The news that the Government wants the West of England to absorb an extra 14,000 homes above current plans for 102,000 over the next 20 years was ideally timed to coincide with the inaugural Forward Planning Network breakfast event held last Friday.
A packed Engine Shed audience from regional planning, transport and skills sectors heard from Cllr Paul Smith (Bristol City Cabinet Member for Housing) and Cllr Mark Shelford (B&NES Cabinet Member for Transport) about how the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) can rise to regional housing and transport challenges.
With no official response from either WECA or the local councils about the Government’s proposed allocation, both members concentrated on how these challenges could be tackled more generally.
Do roads = homes?
Few could disagree with Cllr Smith’s clarion call that, “We intend to build a lot of homes and build them quickly,” but with some of the Joint Spatial Plan key development sites in locations light on road, rail and bus services, how could WECA support greater infrastructure development?
Greater infrastructure co-operation between the councils was highlighted by Cllr Shelford. He ran through an illustrative example where, for years, the traffic pinch point on the cusp of local government boundaries on the A420 at Wick has gone unresolved to the detriment of travel times and carbon emissions.
WECA does provide the forum and potentially the investment to talk and co-operate on infrastructure requirements for not just the A420, but many more projects besides to unlock housing development. Indeed, as the Forward Planning Network event finished, WECA agreed to consider transport schemes to support development at South East Bristol and Whitchurch, A4 Bristol – east Keynsham, Yate, and A38 Almondsbury to Falfield amongst other ideas.
Infrastructure for new homes appears a pre-requisite for the West of England. The 30-year £900 million WECA investment fund may not cover the whole wish list. Strong business cases – and an agreement on local transport priorities – are needed to persuade the Government to invest taxpayer’s money from pots, such as the Housing Infrastructure Fund and Transport Investment Strategy.
Making housing more affordable
With Bristol unlikely to absorb numbers of new homes in the quantities of their neighbours, Cllr Smith’s focus was on affordability. Potential buyers browsing for a new home in the city face an earnings to house price ratio of 8.3 – in B&NES the figure is an eye-watering 10.5.
Cllr Smith highlighted the efforts which Bristol City Council went to secure affordable housing at the former Blackberry Hill Hospital site taking numbers from practically zero to 100 – or 29% – by funding with developer Galliford Try, Sovereign Housing and the Homes and Communities Agency a combination of social rent, shared ownership and affordable rent homes.
Perhaps similar innovative local solutions may be scaled-up to the WECA area through the exchange of ideas and best practice? The success or otherwise of Bristol City Council’s Housing Delivery Company may provide a blueprint should WECA ever decide to pursue a Mayoral Development Corporation – a power vested in metro mayors as part of the devolution deal.
Some solutions to boost affordability arguably lie at central Government’s door. Allowing councils to retain 100% of Right to Buy receipts, freeing-up councils from housing borrowing restrictions and removing the cap on council rents to raise more funds for affordable housing were some of the policies that Cllr Smith advocated to make his portfolio more straightforward. So far, the Government isn’t budging from current policy – even if some of these ideas are supported by the cross-party Local Government Association.
But time will tell if, like on other public policy areas, the Conservative Government repackage Labour ideas – it has been known!
Written by James Hinchcliffe, Lead Political Analyst, JBP Associates – Bristol Office