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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


Facing the uncertainties of London’s housing market
Providing sufficient housing, especially genuinely affordable housing, is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing London. Increasingly, there is concern that the younger generation of talented professionals will be driven away from London, or avoid London from the outset, because the city is unable to deliver the significant level of homes required, leaving house prices and rents sky high. In June 2016, the average price of a property in the UK was £213,9271, compared to London where this was over double, at £472,0002.This leaves no doubt as to why home ownership in London is becoming an increasingly unrealistic aspiration for many younger professionals – something which may mean businesses find it challenging to recruit and retain the people they need to grow and prosper. In this vein, Cambridge has been crowned the best UK city to work in, whilst London did not even make the top 20 due to the high cost of living and the competitive job market. Towns and cities such as Nottingham, Leeds and Reading however ranked third, fourth and seventh retrospectively, due to their competitive salaries and job prospects, combined with a significantly lower cost of living3.London needs to address the lack of housing and in particular the lack of affordable housing as a matter of priority in order to remain attractive to young professionals and even established professionals alike. However, more worryingly, whilst affordability (or ‘unaffordability’) was once a London-focused issue, there is evidence to suggest the crisis is spreading across the UK, with Manchester and other larger northern cities at the forefront. Recent Local Government Association  (LGA) research 4 suggests that even if the UK achieved full employment by 2024, around four million people would still need access to some level of affordable housing. Londoners may be fortunate in that the relatively new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has made it clear from the outset that building more homes is a top priority for him. In particular, a 50% affordable housing push was Khan’s headline policy during his campaign to City Hall.Khan has now been Mayor of London for around 4 months and whilst Brexit has  undoubtedly made his start a challenging one, what have we seen from him so far and how could his intentions help London and Londoners?Khan’s initial pledge was that all new housing developments should provide at least 50% of homes which are ‘affordable’ – this pledge however has quickly become a “long-term strategic target” as Khan looks to calm fears that this would make schemes unviable. Now, a lower percentage of 35% seems more likely. It is anticipated that draft supplementary planning guidance will be issued this autumn to provide policy detail that addresses the issue of viability and that includes a benchmark for developers to ensure 35% of homes in new developments are affordable. However, is a 35% target anything ground breaking? A number of London Boroughs, such as Hillingdon, Hounslow and Croydon (amongst many more), already have 35%, 40% and 50% targets in place (respectively).Despite this, Khan’s commitment to boosting the supply of housing is clear. The Mayor recently released the first details of his plans to set up a 'Homes for Londoners' team at City Hall to oversee homebuilding in the capital, tasked with seeking to boost the delivery of new and affordable housing. To assist, Khan is recruiting experts to scrutinise viability assessments. Khan will also lead a new 'Homes for Londoners' Board, comprising developers, housing associations and London Boroughs. This Board will oversee the delivery of housing, land assembly and investment decisions, and will draw on expertise from across both the housing and property sectors to help develop new policy for London.Khan has also recently given the go-ahead to Transport for London (TfL) to sell sites at considerably lower than market value in order to assist in improving the viability of schemes, in the hope of driving up the ability of developers to provide a higher number of affordable homes. However, whether this ‘saving’ will actually be seen through to an increased level of affordable homes is something which we will have to wait to find out.Whilst Khan has clearly made a positive start as Mayor of London, moving forwards, what can we expect from him in relation to housing delivery? Given the uncertain economic backdrop, it will be more important than ever that viable and commercially deliverable housing schemes are prioritised. Despite the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, Khan may be fortunate in that, whilst politically opposed, the relatively new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has also made clear that housing growth and the delivery of affordable housing, are amongst her key priorities, building towards what she is promoting as a ‘one nation vision’ and ‘social justice’. This political will is something which Khan will need to harness in a bid to assist with his own agenda of boosting housing supply. The two opposing politicians will therefore have to work in tandem to achieve increased housing delivery in London, something which they both state is a key priority, in a pragmatic and delivery-focussed manner to assist in developing a strategy for the housing crisis facing a great many people wanting and needing to live in London.The capital has a real opportunity to be at the forefront of developing initiatives to overcome unaffordability that could lead the way for other UK towns and cities. Other cities may therefore have a lot to learn from London, but not yet. [1][2][3][4]