I feel so sorry for Councillor Nicola Beech, cabinet member with responsibility for spatial planning and city design, she has worked so hard on her planning policies and to have this happen at the very first hurdle is disappointing to say the least.
But before we get into the story, it is worth noting that virtually all councillors in Bristol are in favour of having more affordable housing so that those on the lowest incomes and often with children can live.
Market rents are often double social rents – fuelled by land price increases, property speculation and government policies all of which is driving homelessness and many of the related social ills that surround us.
In fact, Bristol needs every other home built to be affordable, yes 50 per cent, but we are getting 20 per cent at best as developers, time and time again, demonstrate their unviability.
This is an affront and I personally take on the viability challenge to find errors in their maths, sometimes we get more. We need affordable homes everywhere, well almost everywhere, there are some places where affordable, social housing doesn’t work well and that’s where there is no public transport or in tall buildings.
So what follows is an example of the folly of chasing numbers for their own sake.
Back to the story. Tuesday June 18. The cabinet meeting was deep into its third hour and we all were flagging. I heard a sigh of relief as we came to the very last agenda item. But I still had a question, and so asked why a corporate risk had gone up 40 per cent – specifically the risk of not meeting the mayor’s housing target of 2,000 homes, with 800 affordable, a year by May 2020 – which is only just over ten months away now.
Councillor Paul Smith, cabinet member with responsibility for housing, gave a wide ranging answer about all the things he, the administration and even the Government are doing and questioned why the risk had been increased at all.
That risk assessment was down to the council’s new-ish professional risk manager, a job I suggested they needed, and it looks like they heeded. Presumably she has some evidence to have made that decision. But, according to Paul, there is no problem.
So we move forward 24 hours to Wednesday’s planning meeting, where nine councillors, plus myself, had to determine an application for a tall building, a 15-storey high one as it happens, on the Bath Road beside Totterdown, just before Paintworks.
It looked pretty ugly but perhaps that’s a matter of taste, it had no children’s play area at all and it was expected to house about 45 children. The training we councillors have received is that tall buildings can be fine in the right place and if designed well: offices, hotels and flats for sale to those that can afford them are uses that can thrive in such environments.
One of the key things is that the occupants need to be able to afford the high service charges and secondly to not need the facilities that say a family on low incomes would need. But this block was to have 30 affordable homes as a minimum and possibly as high as 60 if more grants could be gained.
This brings us back to councillor Nicola Beech’s great work, the Urban Living SPD, a planning document which sets out guidelines for building homes and communities in Bristol and includes the controversial ‘Tall Buildings Policy’.
It shouldn’t actually be that controversial because it carefully details the requirements for tall buildings and sets out needs like children’s play areas and a healthy living environment. It also seeks design excellence for new tall buildings.
It doesn’t take a degree in Urban Planning to see that the design issues regarding, let’s call it the Totterdown Tower, don’t meet the Urban Planning guide.
So applying planning policy it should have been turned down. But only two councillors voted against, that’s me and Mark Wright. Eight voted for: the two Tories and six Labour.
Why would Labour vote for a tower block that clearly fails their own (Nicola’s) planning policy? Well, to me it’s clear. Go back to Tuesday evening’s Cabinet meeting. It seems that the council will do what it can to meet its housing targets, even if it means permitting developments which all the evidence says will take risks with people’s lives.
You might also wonder why a political promise, one of housebuilding, has become a council risk? Muddling up political risk with actual risk, that’s another story (not storey) that goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the current reporting structure.
Sorry Nicola, both Mark and I read your policy and worked to it. I do hope that none of the problems predicted will occur, it will take a decade or more to find out. Will councillors be around that long to be held to account if it all goes pear shaped?
Clive Stevens is a Green councillor for Clifton Down.