Late but still arriving – one more year for housing target to be met

Today’s blog post comes from Councillor Paul Smith, Cabinet Member for Housing.

This year we are on track to deliver 500 new affordable homes in the city. This would be the first time since 2010 that Bristol has brought forward this many new affordable homes (for comparison, in 2013/14, Bristol only built 102).

Yet while I’m proud of this achievement against the odds, I’m disappointed that it means our stretching ambition to build 800 affordable homes a year by 2020 has been delayed by a year.

Why haven’t we hit this target? Covid-19 has had the single most substantial effect on construction across the city and there have been additional causes of delay. So I want to set out why it’s next year, rather than this, that we’ll hit this deliberately ambitious target.

Firstly, we have high standards. We don’t count “pretend” affordable homes with a 10-20% market price discount (still out of reach for many families). We could have hit the target if we didn’t care about the long-term impact of what was being built, but we’ve always been clear we wouldn’t build poor quality homes just to hit a target. They have to be the right homes in the right place, built to a good design and technical standard. To take an example of one area which would by now have delivered 1,000 homes (with around 300 affordable): Bedminster Green. Sites kept changing ownership as instead of profiting from building homes, developers were making their money by selling on the land. To ensure good design and consistency and to respond to local concerns, we put in place a masterplan for the area. This has taken extra time but it has allowed us to filter out schemes that don’t meet our standards.

Secondly, our flagship scheme at Hengrove Park has faced a form of trench warfare: a call-in as soon as it was started, extended consultation to meet residents’ concerns, a councillors’-led challenge at planning committee, and when it finally received planning permission, it was referred by an opposition councillor to the Secretary of State to cause even more delay. All of these delays have an impact on our city. The longer it takes for large-scale developments like this to be approved, the longer families on our waiting lists have to wait for an affordable home to call their own.

Thirdly, some of our housing association partners have not moved as quickly with schemes as they had expected. One major association ground to a halt as the result of a merger, another got bogged down in a large development arguing about renewable energy requirements, another reached the end of its borrowing capability. Some have been excellent partners but unfortunately their collective delivery has not matched their aspiration to build 600 affordable homes per year by 2020.

As with all developments, there is also a story to tell for each one.   These can be as diverse as slow worms, bats, badgers, private ownership of access to sites, financing problems for some projects, Japanese knotweed, highways issues, legal disputes over land ownership and borders and asbestos buried in the ground.

However, we remain on track, optimistic and determined. We have built up a council housing programme of over 1,200 homes: the largest council housing development programme in this city for over 35 years. When we add the pipeline of projects our housing company Goram Homes is working on, this rises to almost 2,500 council homes to be built in Bristol. Housing associations are also picking up speed and their programmes are growing with plans for more than 1,500 genuinely affordable homes coming forward. We also now have the largest community-led housing sector in the country, with plans for around 600 homes at an advanced stage and ambitions for almost as many again in future years.

Have we missed the target during a global health pandemic? Yes we have. But if we have no further lockdowns, we will hit it next year. And with the work we have done over the last four years we will be able to sustain that level of development well into the future. That means so many more families will be able to find an affordable home here in Bristol.

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