decisions are taken by back bench councillors. Existing and newly elected councillors will undoubtedly pick up planning casework and some will sit on these planning committees, but how do we prepare them for this quasi-judicial role? There is a real need for ongoing training for councillors on the workings of the planning system, and I say ongoing quite deliberately, as things are always changing in the planning world. Even once a local plan is approved there is still plenty to be aware of as a councillor.

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Housing Crisis – Confusion Abounds!

DSCN0285Oh no, not another blog on the housing crisis! There seem to be so many at the moment and just as I think about writing one, someone gets there before me with many of the issues I was going to write about. So why am I bothering? Well over the last few weeks I’ve come across some interesting examples of good and bad policy and practice that impacts on housing and I’ve written about some of it briefly in different blogs or articles relating to different topics, but now seems like a good time to bring some of it together, as a contribution to this ongoing debate. So read on if you can bear to!

I’m certainly not suggesting I have the answers or solutions, but merely some thoughts on the type of issues that need addressing and some examples of just how much better they are addressed elsewhere. Also, my take on some of the solutions offered by others is that on their own they won’t work, but maybe together and combined with other things there are some answers out there that might just make a difference, we’re just not joining things up properly. And that’s about joining up locally as much as it is about joining up centrally at national policy level, not all the blame rests with central government, local councils can be just as much at fault for contributing to the problem.

What strikes me most about some of the debate is the serious lack of any strategic planning in the UK at the moment. Ever since the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Regional Spatial Strategies we have been left with a void of strategic planning, reinforced by the Localism Act and its emphasis on local councils taking control of decisions about the supply of housing. So we have a government that says it wants to build more homes but which refuses to set targets for local councils to meet. Local councils when agreeing their plans listen to the voices that shout loudest, those that want to preserve and protect. In cities that means all those that want to keep derelict or green spaces close to their houses just as they are and in more rural areas that means those intent on protecting every blade of grass from any form of development. The outcome is fewer homes planned for in Local Development Frameworks and fewer sites allocated for development and fewer houses built (a slightly simplistic overview, but you get the point?).

Interestingly, a recent case in North Somerset may well be the catalyst to change some of this, although the final outcome is still awaited as the council have yet to respond in detail to the ruling (for more detail see an article I wrote for Bristol 24-7). Effectively, the council has just been told its plan is likely to be considered unsound and doesn’t comply with national policy because it doesn’t make enough provision for new homes, according to a Planning Inspectors report, brought about after a challenge from Bristol University. Previously, the councils immediate response to the removal of national targets was to take over 10,000 houses out of its plans. The council is now having to reconsider that approach and accept that their assessment of need doesn’t fit with that of the most recent planning inspectors view, which brings into question the whole underlying approach of ‘self-containment’ at the heart of their plan. It both baffles and bemuses me how a council that sits so close to Bristol and its boundary can draw up a plan that tries to ignore the relationship with the city, but that’s what they did!

The lesson to be drawn from this, in my view, is that some form of national target for house building is critical. The Regional Spatial Strategies were by no means perfect, were hated by many and perhaps weren’t in place long enough to judge quite whether or not they would have delivered, but something that takes an overall strategic view of growth and the need to plan for it over a longer period has got to be better than what we have at the moment. A proper process of negotiation and compromise to agree local targets to help meet national targets has got to be better than the current conflict based approach where councils do one thing, developers challenge and government inspectors then impose housing numbers and changes to plans that have already been agreed locally.

Another issue that struck me relates to this whole debate about taxing housing and/or land. This seems to be something that rears its head every now and then, and used to be something that changed with every change of government, post 1947 when the Planning Act was first introduced. For me the critical point is about land value increases secured as a result of planning permission, again something that has been long debated, and is pretty unlikely to hit the agenda under the current government. Now I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that landowners shouldn’t be able to benefit financially from securing planning permission on their land, but in my view there needs to be some control on this, to reduce speculative permissions and development and to enable more affordable developments to take place. Perhaps we could try something like the system used in Freiburg, where there are few if any volume house builders as land is bought up by the council and parcelled off in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self build, custom build and cooperative housing schemes, something we see very little of in the UK. Over there they have a system that freezes land prices, where the value of land pre and post planning permissions is set at a more sensible rate, so there is still profit to be had but not to the extent of the land market over here. Now surely that makes land for housing more affordable which in turn makes housing more affordable – doesn’t it?

Understanding cities and how they operate seems to me to be critical to this debate about housing, most of us now live in cities and urban areas and that trend looks set to continue. The notion that we can keep cramming our cities with higher and higher density housing, using up every last piece of green space, without thinking about the impact this has on the people living in those communities and neighbourhoods is just plain daft. But that seems to be what is happening, there are constant cries that there is plenty of brownfield land to be developed, we don’t need to expand our cities and encroach on that sacrosanct piece of land that is the great British greenbelt. Well, sorry, but I disagree. Many people don’t want to live in high density areas, they don’t want to live in apartments without gardens, and they don’t want to live in urban spaces with no greenery or green space to enjoy. So at some point, something has got to give and as a town planner myself, I would rather it gave in a planned and coordinated way than a speculative, unplanned manner that will only lead to development in all the wrong places. I think it is time to have a proper grown up debate about the green belt, about expanding our cities and their boundaries to encompass sustainable growth along transport corridors, where local facilities can be planned in to meet community needs, whilst at the same time preserving and protecting valuable green space within and outside cities and creating new ‘green belts’ where they are needed.

The problem with all this is it means some form of government intervention, which pretty much goes against the grain of recent and current thinking. The focus instead is on relaxing state intervention, particularly when it comes to our planning system, as there are constant calls for fewer regulations so developers can get on and build. Or intervention is focused on the individual, through schemes like Help to Buy, rather than on a collective need requiring wider intervention which might actually make a difference.

So the debate continues, as I am sure will the many housing blogs, as government, both local and national, fails to get to grips with the issues and fails to make the difference that is needed.