Features / Investigations

Bristol’s affordable housing failure revealed

By louis emanuel, Tuesday Dec 1, 2015

Two-thirds of large developments approved by the city council in Bristol fall short of the authority’s own affordable housing targets.

Figures uncovered by Bristol24/7 reveal that just 11 of the last 36 major developments in the city have been approved with the minimum requirement of 30 per cent affordable homes as set out in the council’s housing policy.

Data from the council also shows that a quarter of all the major developments in the last five years were approved with no affordable housing at all.

The numbers are published as Bristol is in the grip of a housing crisis which has seen house prices and rental rates jump dramatically in the last five years, while thousands of families are on the waiting list for social housing.

They also come as the city experiences an unprecedented rise in homelessness and rough sleeping, with a number of camps popping up in parks and open spaces.

All developments of more than 15 dwellings must have at least 30 per cent affordable housing (40 per cent in some central areas), according to the council’s own housing policy set out in its Core Strategy. But central government rules say councils must not stand in the way of the “financial viability” of projects.

Affordable housing is normally defined as homes which are let at 80 per cent of the rental market rate in the local area.

A request made under the Freedom of Information Act shows that 25 of 36 large-scale developments in Bristol were approved in the last five years without meeting the council target.

Nine, or 25 per cent, of the developments were approved with no affordable housing at all. They include high-profile developments like the former Bristol General Hospital at Bathurst Basin, Electricity House on Rupert Street and a block of 170 new apartments at Building 4 on the harbourside.

Other notable major developments to have missed their targets are the Carriageworks (10 per cent) on Stokes Croft, Hamilton House (five per cent) on Stokes Croft, and the ITV studios (0 per cent) on Bath road. Not all of the planning application listed have been developed yet.

Shelter said affordable homes in Bristol was a “fading dream” for more and more people and called for more power for Bristol to force a change.

Pete Jefferys, senior policy officer at Shelter, told Bristol24/7 too many developers were being “let off the hook” because they want to maximise profits.

“The government must make sure that mayors, such as the mayor of Bristol, have real powers to secure more affordable homes from developments across the city.

“Only clear rules on how many affordable homes must be built will turn the tide on this worrying trend, and stop ordinary families from being priced out altogether,” he said.

The central Government’s National Policy Framework says developers can trump local council policy on affordable housing with a successful “viability assessment” submitted with planning applications.

Applications must be financially viable for developers, so many reduce their proportion of affordable homes.

The Carriageworks on Stokes Croft started a row when it was approved with 10 per cent affordable homes

Developers can also sweeten planning applications by offering the council financial incentives through Section 106 agreements or the Community Infrastructure Levy.

Gary Hopkins, leader of the Lib Dems, said developers often “claim low profitability that turns out not to be the case”. He said more “conditional levies” to mitigate affordable homes loss should be explored.

Helen Holland, leader of the Labour group in the council called the housing figures “devastating” for those in housing need and a “sad testament to what is causing the housing crisis” in Bristol.

“As a result, house prices are rocketing as demand for housing outstrips supply,” she added. “We need to send developers a clear message that if they want to build in Bristol they will have to build affordable homes.”

Ani Stafford-Townsend, Green Party leader in Bristol, said affordable housing had become unachievable due to government legislation that favours property developers

“What Bristol needs is more truly affordable rents for those that currently desperately require it, however central government has made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of supporting any increase in social housing provision,” Stafford-Townsend argued.

Leader of the Conservative group at the council, Mark Weston, said: “In Bristol, we must ensure that affordable housing is included in as many schemes as possible and that these developments actually go ahead.”

He called for a change in the law to require a contribution of cheaper housing in from large-scale conversions from office space to residential properties.

“Of course, if the present partnership model fails to deliver the levels of housing needed, then we must be prepared to look at or consider alternative models of provision, which includes councils providing people directly with homes,” he added.

Bristol General Hospital was approved after a long row with zero affordable housing. The developers declined to comment

The General Hospital site in Bathurst Basin was originally turned down by the city council which demanded 40 per cent affordable housing and money towards local infrastructure.

But the decision was later overturned. Developers City and Country declined to comment about the current 0 per cent proportion of affordable homes in the 190-home development.

Crest Nicholson which developed Electricity House and Building 4 block at the harbourside, both of which had no affordable housing told Bristol24/7: “As part of the planning approval process for Electricity House we made a contribution of just under £1 million to Bristol City Council, this was to cover parking and traffic management around the development as well as a contribution towards affordable housing in the city.

“Crest Nicholson is committed to ensuring our developments contribute to affordable housing in Bristol for the benefit of the wider community.”

Marc Pennick, director of Fifth Capital London, which is developing the Carriageworks on Stokes Croft, told Bristol24/7 that the 10 per cent of affordable housing was due to rising costs which affected profit margins.

The city council said it was bound by central government policy which says planning rules must be flexible to help make investments “viable”.

Brenda Massey, assistant mayor for housing, said: “Providing affordable housing in Bristol is one of our biggest priorities and we are committed to creating enough to meet the growing demand.

“However, it is also one of our biggest challenges as we are restricted by central government policy which stipulates that our Local Plan must be flexible.

“Developments are assessed on a case by case basis and we always make sure that each one is providing as much affordable housing as possible while also ensuring that the development is financially viable.”

Interactive map showing developments that don’t meet the affordable housing targets in red. Many of them are concentrated in the city centre:

Map by Becki Murray

Read about Bristol growing homelessness problem here.

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