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The First Metro Mayor for the West of England
Conservative Tim Bowles, has now been sworn in as the first Metro Mayor for the West of England Combined Authority (encompassing Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire) and is tasked with leading the delivery of a Devolution Deal worth £900m. Addressing the housing shortage was one of the Metro Mayor’s key priorities during the election campaign. With barely two weeks having passed since he took office, and with purdah prior to the General Election, it could be some time before we have clarity on how this is likely to be achieved. This blog considers some of the key challenges that lie ahead in planning for more homes across the region. It is generally agreed that we need more houses across the region to address a worsening supply and affordability crisis. The emerging Joint Spatial Plan (JSP), which also includes North Somerset, goes some way to tackle the issue by providing the framework to deliver up to 105,000 new homes over the next 20 years. The consultation report on the JSP shows that the development industry considers this level of growth to be insufficient – particularly to address the desperate shortfall of affordable housing. Against this backdrop, it is encouraging that the Metro Mayor has pledged to develop a strategy to deliver more new homes. The biggest question of course is ‘where will these new homes will be built?’ The Metro Mayor has stated that he will work to ease the pressure for greenfield development and development within Green Belt and take a ‘brownfield first’ approach. However, for a region where Green Belt accounts for nearly 50% of the land and tightly constrains existing urban areas, it will not be possible to say ‘no’ to Green Belt release if the supply of new housing is to be significantly increased - particularly when capacity on brownfield sites is limited; viability more challenging; and the lead-in times for delivery longer.  To tackle the housing crisis the Metro Mayor should be ambitious in adopting a pro-growth and permissive approach which supports the delivery of open market and affordable housing in a range of suitable locations and across a portfolio of sites including brownfield and greenfield. This will involve difficult decisions because any robust plan for housing growth must include a full and proper assessment of the Green Belt. If not, there is a real risk that housing needs across the region will not be met. After May 2018, the Metro Mayor will have powers of strategic planning, including the ability to adopt a statutory spatial development strategy for the Combined Authority Area, which could act as the framework for managing planning across the region. To provide certainty for the development industry, there is need for clarity about how a spatial development strategy will sit with the emerging JSP. A principal issue will be to ensure that there is no delay in the delivery of strategic housing sites that are currently being planned for through the JSP. One of the key challenges in managing sustainable housing growth across the region will be the delivery of significant infrastructure improvements to address years of under-investment. The Metro Mayor recognises that an efficient and integrated transport system will help to unlock further growth across the region and has promised to work with a range of stakeholders to improve infrastructure through projects such as the revival of suburban rail links, enhanced park and ride provision, better cycle routes and bus improvement measures. The Joint Transport Plan outlines a raft of ambitious transport improvements including new rapid bus and light rail links, improvements to the road networks and the extension of the MetroWest project. The cost of delivering these projects runs in to billions of pounds - far beyond what is available through the Devolution Deal. But what we do now have is an immediate source of funding and a Metro Mayor with strategic transport planning powers to invest in some of the transport priorities that have been identified. What the Metro Mayor needs to deliver is a clear, long-term strategy for a better functioning and integrated transport system which not only improves residents’ access to jobs and opportunities but also demonstrates how development sites for new homes can be opened up. Strategic planning for transport alongside housing growth will lead to more sustainable patterns of development and ease congestion. The Metro Mayor will be one of four decision makers - chairing a Cabinet made up of the leaders of the three Councils (two Conservative and one Labour) including Bristol’s elected Mayor. This is positive because it will ensure that the benefits from the Devolution Deal will be shared across the region. But political diversity will mean that the Metro Mayor can only address strategic growth by cutting through party politics.  Another political consideration will be how best to work with North Somerset, which last year voted against the creation of a Metro Mayor and is not directly included in the new administration. North Somerset forms a part of the functional Wider Bristol Housing Market Area (not least because 22% of its residents in work commute in to Bristol) and will have a key role to play in solving the regions’ housing crisis including Bristol’s unmet need. Taking an inclusive approach to engagement and involvement in decisions that impact upon and help North Somerset will, therefore, be crucial.   Despite these issues, what remains beyond doubt is that the Devolution Deal provides a great opportunity for the West of England to maintain its strengths and unlock the full potential for well planned sustainable housing growth. Image credit: Paul Raftery

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