Bristol Greens are bringing a motion to next week’s Full Council meeting on 8 November that calls for an evidence-led approach to the city’s housing targets, determined by national government, in order to avoid developers potentially running roughshod over local planning policies in the future.
Southville Councillor Tony Dyer is proposing the motion. He said:
“Bristol’s Local Plan needs to be based on evidence, not the whims of Conservative politicians. An unreachable housing target that does not accurately reflect Bristol’s need will put at risk many of the positive and forward thinking policies that Bristol wishes to adopt. This includes setting goals that will enable us to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies and the needs of those on our housing waiting list.”
Greens and councillors from other parties fear that the government’s current high housing target for Bristol may not be achievable, which could allow developers to appeal for their proposals to be judged by looser national planning policies rather than rules set locally in the Local Plan (see notes below).
This could mean much lower development standards on issues like sustainability, quality, green space and amounts of affordable housing. The current housing target stems from a government decision in December 2020 to add a 35% uplift on to the housing targets of the 20 largest cities.
The motion proposed by Councillor Dyer is designed to support the Council’s attempt to resolve this by commissioning an evidence-based study to examine how much housing is required in a city of Bristol’s size, in order to approach government with a more appropriate target.
Explaining the motion, Tony said:
“We’re calling for an approach to housing numbers in Bristol that is evidence based and reflects the levels of need and what the city can realistically deliver, rather than a number based on the whim of Tory MPs in Westminster. It is not an anti-development motion – it clearly recognises the need for housing, and calls for the council to support proposals to deliver 1,000 affordable homes per year. But the present government target of 67,000 homes – over 3,300 per year – is well beyond what Bristol has been able to deliver over a similar time scale at any point in the last half century or so, possibly even before then – it is simply unachievable in a city with a very limited supply of land to build on.”
“This is a practical motion aimed at supporting a realistic and pragmatic approach to planning and housing in Bristol. It endorses the Council’s approach of commissioning an evidence based study to examine how much housing is required in a city of Bristol’s size, with a view to approaching government with an appropriate target. Setting an evidence based housing target for the city will allow us to better protect green spaces and ensure local planning policy has the necessary force to ensure more sustainable, affordable, and higher quality developments in Bristol, reflecting the voices of elected representatives and residents of the city itself.”
The Green party motion is a ‘golden motion’, meaning it is guaranteed to be discussed and voted on, and Councillor Dyer is hopeful of having cross party support for it. He said:
“This motion is ultimately about the future of the city, and who gets to decide what that future will look like – Bristol’s residents and their locally elected representatives, or Westminster politicians and private developers.”
Bristol’s Local Plan sets boundaries for where development will be encouraged and where it will be discouraged. It also sets delivery targets for the number of houses local authorities are required to deliver, based on a central government target. (This includes purpose built student accommodation or PBSA). It will set a range of planning policies including regulating carbon emissions and adaptation to climate change, tree protection, and policies to support high streets, pubs and markets and design inclusive places. It will also look to safeguard key green spaces that have been the subject of development speculation. The next Local Plan is currently being drafted for early 2024, developed by officers and a cross-party working group of councillors.
The decision by the Metro Mayor in May 2022 to halt work on the West of England region’s Spatial Development Strategy has placed even more pressure on Bristol’s Local Plan. The upcoming Local Plan – planned to be adopted in Spring 2024 – will be the most important influence on how the city will develop up to 2040.
But local planning policies could be undermined or overturned by developers at planning appeals, if the housing numbers set by the government are too high and fail to reflect realities on the ground, or the land available in Bristol to deliver them. If a local authority is unable to demonstrate an adequate supply of land to deliver its targets, this weakens its Local Plan, and where local plan policies deviate significantly from national planning policy, a developer may appeal for the less vigorous national policy to be applied instead of the local policy. In practice, this can undermine the entire idea of a “local plan” and the decision making of local councillors elected by Bristolians to represent them – and it means that developments could be approved with weak climate standards or with little or no affordable housing.
The process currently used for setting housing targets involves an algorithm based on estimates for population change and household growth, but many of these estimates are outdated, and the target was recently adjusted for political reasons by the Conservative government, adding a whopping 35% uplift to the targets of major cities.
This means at present, the housing target set for Bristol under the top down method used by central government is 67,000 homes, or 3,370 homes per year over a 20 year period. The most homes built in a single year in Bristol in the last two decades was 2,672 in 2008/9. (Details in a report to scrutiny commission – page 14)