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Permitted to meet housing need?


A failure to add an affordable housing obligation to 'prior approval' office to residential developments puts pressure on local housing authorities, says Bristol's director of planning Zoe Willcox

Zoe WillcoxA major objective for Bristol is building successful places with a diverse mix of housing types and tenures. There’s an ongoing housing shortage in Bristol so we are very conscious of ensuring that the supply of housing is increased - in particular affordable homes.
Since the prior approval rules came into effect in May 2013, in Bristol we have approved 50 applications with the potential to deliver more than 1,000 residential units, mainly in the city centre. The level of applications surprised us as we had already taken a positive approach to the conversion of obsolete offices to residential and other uses so we hadn’t expected such a suppressed demand.
The fact that prior approval has meant there is no ability on the part of the local planning authority to secure affordable housing has clearly incentivised submissions. This is in the context of economic viability on city centre flatted schemes securing a minimum 15 per cent affordable housing – even in the current market.

"The prior approval process is doing nothing to contribute to our affordable housing needs in Bristol"

We are concerned that the prior approval process is doing nothing to contribute to our affordable housing needs in Bristol, where average house prices are eight times the average income and there are 14,000 people currently on our housing waiting list. It also doesn’t address other locally set requirements on sustainability, which is particularly important for us as European Green Capital for 2015, or the standard of accommodation provided.
We don’t know if all the 1,000 homes will be delivered, but if they are it will result in the net loss of 71,000 square metres of office floor space. Sustained losses could harm the supply of employment floor space with bad implications for business and economic development. But in Bristol, it is currently low-grade, vacant office floor space that is being converted and predominantly where there is a desire to see investment and regeneration.
We are monitoring the impact of all this and working alongside Bristol property agents to ensure that new homes are in sustainable locations with supporting infrastructure and that valuable office accommodation that is capable of continuing occupation is not lost. If we start seeing detrimental trends emerging then, as the planning authority, we will need to step in to restrict future conversions.
Bristol welcomes the government’s recent proposal to amend the existing permitted development right to allow consideration of the principle of losing significant strategically important office accommodation.
Zoe Willcox is Bristol City Council's director of planning and sustainable development


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