In late April, Mayoral Hustings began in Bristol, as our minds turn to the role that George Ferguson has played in our city over the last four years, and what the next successful candidate may bring. Housing, as in London, remains a major issue for those running and, most importantly, it’s acknowledged that it is the affordability of new homes that continues to be a huge constraint to Bristol’s economic growth and success. This continues to be a significant concern for the property industry and, even more importantly, for the wider business community.
The hustings, hosted by Business South West, Institute of Directors South West and the Bristol Junior Chamber, were the largest of their kind in the run up to the elections, with a business audience of over 300 people. Hosted by Dave Harvey, BBC Points West presenter, whose amusing and knowledgeable presence helped focus the event, the proceedings began with the panel responding in respect of their favoured three measures proposed to deliver housing. All quickly acknowledged that there is no single “silver-bullet” solution to the crisis, but the consensus was that we have to start working together to solve Bristol’s growing housing crisis, which involves working collaboratively across the four West of England local authorities.
One candidate suggested that we need to build 85,000 new homes in order to solve the city’s current crisis. Research that we have conducted, however, suggests the figure is closer to 150,000 homes. But the numbers game is a dangerous one, as the Mayoral debate in London is proving, and therefore perhaps not the most useful place to hang your hat as a candidate.
From the audience, I raised the question of why Bristol City Council is not pushing forward with the 100 hectares of Council-owned land in the south of Bristol that has been allocated for new homes as part of Bristol’s adopted Local Plan. Personally, I feel it is morally unacceptable that this land has not been brought forward sooner. Despite agreeing it needed to, none of the candidates could provide an answer as to why, or how long it would take for this to happen. Marvin Rees, the Labour candidate, instead flipped the light onto Labour’s favoured theme of ‘Land Banking’. The exquisite irony of this, given Bristol City Council’s position, was not lost on myself, or other members of the audience.
The question of whether planning is a barrier to development provoked strong debate, with George Ferguson, the current Mayor, disputing the reality of this as well as the general myth that Bristol is a difficult place to develop – a myth that all agreed was there and needed to be addressed.
The use of modern methods of construction and off-site prefabrication, or self-build homes was also discussed as an opportunity to do things differently and look at alternative options, both regionally and nationally – but will any of the candidates have the strength to really make this happen?
All but one candidate was in favour of wider devolution of power, with the extra income the deal could generate, as well as extra borrowing power and a more united way of working across the four authorities seen as major positives for the city. Time will tell as to whether the devolution deal is agreed, but we cannot continue to work in the same way, or things will simply never change. If devolution brings a solution to the region’s biggest issues then this is something we should welcome with open arms.
As to my favoured candidate, I can’t possibly say, but it is refreshing to see that they are each focused on tackling Bristol’s housing crisis, ensuring that more Bristol families have a chance of owning a home of their own – and are open to considering innovative approaches to solving the crisis.
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