Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Memorandum from Bristol Friends of the Earth (ARSS 83)

Bristol Friends of the Earth is a local branch of the national pressure group Friends of the Earth. We are activists involved in local planning and transport issues in Bristol and the surrounding countryside of the West of England. We work with local green organisations including South West Save our Green Spaces Groups.

We would be happy to attend a hearing of the committee if appropriate. Living in Bristol (a vibrant city aspiring to be a Green Capital) we have the benefit of close proximity to attractive countryside. This has helped us see the vital links between town and country and the need for joined up planning, housing and transport policy which meets the future needs of both. Below are our answers to the Inquiry's questions followed by the three economic standpoints informing our views and our three guiding principles of "Small, Green and Local".

The implications of the abolition of regional house building targets for levels of housing development

The SWRSS and its housing targets were only ever projections bearing no relation to the real economics of the South West. There was some public rejoicing when both were abolished.

Having reacted to the public disquiet at the previous Government's system of centrally imposed housing targets, the current Government risks going to the other extreme of giving local councils and parishes the responsibility for new housing construction without either the tools or funding to create the sustainable communities and quality housing to which our planning system should aspire. The Government appears to share a similar view to the previous one that providing new housing is the main issue whereas the allocation of social housing, the operation of the existing housing market and affordability have a far greater impact on meeting housing needs.

The likely effectiveness of the Government's plan to incentivise local communities to accept housing development, and the nature of level of the incentives which will need to be put in place to ensure an adequate long term supply of housing

FOE believes that decentralisation and local involvement are vital to success in planning but not on the cheap. If the Government has less money for rural housing that it would wish, it should fund less housing of a better quality and abandon targets altogether. It should use current funding to achieve 1. Good practice models for new housing and employment in rural communities 2. New forms of local funding and community investment and new bank lending to rural enterprises and small businesses and then 3. Use 1 and 2 to encourage a more widespread take up of the successful models across the UK.

The Government wishes to release community enterprise and energy. Here in Bristol, the voluntary sector is strong and there are a string of voluntary sector organisations that have been set up locally and have transformed the national scene for example Sustrans in cycling and the Soil Association in organic agriculture. Members of the Bristol Food Network are creating Community Supported Agriculture schemes to cut out the supermarkets and connect farmers direct to customers.

Local residents are fed up with a planning system which allows supermarket chains to foist unwanted new supermarkets on local communities and local councils who simply want to protect their local shops and resist more traffic. Communities and councils have to spend time and money opposing supermarkets who come back when they are refused planning permission in the hope that their cash and superior strength in the planning system will finally beat local residents and councillors into submission.

The Government should announce a nationwide scheme of funding rural housing in 20 localities and ask villages to bid for funding in a similar fashion to the Cycling City/Cycling towns bidding process overseen by Cycling England three years ago. This could be overseen by the Homes and Communities Agency . A new housing scheme should meet the five principles outlined by the Rural Coalition in their "The rural Challenge" document along with a travel plan agreed with local transport officers to outline how car use could be minimised.

We also support the Planning Officers Society's proposal that both the Local Planning Authority and Parish council need to be involved in the planning of new settlements. Planning and transport officers need to adapt to meet the needs of a new more community minded planning system including employment and transport provision.

The Committee understands that the Government intends to announce further details of its plans for incentives "shortly" and would welcome comments on the adequacy and appropriateness of those incentives when the details are available

Incentives for communities

The Community Right to Build would allow those communities who want to increase their village by up 10% to do so more easily within the planning system. While this is welcome, it doesn't get round the major problem of how to fund the new building and the amount of professional advice and expertise required by local residents to achieve it. Only a small number of rural residents have the drive, inclination and long term stamina to undertake the arduous job of planning new housing in their community and getting local agreement. This may involve paying someone with local knowledge to co-ordinate a project of several years duration. However, the right person in the job could achieve far more than local housing. The right mixed development could transform a village.

Villages often rely on local farmers to give land free or cheaply which is an act of generosity to the community. A fair trade off is for some of the housing to be allocated to those who work or wish to work on the land or in vital local services/ businesses and for it to be affordable for local people in perpetuity .In addition the Government should offer to fund new model developments to the tune of 95% to make sure they happen.

Incentives for Councils

We understand that the Treasury are already concerned that the cost of the New Homes Bonus to be given to local councils would be too high. We consider that the sums involved are far too small to persuade a reluctant council to embark of allowing planning permission. It appears to be a dangerous precedent that smacks of the selling of planning permission.

The arrangements which should be put in place to ensure appropriate cooperation between planning authorities on matters formerly covered by regional spatial strategies(eg waste, minerals, flooding, the natural environment, renewable energy)

Producing a South West strategy for housing and the above matters for an area from Gloucester and Wiltshire down to the tip of Cornwall was never going to achieve effective decision making.

Planning, transport, waste etc are much more local issues and a more local grouping on a county or group of counties or travel to work area would be more sensible on an adhoc basis for each subject. In Bristol, we expect that the current West of England Partnership (the four authorities that used to be Avon County Council) will put itself forward as the Local Entreprise Partnership.

The adequacy of proposals already put forward by the Government, including a proposed duty to co-operate and the suggestion that Local Entreprise Partnerships may fulfil a planning function

We have not heard anything in the press about a proposed duty to co-operate so we are not sure what it is. We assume that the Government will not create any more quangos/ bodies due to the cost and that the Local Entreprise Partnerships will comprise the same councillors, officers and representatives of local business already involved in local partnership working (here the West of England Partnership). We are not happy with our current West of England Partnership as the three non-Bristol Executive members, disagree with our view that Greater Bristol needs an Integrated Transport Authority to improve our public transport system. However, joining strategic planning and transport in an ITA would seem to us to be a sensible move.

How the data and research collated by the Regional Local Authority Leaders' Boards should be made available to local authorities and what arrangements should be put in place to ensure effective updating of that research and collection of further research on matters crossing local authority boundaries

We are not aware of what detailed research was undertaken which would be of use to local councils. Very little of the public information produced regionally we have read would appear to be relevant as it was based on predictions now shown to be incorrect. Sharing of information should be undertaken on a case by case basis when it is useful to local councils. A final report outlining the achievements of the South West Regional Assembly and the South West Development Agency might help to inform future decision making.


Our standpoint 1.  The primary purpose of farmland/countryside is for food production not the building of large new housing estates

Green land is our ultimate finite resource and due to erosion of soil, desertification, expansion of cities and climate change, land for agriculture is reducing everywhere including the UK while population expands. The UK is only fed because other countries produce the bulk of our food .Our balance of trade will get worse as the prices of imported food,oil and raw materials rise.We can either develop a long term strategy for more food self sufficiency and more jobs in a less oil dependent agriculture or carry on in the hope that increased income from manufacturing exports and other services will somehow meet the increasing costs of imports of raw materials and food.

We consider that it is time for the Government to declare all farmland off limits for future housing development subject to exceptions of proven need where the expansion will create a "more sustainable" village or locality in terms of 1. services, 2. housing for a wider range of folk (particularly the young, old or those involved in rural employment particularly agriculture), 3. transport or 4. jobs.

These four critieria along with an assessment of the quality of the design and a micro-generation assessment could form a complete package for new model rural communities to be funded by the Government.

A blanket ban on housing development on farmland would force a rethink of our assessment and use of brownfield land in towns. There is a need for an urgent debate on the definition and use of brownfield land and how to achieve quality housing development at a higher density. A longer term assessment of economic trends in our towns and cities would enable us to identify potential brownfield earlier and plan local development better.

Our stand point 2.  Volume house building is no longer deliverable at previous prices as the price of new housing will increase sharply in the next decade. New models of housing development need to be adopted by the building, development and planning professions which uses brownfield land more efficiently and promotes mixed development

The future capacity of the building industry is limited by the cost and availability of building materials many of which are imported particularly steel, timber and concrete. All are affected by rising oil and transport costs.

The building and development industries needs clear Government policy and support to re-orient itself away from volume house building towards smaller quality developments using less land, housing renewal, repair and micro-generation in new and existing homes. Away from monolithic single use developments to more energy and land efficient mixed developments particularly in towns and towards car free housing developments which increase the patronage of local shops and local transport.

The previous Government set up a "Zero Carbon by 2016" mantra for the building industry with no clear and reasoned timetable of how to get to 2016 and no definition of the milestones for the industry to follow allowing it to train its workforce to meet that target. Setting carbon targets for an industry that has no way of tracking carbon imbedded in its imported materials is a nonsense. The only tracking/sustainability system that so far exists for our building industry is FSC timber promoted initially by the voluntary sector.

In Bristol previously a hotbed of development, all major development projects have now ground to a halt. Planning applications now proceeding are likely to be land grabbing of agricultural land in the event of a future economic upturn or by those who have the ready cash to fund development (the supermarkets) and don't have to borrow from the banks.

Our stand point 3.  We (the UK) have reached "peak everything". Those trends used by Government to indicate "economic growth (and health)" will be now be on downward curve due to lack of finance (Government and household) So planning and transport policy needs to adapt to the change and new indicators of a "sustainable and healthy" society adopted

It is clear to a growing number of professionals and members of the public that the "usual" indicators of economic growth/health are now on a downward trend. Jobs, car ownership, car use, home ownership and house prices, personal spending on travel and recreation and non-essential goods are all affected by the economic downturn.

Shortage of capital and bank lending has led to stagnation in the housing construction industry. Funding for big Government capital projects for school, hospitals and transport are coming to an end. We need a new set of guiding principles for planning and transport for recessionary times to come up with integrated policies to use the best of our now limited resources.

Our three guiding principles are "SMALL, GREEN and LOCAL" all principles which fit well with the Coalition's Government Big Society theme and spending limits. These principles can be used in a city like London or in the South West's towns and countryside to allocate scarce resources. The Bristol public are fed up with the pressures of constant development and threats to green spaces. A longer term, more organic, better informed approach with emphasis on quality and community involvement will benefit both town and country.

September 2010

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