Written evidence submitted by Bristol City Council [FPS 119]
Bristol is a Core City and the City Council is one of England’s largest local authorities serving 463,400 residents. The authority is led by Mayor Marvin Rees.
In Bristol, we are committed to building a better Bristol – a city of hope and aspiration where everyone shares in its success. We are particularly focused on delivering new and affordable homes with a target of 2,000 homes per year. We have declared climate and ecological emergencies and these inform our approach to sustainable development and set out to investors coming to our city what good growth means to Bristol.
The City Council has been engaging with the Government’s proposals for reforming the planning system and we have many concerns about them. Our experience is that we have been securing the delivery of sustainable development within the current planning system and not in spite of it. We are therefore pleased to have the opportunity to share our views and experience with the inquiry into the future of the planning system in England.
Councillor Nicola Beech, Cabinet Member for Spatial Planning and City Design
1. Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?
Bristol City Council considers the current planning system is democratic and flexible, but over-centralised. Targeted improvements to the planning system are not unwelcome and any system should retain the existing democracy and engagement in the system, preserve its flexibility and move planning choices back to local areas and away from the more centralised approach seen in recent years and as proposed in the Government’s white paper.
Bristol as a city is pro-growth and pro-development and this is clearly demonstrated through our approach to planning and development. Our Local Plan review already contains proposals for designation of growth and regeneration areas actively encouraging and enabling investment and development. Whilst speeding up the Local Plan process would certainly help it is not in itself the fundamental reason delivery is delayed. What is required is more investment in infrastructure, a clearer fiscal system to support local authority land control and investment and greater resources at the local authority level to bring forward responsive master planning.
The Government’s proposals in the white paper are overly simplistic, especially in the context of a complex urban environment. It is agreed that greater weight and authority should be given to Local Plans so that planning applications are not seen to unduly re-open matters of established principle. However, this could be achieved effectively within existing legislation, maintaining flexibility. The white paper’s proposed approach – growth, renewal, protect - may also stifle local innovation by setting development within overly rigid parameters. It also risks disengaging residents from the decision making process in or near ‘growth’ areas, whilst appearing to have strict controls in protected areas. This is considered harmful to equality, in that communities in protected areas will have greater opportunity to influence their immediate environment than those living in areas of growth or renewal. It is likely that areas to be identified for growth or renewal are those with higher levels of social deprivation and historically lower levels of resource and time for community engagement. These communities are often under-represented in plan-making and development processes.
It is not considered plausible to address and resolve all of the material planning and placemaking considerations of a future development proposal at the plan-making stage; a proposal in a plan might be ten or more years away from being delivered on the ground in response for example to land ownership, viability and fiscal issues; contamination and land clearance, phased delivery and time taken to build out. In this regard, flexibility and a degree of discretion need to be retained to ensure the planning system retains public trust and is responsive to changing circumstances.
The Government’s proposals do not acknowledge how the planning system helps to support a diversity of uses by impacting on the value of land. The more ‘zonal’ system the white paper envisages is liable to result in important land uses being displaced by those of higher value but which do not support the diversity necessary to secure thriving places. Any changes to the system should ensure the retention and incorporation of important uses with lower land values; this would be particularly important in ‘growth’ areas. The result of the proposals could be a planning system which fails to deliver mixed and sustainable communities, and which does not adequately address matters such as spaces between buildings, broader placemaking objectives and how to use growth to address such challenges as provision of open space in areas of under provision.
The assumption that land use and form can be set in their entirety at the Local Plan preparation stage for the full period of a Local Plan is to fail to recognise the way in which cities and communities evolve. Rapidly changing requirements in response to the demands of the climate and ecological emergencies, evolution in technology and of the need to respond to new resilience requirements brought by Covid-19, exemplify the need for flexibility, controlled locally.
Clear examples of the need for local flexibility are demonstrated in Bristol in the Temple Quarter area. Our existing adopted Local Plan set out a broad ranging and flexible growth vision for this large regeneration area which was responsive to evolving land use requirements. The Council is currently working with the University of Bristol to enable masterplanning for substantial development proposals for a new University Campus, related research and development employment and student accommodation, in addition to mixed employment opportunities and residential provision. Had the Local Plan set out a prescriptive ‘growth’ allocation of the type proposed in the white paper, one which did not anticipate a wide range of uses, this opportunity may not have been facilitated.
Social Value and Sustainable Development Goals
The planning system should incorporate social value as a holistic approach to its social, environmental and economic goals. This could be achieved by incorporating the concept of social value into the objectives of plan making and decision taking. This should be further informed by the use of the UN global sustainable development goals which should be a thread running through the whole planning process.
Development management policies
It is important for local areas to have development management policies relevant to the issues in those areas. The white paper exaggerates concerns about development control policies and the evidence required to support them. Any issues about repetitiveness or the scope of policies could easily be addressed through existing processes and a clear national planning policy framework. Local development management policies in practice provide an important steer for development and address the local concerns of residents and businesses. They are readily understood by developers who recognise them as the reflection of local development priorities. Centralising planning policies to Whitehall is unlikely to address local needs or development requirements and will tend to stifle policy innovation. Local policies are best placed to enable a responsive approach to local challenges of climate change and to enable rapid introduction of new adaptation technologies.
2. In seeking to build 300,000 homes a year, is the greatest obstacle the planning system or the subsequent build-out of properties with permission?
The City Council considers that the Government’s white paper’s proposals are based on an incorrect premise that the planning system is largely responsible for insufficient homes being built. Bristol City Council is positive and welcoming of development and in favour of good growth. We have given permission for thousands of homes and have a draft Local Plan devoted to large scale brownfield regeneration which will generate yet more housing, community facilities and workspace.
The wholescale proposals for change in the white paper are in effect the wrong answer to the wrong question. They are likely in themselves to result in delays due to uncertainty and do not address fundamental matters of delivery such as investment in infrastructure, delivery of genuinely affordable homes and enhancement of the non-planning mechanisms local authorities need to enable them to secure development.
There should be a stronger emphasis on the build out of developments as delivery on the ground is key to swiftly meeting housing need. Sometimes delivery is thwarted by applicants receiving a resolution to grant permission and then not progressing the s106 agreement in order to effectively extend the life of the “permission”. The NPPF could introduce a 12 month deadline for the completion of s106 agreements following a resolution to grant permission, after which the application would be cancelled. This would help prevent developers and landowners failing to move forward with permissions with no intention to deliver in the near future.
3. How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?
There is a need for greater attention to how a development functions, its relationship with the spaces around it, how it responds and adapts to climate change, and the required infrastructure and supporting requirements such as open space.
Definition of beauty is complex and could be seen to ignore other important aspects of design such as environmental standards, biodiversity, green infrastructure and the wider considerations of good place making. There are complex interrelationships between all aspects of design, development viability and developer intentions, especially in the context of urban areas. The objective should be to ensure a streamlined system across the board, with sustainable forms of development emerging through the process.
A preferred approach for design and development guidance would be to have internal liveability standards applicable to all residential development (with scope to generate similar health and wellbeing focussed standards for other land uses). The parameters for external function and appearance could then be addressed by codes or area design and development guidance - which would have greater scope for community and architect/designer input.
Bristol City Council considers ‘permitted development’ has been extended too widely (for example, creating homes with insufficient daylight and outlook, and the impacts of the ‘z’ use class) and it is important that, where relevant, all aspects of design form the considerations of prior approval. ‘Permitted development’ should accord with design codes and area design and development guidance. Otherwise, ‘permitted development’ will undermine any objectives for creating better and more beautiful buildings.
4. What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?
A process is required to determine the evidence upon which to establish how many new homes are needed, a way of translating that into an appropriate area/regional requirement for planning purposes and then a process for distributing that requirement between local planning authorities
Needs and requirements
In terms of establishing need and the requirement, the Government’s proposed standard method approach is not up to the important task of properly assessing the required number of new homes both nationally and area by area. Although the Government rightly raises in the white paper the need to consider constraints such as Green Belt, AONBs and National Parks, the impacts of these considerations vary greatly from place to place and it is very unlikely that the standard method can properly address them to determine a suitable housing requirement.
This underlines the need for an evidence-based evaluative process to replace the flawed standard method. This should quickly consider appropriate evidence and then make a decisive judgement in conclusion. This process should be based on appropriate regional/sub-regional geographies. The judgement should draw on evidence of population trends moderated by information on economic factors, demand, specific affordable housing needs and other localised influences on housing needs.
In 2011 (Localism Act) the then government removed the previous system of regional and local planning and replaced it with an ill-defined duty to cooperate that has had variable outcomes in practice. This change had the effect of delaying the delivery of new plans and the housing sites that would have been generated by them.
Bristol City Council considers the duty to cooperate should not be removed without suitable mechanisms to replace it. Many urban areas have grown beyond their administrative boundaries and mechanisms to address planning across boundaries are essential. A clear structure for addressing strategic planning matters should be set out, in discussion with local authority bodies such as the Core Cities group. In combined authorities, Mayors and constituent authority leaders could be asked to coordinate a formal agreement on addressing strategic matters such as the distribution of housing requirements which will then be reflected in Local Plans. If the proposed timetable for Local Plans set out in the Government’s white paper is used (Proposal 2 paragraph 2.48) this could occur formally within the first 6 months of Stage 2 with preparatory work during Stage 1. Mayors and constituent authority leaders could also identify any local authorities surrounding combined authorities which should be part of this process, with the Secretary of State formally agreeing and requiring their participation (Stage 1).
It is essential that cross boundary cooperation considers the provision of affordable housing, with formal requirements that affordable housing nominations are available to those authorities whose overall housing needs are partially being met in other areas. Essential cross boundary matters to address also include social and economic issues, ecology and the range of environmental issues.
Plans should be formally required to have regard to the need to coordinate with wider strategic approaches to development in identified powerhouse areas such as Western Gateway.
5. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?
The City Council is concerned that the Government’s proposals for changes to community consultation and reduced local democratic decision making may disadvantage and disengage certain groups, particularly those living in proposed ‘growth’ locations. In general, this may result in less advantaged communities being subject to the less stringent decision making arrangements in growth areas, with more affluent areas remaining subject to the requirements of full planning applications.
Community consultation and engagement at the pre-application and application stage should be retained and enhanced. Engagement at all stages of the planning process is important in ensuring local residents feel they are fully involved in the development of their area. This has been our experience in Bristol.
The planning application decision making process is already significantly digitised and paper-less but greater digitalisation would be welcomed. Shorter and more standardised applications would be welcomed especially where it would facilitate community understanding and engagement with proposals. However, unduly limiting applications to one key standardised submission as proposed in the white paper is not likely to be realistic for ‘major’ applications, as it will not normally be possible to assess the impact of a proposal against a range of issues in such a short document.
6. How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance?
The existing approach set out in legislation, regulations and guidance is considered to be generally functioning effectively but consideration of how to address climate change and continued use of listed buildings would be welcome.
The City Council does not agree that there should be automatic outline permission for areas for substantial development as proposed in the white paper. Growth should ensure development is sustainable, results in mixed and sustainable places and addresses community feedback. The proposed system would fail to do this by focussing most decision making at the plan making stage. This is liable to undermine the protection of areas, especially in cities where there is complex mosaic of new development, existing and historic fabric, open space and biodiversity.
7. What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?
In explaining the approach to the standard method for establishing housing requirements, the Government’s white paper says that the existing policy for protecting the Green Belt would remain. Existing policy is set out in the National Planning Policy Framework. That policy references the Green Belt’s permanence but does allow, where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified, boundaries to be altered through the preparation or updating of plans. It is appropriate for national policy to allow for local changes in those circumstances.
Green Belt is a strategic policy straddling local authority boundaries and has a direct influence on the pattern of new development. It is directly linked to matters of determining the need for housing and other land uses and the processes for making planning decisions across local authority boundaries.
These matters illustrate Bristol City Council’s views around the approach to determining housing requirements and arrangements for strategic planning discussed above. The approach to Green Belt cannot be separated from these processes and underlines the need for the ‘duty to cooperate’ to be either maintained or replaced with an appropriate system as we have outlined above.