Council leader defends plan for thousands of homes on fields

The leader of South Gloucestershire Council has defended a plan to build thousands of new homes on green fields. The district has a dire shortage of housing and the new Local Plan sets out where over 20,000 new homes should be built, including more than 7,000 on undeveloped land.

South Gloucestershire needs 20,490 new homes to be built by 2040 to meet its growing housing demand, according to the council’s draft new Local Plan. But some locals are unhappy about the proposed decision to build more than a third on what’s called ‘greenfield land’.

Councillor Claire Young, the Liberal Democrat leader of South Gloucestershire Council, said there isn’t enough brownfield land (space that’s already been built on) in the district. Building some new homes on the green belt (protected countryside near existing towns) also means fewer people having to rely on cars.

Speaking to John Darvall on BBC Radio Bristol, she also promised that a huge chunk of these new homes will be affordable, and council bosses will try to avoid past problems with a lack of public services in new housing estates, such as schools and shops.

Cllr Young said: “In our recent Local Plan consultation we looked at a number of different options, and one of those was no green belt release. That pushes all of the development in South Gloucestershire to the outer fringes. There are a number of problems with that.

“Firstly, it builds in commuting, and we know a lot of that will be by car if you’re coming from the villages and the outer areas of South Gloucestershire. We’re trying to put things in a sustainable place. And also, it would be dependent on National Highways making major upgrades to Junction 14 of the M5, which we know isn’t in their plans.

“Then people say why don’t you build on brownfield land. Well because there simply isn’t enough of it to build the number of houses we need. We’ve looked at that and we’ve maximised that, and we’ve found more brownfield sites than have previously been identified. If people have other brownfield sites they haven’t brought forward yet, we would be delighted to hear about them. But that still leaves us with 7,000 to 8,000 homes that need to go elsewhere.”

Elsewhere in South Glos, when giant housing developments have been built, the first residents have sometimes found themselves with few or no shops, schools or GP surgeries nearby. This includes places like Bradley Stoke, Lyde Green or north Yate. The council leader was asked how new public services can be delivered alongside new homes.

“We’re trying to avoid relying on big-ticket infrastructure,” Cllr Young said. “We will put policies in place to require developers to contribute to infrastructure improvements, and we’re trying to do our best to bring forward infrastructure in a timely way. We’re making it clear to developers what infrastructure they’ll need to provide.

“We’re increasingly looking at ways to make that not car-dependent and we’re looking to cluster our homes close to existing services so they can be accessed by cycling and walking routes, and promoting better bus services — rather than putting them, as the ‘no green belt’ option would have had us doing, along way from services.”

Only 5,000 of the new homes will be classed as affordable, according to the Local Plan, and there are doubts the council can even persuade developers to build that many. Across the country developers often tell councils they can’t build housing with the level of affordable housing asked for, because it wouldn’t be commercially viable.

This then creates a dilemma for the local council: deciding whether it’s best to press ahead with any housing rather than none, or hold out for more new homes and hope enough of them will be affordable. And in South Glos, the draft new Local Plan increases the affordable housing requirement on developers from 35 per cent of new homes up to 40 per cent.

“We’re pushing developers to provide a greater proportion of affordable homes,” Cllr Young said. “I appreciate we’ve had situations in South Gloucestershire where people have seen developers negotiate that down. But we’re putting in our plan that we want developers to provide 40 per cent affordable housing, and we’ll hold them to that.

“Actually we’ve already got a good track record of delivering affordable homes, we’re one of the best in the country. We’ve actually got a very high proportion of the affordable homes that are being delivered nationally. In 2022–23 there were 714 affordable homes delivered, of which 529 were for social rent and 184 for shared ownership. We’re trying to push that further.”

By Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporter