Bath and NE Somerset district of Avonside was the first CPRE branch to host a “hustings” with four of the Prospective Parliamentary candidates for Bath and one for the surrounding North East Somerset constituency.
First stop on the election trail
Our aim was to lodge key elements of CPRE's policies on housing and development planning in the minds of the candidates, and to hear their responses to the issues.
Bath World Heritage City is in a key location at the southern end of the Cotswold AONB, and much of the district is within the Mendip Hills AONB; the city is cradled in a bowl around the river Avon and, while it is only a small city – just over 100,000 population – it receives many millions of visitors each year.
It is also a popular place to live – providing opportunities but putting pressure on the infrastructure. It must be said this is nothing new. In Georgian times high density housing between the flood plain of the river and the steeper hillsides, along with the popularity of the city with health and pleasure tourists, resulted in congestion from large numbers of horses, carriages and Bath chairs. Getting around Bath was slow and often mucky underfoot.
Yet today it is even slower: expectations of car use, coupled with a deregulated bus market plus limited and overcrowded facilities for walkers, people with disabilities and cyclists, make movement difficult. Travel for those without access to a car (in parts of Bath and North East Somerset more than 30% of the population) can be limited and often expensive.
So we prepared well for the hustings. All the speakers were sent literature in advance, including the CPRE Manifesto. Core strategy issues have been thoroughly aired in Bath and the surrounding areas and towns: a city in a designated landscape with world heritage status and valued green belt all around. Five-year land supply? Plus 20%? Some very good examples of classy high density housing has made this a world heritage city, but the contrast between that approach and that of the volume house builders makes house building a crunch issue. Fortunately, some high density brownfield development has been recently started in the long neglected West Riverside area, and former Ministry of Defence land will add to reused land supply.
Against this background, the questions were set around reuse of brownfield land, protection of the green belt, and integration of housing development into workable and accessible communities. All participants had prior notice of the questions and were given a chance to answer each question, and to come back if there were points to follow up.
The first question was how they would support bringing forward brownfield land before resorting to building on open countryside. There has been considerable pressure to build on the green belts of Bath and Bristol, from prospecting developers and landowners, and through the core strategy process where, at an early stage, the local authority was told to allocate sites for more housing. (The requirement for a “spare” 20% allocation has been particularly contentious in an area with such a high number of second homes.) There was considerable awareness from the candidates on the panel of the importance of the setting of Bath and the surrounding countryside, and support for green belt protection.
The second question – probably challenging their political backgrounds a little more – was how they intend to do to support the building of homes which are really affordable, not just 20% cheaper than the current sky high market prices, and in sufficient number. All agreed that it was an important aim, and there was awareness of how the privatisation of council housing had robbed local authorities of processes to meet local need.
We had two questions that focused on the true meaning of localism in planning, and asking what they are MPs would do to redress the imbalance of access to appeal against major decisions. While there was considerable unity about the desire for a change, we will await the result of the election before pressing for some substance.
There was probably more positive support for the proposal that local authorities should be given greater control over house building outcomes. Land-banking has been shown to be a key problem in housing delivery, and delay in acting upon permissions often means that while housing has been approved, it has not been delivered.
A final question was the wider one around how we as a nation regard land. At present it is often seen as just a support for development opportunity, ignoring the unique role that land has in food production. We only produce 60% of home consumption – and that figure is falling fast. But with world population growing we will not be able to rely so heavily upon imports in the future. If, as a last resort, agricultural land has to be released for building, what will the parties do to prevent the destruction of grade 3a or better land?
We were left feeling that there was considerable understanding and sympathy for CPRE’s housing land use policies, but wondering how things might change after the next election. Will housing need figures as set by DCLG still be required to be met, and will there really be opportunity for more locally led, locally funded house building?
However, there will be plenty of opportunity post-May 2015 to remind whoever is elected that at the October hustings in Bath 2014 they supported key elements of CPRE's approach.
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