Knocking on Whitehall’s door – national planning policy changes

Bristol is changing. New homes, new workplaces and a new skyline. Judging by the cranes towering over the city more is to come. The mayor’s vision for Bristol has been a significant influence but the parameters for local policies and decisions are set by national planning policy. Through our working groups, we are very familiar with how national planning policy filters through to decisions on development proposals and, as customers of the outcomes, are well-positioned to judge its effectiveness. So, when, in the run up to Christmas, government published a long-awaited consultation on national planning policy we took the opportunity to respond.

Overall, we support the government’s policy objectives as set in chapter 2. We have welcomed the stated desire “to make good design and placemaking that reflects community preferences a key objective of the planning system”. This has notably been missing for several years in Bristol, both in how planning policy is prepared and the quality of development that secures planning permission.

We have stressed the importance of this policy objective influencing all national planning policy, and that it should apply to all locations. At the moment, ministers are, in effect, devising a two-tiered planning system. Most places will have some flexibility in whether and how they meet their nationally-set housing target. Bristol sits in a grouping of the 20 largest towns and cities in England which will be expected to meet the target plus what’s called a 35% uplift. This extra, added to the previously set target, is justified by government because, they say, places like Bristol have available infrastructure and building more homes on brownfield sites here can help to reduce the need to travel and contribute to productivity, regeneration and levelling up (see Hansard, 9 January 2023). Sadly, there’s more than a suspicion the policy is heavily influenced by party politics and is part of the settlement with Conservative Party backbenchers reached in the context of the rebellion you may have read about in the press at the end of last year.

We have, therefore, objected to the arbitrary 35% uplift to housing targets and warned it will mean the character and quality of placemaking in our city, and community design preferences, will get less attention. We have stressed that in Bristol, just as much as in the shires, our local communities also want in the words of the consultation “beautiful new development, in a local plan shaped by the community, supported by appropriate new infrastructure, that enhances the environment, creating new neighbourhoods while respecting existing ones”.

We very much agree with government that “planning for housing is not just about numbers” and have argued this should also apply in Bristol. In our view, planning should look at the needs of the community in the round and be underpinned by environmental responsibility. As the consultation document says, “Ensuring that enough land is allocated to provide the right homes in the right places that our communities need, alongside other economic, social and environmental needs, is a central task of planning.”

On the climate emergency, we have welcomed the government’s commitment to review national planning policy to “make sure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as ly as possible”. However, given our local ambition to be carbon neutral by 2030, we expressed our disappointment this commitment from the government’s Net Zero Strategy, published in October 2021 (with a similar promise made in the planning white paper in 2020), is taking so long to be delivered.

Full Bristol Civic Society response.

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