Bristol’s councillors have voted to scrap “unrealistic” government housing targets in a bid to protect the city’s green spaces and focus on affordable homes.
Experts will be commissioned to look at the evidence behind how many new homes Bristol should build over the next two decades, rather than using the government’s targets.
The targets have been criticised for heaping extra burden onto the largest urban areas – many of which, including Bristol, are not managing to address housing need – without taking into account their capacity to meet them. Bristol City Council cannot simply ignore the centralised targets, but hopes that by making a strong case to government it may be able to secure some room for manoeuvre.
The council is in the process of writing up its new local plan, a hugely important document setting out how the city will grow and where new developments should go up to 2040. The local plan, which has been proceeding since a wider West of England masterplan collapsed earlier this year, includes policies on environment, energy efficiency, disabled access and more.
But currently if the council can’t show in the new local plan that it has identified enough land where thousands of new homes can be built, meeting the government’s target, then developers get more leeway and can overcome local plan policies, weakening regulations, including around affordability quotas.
Nicola Beech, the council’s cabinet member for strategic planning, said: “The government, in an effort to reach its manifesto commitment of 300,000 homes a year without upsetting their voters in rural and suburban constituencies, takes the figure for the total number of homes that can be built in the UK’s 20 biggest cities and slaps a 35% increase on top of it.
“We have a housing crisis in Bristol and we want thousands of affordable homes built every year, but local government shouldn’t be penalised for not reaching a target that was set by an ex-prime minister, which doesn’t take the land available in each city into account.
“We’re already projected to build thousands of affordable homes in the next few years, a number which will increase as other developments are brought forward. But even if we far exceed our ambitious targets, we, and the other major UK cities, don’t have the land to build enough homes to reach the government’s non-evidence-based targets.”
Motion to scrap target unanimously approved
A motion to scrap the government’s housing target in favour of an evidence-based approach was unanimously passed at the full council meeting on Tuesday 8 November. Councillors said the motion was not “anti-development”, and recognised Bristol needed to grow as a city, but “in the right way”.
When the Conservatives won the 2019 general election, a major promise was getting 300,000 new homes built in England each year.
Its approach to meeting this pledge includes giving the 20 largest English cities an extra high housing target, a figure worked out by forecasting how the population will grow, and then adding a 35% uplift on top of that. Bristol’s target is more than 3,300 a year.
As noted in the motion, which was proposed by Tony Dyer, a Green councillor for Southville, this is far in excess of what the city has managed to build annually in any recent decade.
Speaking to the Cable ahead of the full council meeting, Dyer acknowledged that the council’s ability to influence the government was uncertain but said demonstrating cross-party support for an evidence-based approach could set an important marker for any future negotiations.
“Having a united front on this is important so I’m glad to see the approach proposed by the local plan working group has the wider support of councillors across the chamber,” Dyer added on Tuesday. “Many of the proposed policies are vital for Bristol if we are serious about tackling the climate and ecological emergencies, as well as providing decent homes for those most in need.
“Setting a housing target for Bristol based on evidence – not a Tory party manifesto – will allow us to better protect green spaces, and will help ensure local planning policy has the necessary force to ensure deliver more sustainable, affordable, and higher quality developments in the city, reflecting the voices of locally elected representatives and the residents of the city itself.”
Details of which pieces of land have been earmarked for development should be revealed by the end of the month, in a new public consultation on the local plan. This consultation, which could be delayed, will also explore what rules property developers should follow in Bristol.
‘Unrealistic targets mean less affordable housing’
One issue in the shortfall in new housing is developers not building the homes they have planning permission for.
The number of new homes the council grants permission for is vastly higher than the number of homes actually built each year. But no powers currently exist to force developers to build homes once they have received planning permission.
Before the council meeting, Danica Priest, an environmental campaigner, said: “Last year we approved more planning applications than we have since 2007, but still failed the housing delivery test because developers aren’t building fast enough, and we can’t force them to. We have over 13,500 homes with planning permission that haven’t been built. The year before it was 12,000, so it’s getting worse.
“The data from this year’s housing delivery action plan shows it’s a complete myth that there’s an unlimited amount of labour and materials to build, and if we just granted more permissions the developers would build more. They have limited resources and will direct those resources at what will generate the most profit. Right now, that’s building luxury housing on green spaces.
“These developers are using our unrealistic targets to get out of affordable housing requirements. This is unacceptable and will only make our housing crisis worse. The only people who benefit from the high house targets are those who profit off of the housing crisis: property developers, landowners and landlords.”