Local Group Name - Campaign to Protect Rural England

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Bristol region: as green as it claims, or gone west?

Thursday, 22 November 2018 10:12

The current proposals from the West of England Combined Authority – the so-called Joint Spatial Plan - are a worrying continuation of business of usual.

Bristol and the wider West of England ‘city region’ (the former county of Avon) should be a fruitful area for a greener, smarter approach to housebuilding and development than we’ve seen in recent years. Bristol is the birthplace of the National Cycling Network, it was European Green Capital in 2015, and in recent years significant strides have been made to re-use derelict brownfield land and regenerate the centre of the city. Bath is unique as the whole city has been designated a World Heritage Site. The well-established Green Belt has been critical to maintaining a sense of the countryside in and around both cities. The Forest of Avon initiative has sought to increase tree cover in, and public access to, the area’s countryside and has been celebrated by well-known local artist Richard Long.

When one digs deeper, though, the kind of growth that has recently taken place in the city-region has caused major problems for the environment.

The current proposals from the West of England Combined Authority – the so-called Joint Spatial Plan - are a worrying continuation of business of usual. In short:

  • Housing is being planned on a large scale on greenfield sites remote from town and city centres at locations such as Banwell (1,900 homes), Churchill (2,800 homes), Buckover, near Thornbury Buckover 3,000, and Charfield 1,200. Despite pledges to protect the Green Belt, the Plan proposes to build 8,500 houses on current Green Belt land. These and many of the other identified growth areas lack good public transport links, and not enough of the proposed housing is affordable.
  • There are no meaningful commitments to improving the city-region’s natural environment. Initiatives such as the Forest of Avon have withered on the vine and nothing sufficient is emerging to replace them.
  • Despite Bristol’s ‘green image’, the city-region has some of the country’s worst traffic congestion and air pollution blackspots. A significant shift in how people move around is needed. But instead the Plan proposes spending £3.5 billion on new roads in open countryside such as the Banwell/Sandford bypasses and a dual carriageway from the outskirts of Bristol to the city’s airport.

The Plan has taken a lot longer than expected to finalise, mainly because so many of the proposals lack robustness. There will still be scope for local people to have their say a recently announced consultation, with comments due on the 7th January 2019. CPRE is pressing for what we think is a better approach. In particular:

  • The quality of new housing must improve, and we include in ‘quality’ more affordable housing – up to at least half social housing or otherwise affordable to people on average local incomes or below. The Plan has some welcome aspirations to improve design quality which we support. New housing schemes must be better linked to existing public transport networks and facilities. Some greenfield housing will be needed, but more should be done to regenerate existing towns – particularly areas with concentrations of deprivation such as Norton Radstock and Weston-super-Mare. 
  • Car usage must be decisively and robustly tamed. Currently the Plan has aspirations towards ‘mass transit’ but it is not clear where or in what form this will take. First there must be a planned public transport structure that will link both the areas of existing housing and the new proposed areas, in order to reduce existing traffic as well as growth. The return of trams to Bath and Bristol should be seriously considered. Alongside this, there is also scope to learn from Oxford and take radical action on air pollution by banning polluting vehicles altogether from the city centres.
  • We should cherish and invest in the area’s countryside for the value of its farming, public footpath network and nature reserves. Reviving the Forest of Avon and the good work it did would be a great start, and there is also scope to support the exciting new Bathscape project that aims to improve the lesser known landscapes of the World Heritage City.

We need to build more housing in the West of England. But a lower target, with clearer location criteria, would be more realistic than the 105,000 being proposed in the Plan. A better-planned West of England will however mean many more genuinely affordable homes, well connected to an excellent public transport network, and a more beautiful and accessible countryside.

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