This article by Green Councillor Tony Dyer was originally published on Bristol 24/7 on January 3rd 2024. (Image: Martin Booth)
On the 9th of January, Bristol’s councillors will debate a Green Party motion focusing on how to help tackle the city’s housing demand. This motion proposes converting empty retail and office space into homes, and ensuring those homes that have been given planning permission are delivered.
The facts of the matter are inconvertible – according to government and Bristol City Council’s own statistics, over 5,000 existing homes in our city are empty, including around 400 social rent homes. Some 21,000 households are on the housing waiting list whilst Shelter estimates that at any one time in 2023, over 3,000 people were homeless. Meanwhile over 13,500 homes have planning permission but a large proportion of these are not being delivered.
At the end of January, Bristol City Council will prepare to submit our new Local Plan to the Secretary of State, which sets out the development policies and needs in Bristol for the next fifteen years. This document is a result of cross-party discussion over several years and has taken an evidence based approach to address the potentially conflicting needs of the future city. This includes a realistic and informed assessment of the need for housing, and the location and feasibility of new build homes. But new build homes cannot be the only source of housing for the city – we must also make the most effective use of our existing buildings.
Retrofitting and reuse has an important role to play in not only the delivery of new homes but also reducing carbon emissions. Often discussions about the need to provide new build housing fail to recognise the carbon emissions generated from demolishing and building new structures. Delivering 300,000 new homes per year using the current methods of construction is likely to generate 12 million tonnes of additional carbon emissions . Bringing empty homes back into use and reusing existing buildings therefore can help tackle the climate emergency as well as the housing crisis.
Addressing the challenges identified in the motion I have put forward will require working in partnership with private owners of unused retail and office space, as well as the private developers of homes with planning permission that are not being delivered. This needs to be done as transparently as possible to safeguard the rights and needs of the public that we, as councillors, are elected to represent.
Central to this is how the council manages the land and buildings it owns and controls, including potential brownfield sites and buildings that could be reused. Ownership allows the council to set red lines for what can and can’t be developed, and it is vital that this is maintained whilst delivering the best possible social value for the city, including delivering affordable housing and especially social rent homes.
This should include looking at how we can increase the levels of community led housing projects. Bristol adopted a community led housing land disposal policy in 2020, and has a growing community led housing sector.
As important as I believe this motion is, the reality is that the council alone cannot resolve many of the key challenges that we face as a city. Barring a sudden, radical change in the position of the two parties most likely to form a national government, Bristol City Council will continue to face major funding problems, limiting our power to invest in the future of the city.
As a result, it is increasingly likely we will need to work with external partners to help deliver the services and infrastructure the city needs, including public, community-led, and private enterprises. This will also allow us to tackle not just the delivery of homes but also the climate and ecological emergencies. It will also ensure we deliver our statutory services but will only work if the public believe that their rights are being protected and their opinions listened to and considered.
That is the key challenge facing whoever is running Bristol City Council after the May elections. Meeting the many, sometimes conflicting, demands that the council faces will require a fundamental reshaping of both the council itself and its culture.
This Green Party motion identifies some initial proposals to help tackle the problems relating to housing in our city, but it is only one of several areas where urgent action is required. Nobody should expect easy answers, or overnight solutions to problems that have been decades in the making, but we can take a step in the right direction on Tuesday by making sure that this motion is passed.