Delivering homes for the West of England - Discussion

On Tuesday 5th June we hosted a breakfast for developers and planning consultants in the Bristol area to discuss how councils and developers can work better together to deliver new homes for Bristol and the West of England.

Anna Sabine-Newlyn, CEO of MPC, opened the discussion by asking Cllr Paul Smith, passionate Bristolian and the City Council’s Cabinet Member for Homes and Communities whether we are achieving the housing delivery required in the region. Cllr Smith, who describes himself as a developer, said “Bristol is ahead of target but there are blockages… There’s a lot we can do better.” He is pushing to speed up the planning process to reach the ambitious targets set by the Joint Spatial Plan, with an emphasis on affordability. He doesn’t believe that the number of houses should be a sticking point since targets will be reviewed every five years, however, “For the first time we have published an agreement from North Somerset, South Glos and BANES that they will take on some of Bristol’s housing need, that is pioneering!”

While the JSP meets Bristol’s needs does it consider the needs of residents in the surrounding area?

Cllr Dine Romero, Bath and North East Somerset Councillor for 15 years and Leader of Lib Dem Group expressed concerns that Bath locals are being priced out of the centre and into smaller towns and villages in BANES. “The JSP pledges to deliver 14,000 homes but where can we put them? Is 80% of market value affordable? We need to work together to deliver what we need. We need some constraints and good infrastructure, not just houses.”

Is this where sub-regional bodies come into play?

Jo Davis, who has been involved in the planning of many of the South West’s most prominent regeneration projects, residential housing and complex brownfield site developments and now heads up the Planning Development and Regeneration team nationally at GVA, said there are many sub-regional challenges – namely green belt and speed of delivery.

Both Jo and Cllr Smith agreed that we need a national review of the green belt. “The ever-increasing population of Bristol cannot be contained by a boundary which is 70 years old”, stated Cllr Smith. Jo cited that in 2016-17 2% more new homes were built on green belt (nationally) than the previous year – “It’s progress but most of those approvals were at appeal, we’re eating into green belt in an ad-hoc way. We need to look at this strategically, review the green belt instead of pushing applications through appeal, NPPF guidelines allow for some revision.” 56% new homes were built on brownfield land, down 5% on the year before which means only the more difficult brownfield sites are left. This can also cause delays but really delay on delivery is not necessary said Jo, “planning is not so slow, it’s getting contractors signed off, on site and getting going.”

Much of the discussion was about the Community Infrastructure Levy, and the room agreed that this is another cause for delays. Developers asked how can we ensure that CIL payments are spent on things that will benefit the site and address people’s concerns such as journey to work time or whether the school is going to have room for their children.

Cllr Smith suggested that Central Bristol generates more CIL than anywhere else in the South West but he’s not a fan of it. “It’s not for developers to decide how it’s spent, it’s for communities but they don’t always know what’s really needed. Requirements such as X number of homes must demand a new doctor’s surgery don’t necessarily make sense when the existing doctors surgery has empty rooms… CIL won’t pay for another doctor.”

Cllr Romero reiterated that we need better communication between developers, communities and councils. People need to be better informed to understand what CIL is and how it is best spent. Reaching those people is still a challenge though according to Cllr Smith who thinks a review of taxation could be a simpler solution than CIL & Section 106 contributions.

Aimee Davies from Clarke Willmott asked, “Why should the public trust developers when they don’t understand what CIL is? Developers might make promises to communities on how the CIL will be spent but ultimately the council decides so if they decide to spend it on something else (which may be better for the site) the community will blame the developer for not delivering.”

So how can we really engage with communities and inform them about the benefits of new development and does the Localism Act help?

Jo Davis suggested that the audience has changed, they are better informed. “We need to communicate earlier, there’s lots of talk about viability. How is it going to be affordable? Neighbourhood plans are seen as a tool to say ‘no’! I think it was a mistake to give local communities this power.” Those communities which have a history of opposition to development are those most likely to use the Neighbourhood Plan against development. The original idea of NP’s was for the community to inform local development. Cllr Smith added that we need to encourage people to think locally and look at how to make development work rather than how to stop it.

According to Jo, regeneration needs to address social, economic and environmental factors and at the moment it’s often only addressing one of these. “We need to create communities from the bottom up, we’re not addressing social needs or helping society to adapt to a different way of living. Our children will be living vertically not horizontally.”

Did the panel have any final thoughts on how we can speed up delivery?

Cllr Smith is all for speeding up delivery, and is trying to resolve the issues with a half-term review as well as clamping down on land banking. “As a council, the quicker we build houses the quicker we start collecting council tax, the quicker we build offices, the quicker we start collecting business rates. It’s not in our interest to delay the process – Councils understand the benefits of speeding up delivery.”

Developers would like to see more certainty about timescales. This would require a change in planning officers’ mindset and a simplification of CIL, section 106 and affordable housing requirements.

This summary was written by Jess Pickett, Marketing Assistant at MPC.