Bristol is about to embark on a five-year voyage, pioneering ways to overcome the UK’s housing crisis.
Industry leaders, experts and public bodies are being gathered together to dream up new ways of future-proofing the West’s biggest city, in what is hoped will be a completely new approach to housing.
Over half a decade, Bristol Housing Festival will look at how to harness the latest ideas in construction, technology and sociology to create new types of communities.
The man behind the project, former lawyer and chief executive, Jez Sweetland, believes Bristol is the perfect test-bed to try innovative new ideas.
In his first public speech about the mammoth project, which sometimes felt more like a TED Talk than a pitch to industry leaders, he said: “What I’m passionate about is how we gather experts in a room and then have the courage to re-imagine: to build, to test, to prototype, because not many would disagree that we do need change.”
He said the festival would aim to find:
- High-quality, affordable and sustainable housing models.
- New investment and means of raising funds for housing.
- Technological solutions to address housing need.
- Models for communities to create resilient and communities with a sense of well-being.
- More housing for the city.
The festival could go some way to solving Bristol’s housing affordability crisis, helping to bring down homelessness, bind communities together, rehabilitate prisoners and reintegrate the elderly and isolated, Sweetland believes.
And the housing crisis is no fantasy. Latest figures show 20 years ago a home in Bristol would cost three and a half times the average salary – now it would cost nine times the average yearly wage, with the city’s average home costing a crippling £272,545.
Sweetland came to Bristol five years ago with his wife and three children. He was formerly a lawyer, charity CEO and head of a law firm but was moved to set up Bristol Housing Festival nearly a year ago – although he admits he’s no housing expert.
Finding land and trying new ideas will be the mainstay of the project.
“What we want to do is find land and house-builders, charities, tech experts, well-being experts, place-making experts and energy experts and say let’s look at this particular piece of land and let’s dream,” he said.
“Just for this particular moment, let’s put some of the existing challenges and limitations of the system aside and let’s start with the outcomes in mind, let’s think about 2050.”
The grand vision has won Sweetland friends at Bristol City Council, which is backing the festival along with a number of other stakeholders.
Some will question whether the project, which is currently little more than an idea and web of interested parties, will be able to follow through on its ambitious brief.
But Sweetland remains convinced.
“We want to raise this vision, this narrative, this opportunity. To say to the city: let’s build, let’s prototype, let’s test, let’s learn, let’s have the courage to fail, because in failing we will learn more,” he said.
What is the housing we need? We want to put a challenge to the city and talk about things like inter-generational housing.
“How do we build a community that is resilient? I don’t know. We don’t know, but I think the festival has the courage to say ‘lets try’, let’s have people live in new ways and let’s see what happens.
“Critically it’s not just about housing: It’s about energy, it’s about transport, it’s about mental health, it’s about how we rehabilitate citizens, it’s about the future of things like blockchain and AI [artificial intelligence] and how they can help cities run.
“We want to position Bristol as the city that has the political and practical ambition to road-test these things. Not just for this city, but for the nation.”
Bristol Housing Festival will be able to build on existing projects in the city, which is already known as an innovator in some aspects of housing.
The council has recently established its own housing company – which is pending a name – and for the first time in its history is building houses both for social rent and for sale of the private market.
Meanwhile, it is on track to deliver mayor Marvin Rees’ manifesto promise of 2,000 new homes by 2020.
Across the city innovative projects are springing up, from the container village at Wapping Wharf to a regeneration of South Bristol which will include 2,000 new homes.
The first phase of Bristol Housing Festival will be a launch event from October 19 to November 4 in Waterfront Square. Most details are under wraps at the moment with more details expected imminently.
Sweetland made his speech at Bristol’s Homes Board a patchwork of industry leaders held at City Hall on Thursday, September 13.
The council’s cabinet member for housing Paul Smith, who chaired the meeting and has been involved in the project for some time, said he was “really excited about the possibility of this”.
Sweetland also appeared to win over the room of housing professionals, more used to hearing phrases such as “housing crisis” than “housing vision”.
Ian Knight, head of accelerated delivery in the South West at Homes England, said: “That was really, really inspiring to hear. Most local authorities I visit, under such intense financial pressures on all fronts, feel absolutely beaten into the ground in many cases.
“So to hear that sort of vision, is just so impressive and so engaging. It sounds to me like this could be a transformational launch pad for Bristol to be at the forefront of a completely different approach on how to mould the city.”
Jack Pitts is a local democracy reporter for Bristol.