Think global, act regional

While urban campaigners cry “save the trees” to halt re-development of city centre car parks, volume housebuilders are covering fields and woods on the far side of the greenbelt with little boxes for commuters to meet housing demand.

This Economist story is a great view into the new car-dependent suburban sprawl growing fast around Aylesbury, but it — and this passage in particular — could equally describe the state of development here in the west:

Britain is often said to be building too few houses, but that is not the whole story. Imagine a balloon that is being gripped by a pair of hands. The balloon is steadily inflating as the population grows and the national government nags local authorities to build new homes. Meanwhile the hands, representing planning restrictions and local NIMBYs, try to constrain any expansion. In many places the hands prevail, and little or nothing gets built. But in parts the balloon bulges spectacularly, resulting in many more homes than local people need.

The balloon analogy articulates rather neatly something I’ve been trying to express for a while about the state of housing discourse in Bristol. Our problem is campaigners — many of them genuine and sincere environmentalists and conservationists no doubt — who “think global and act local”.

Right now in Bristol we’ve got self-proclaimed environmentalists and conservationists fighting to save three different surface car parks, all of them in walkable neighbourhoods close to the city centre, from re-development into mid-rise mix-use residential — all because the parking spaces are shaded by a few trees which might have to go. Car parks for god’s sake. One of the so-called green groups is even running a campaign against describing car parks as “brownfield sites”. Meanwhile, people are objecting to a derelict petrol station on a trunk bus route being replaced with a block of flats because they worry about “overdevelopment” and the residents contributing to traffic congestion. We’ve got people objecting to the replacement of a failed retail park of all things — a giant car park surrounded by closed-down big barn leisure and retail businesses, the kind of development that in the US is called a ‘strip mall’, the absolute apotheosis of environmentally destructive land use — with a new residential neighbourhood. There isn’t a development proposal in the city that doesn’t have somebody calling for us to think of nature and the climate crisis.

Aerial photo of Hengrove Leisure Park
A failed strip mall: somehow saving this became an conservationist cause and nobody stopped to ask what the fuck?

We’re squeezing the balloon in Bristol, and all around us car-dependent housing is popping out in Gloucestershire and Somerset. Vast new estates of little boxes just like the ones described in the Economist story are spreading relentlessly over the farmland and woods around Yate and Thornbury. Sleepy villages are engorged into dormitory towns — with none of the facilities of towns — at Paulton and Timsbury, Wrington and Yatton. Weston-Super-Mare is washing its way inland at a rate of knots. At least the people who have been priced out of Bristol to live instead in Newport have a big former steel works to supply their housing development land, but whether they’re being squeezed up or down the M5 or across the Severn Bridge, they’re all getting into their cars to commute back to Bristol for their established work, family and social lives.

Despite the claims that are becoming popular among the more severe tin-foil hat cases among the paranoid tendency of Bristol local politics — that Bristol’s housing crisis is a fiction invented by the construction industry, or all caused by foreign investors deliberately keeping homes empty for some sinister reason, or driven entirely by immigrants and incomers — demand for housing is driving development whether we like it or not. Trees are being chopped down in their hundreds, and thousands of tonnes of concrete are being poured over hundreds of hectares of fields to supply housing to meet that demand. They’re just being built on the far side of the green belt, so “act local” Bristolian campaigners apparently either don’t notice or don’t mind.

They’ll complain when all the people who have been displaced out to those new estates get in their cars and all try to drive down the M32 and the Portway and the Ashton Road simultaneously on a Monday morning. But they won’t see the connection. They’ll just be glad there isn’t an “overbearing” block of flats a short walk away from the city centre on the Bath Road contributing to the traffic chaos, and there are trees in the car parks to keep the commuters cool.

The fact is, Bristol is far from overdeveloped. City centre car parks are a bad thing, and building flats on them, where shops and services, employment and leisure facilities will be within walking distance of homes, is a good thing. Replacing petrol stations with housing along major public transport corridors, providing the critical mass needed to drive a positive feedback loop in service quality, is a brilliant thing. Demolishing motor-centric strip malls to meet housing demand is an absolutely fantastic thing.

Transport is now our biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and these are exactly the things we need to be doing to drive modal shift and enable us to live with far fewer motor vehicles. Campaigners halting the right kinds of developments in their back yards are not preventing environmental destruction by preventing change. We can never prevent change. We can only try to guide it in the right direction, and pick the best options available to us.

Postscript: abolish South Gloucestershire

I wanted to make one point in this post and hammer it without getting distracted by the complexities, but there is one that on this blog always needs to be said: a big part of the problem is South Gloucestershire. When it comes to development, South Gloucestershire has always been a parasite on the side of Bristol foiling attempts to make a more sustainable city.

Throughout its existence, and the existence of its predecessor districts, the purpose of South Gloucestershire has been to parasitise Bristol — to use its abundant green fields to build shopping centres and strip malls, big barn warehouse estates and cheap motorway office parks to take business rates revenue from the city centre. And it can do the same with cheap sprawling housing — and let Bristol pay for all the traffic congestion it causes.

Everyone recognises that the local government structure in this region makes no sense, but it’s too often dismissed as one of those harmless English eccentricities. It’s not harmless. Abolish South Gloucestershire.

New housing rising beside a trunk bus route, with the Somerset green belt in the distance.

Think global, act regional

While urban campaigners cry “save the trees” to halt re-development of city centre car parks, volume housebuilders are covering fields […]

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