It doesn’t seem more than five minutes since we received the news that the numbers of houses and new jobs to be created in the district over the next few years had been agreed in the key document, the Core Strategy for Bath and North East Somerset.
There were many lively debates. Some people arguing we should have been more ambitious, whilst others raised concerns about the potential damage that new developments would have on the environment. However, in the end a compromise was reached with which most sides were broadly happy and we thought we could stop talking about the subject for a while at least.
So you may be surprised to learn that only a few months on and the four local authorities that make up the West of England – Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Councils have announced they are working together to prepare a new planning strategy for the whole area.
With its snappy title, “The West of England Joint Strategic Planning Strategy” will aim to identify the overall numbers of houses and jobs that should be accommodated and potentially controversially, where they should go. The rules of engagement say the plan should take into account the special character and valued assets of our environment. Precisely what that will turn out to mean remains to be seen.
I am pretty confident the process will generate political heat at some stage but I am more concerned with the dilemma it will present to the business community and what our attitude should be.
There is an extremely detailed process to be gone through and I may be jumping a number of hurdles, but I firmly believe one very plausible scenario is that in the end the work will discover that Bristol needs more houses but it doesn’t have the space to build them. In that case the Strategy will inevitably look to neighbouring areas to help out. It wouldn’t take much imagination to suppose that one of the suggestions might be that many more houses could be built to meet the demand somewhere around the current edge of Whitchurch or at Hick’s Gate.
If that were the case there could be a range of responses. Let me outline at least two. The first is that we put aside any local interests and instead concentrate on the big picture of what the long term future is for the whole of the West of England. With that perspective this looks like a great idea – with more homes for more people doing more jobs and increasing overall prosperity.
The second is that we take a more parochial view and respond by saying this would be disastrous – reducing the green space between Bristol and Keynsham, doing little to contribute to the economic prosperity of Bath and North East Somerset and in fact turning part of our district into a dormitory which does no more than provide houses for people who would work, do their shopping and spend their leisure time in Bristol.
There are a huge number of variables to be taken into account, many more variations of responses and it will be terribly difficult to work out what the best solution will be. However, as is usually the case, we will have a chance to make our views known and I encourage business people to do that because the outcome of this process will have a significant impact on our district.