In our recent discussion with the Council Executive, you asked me to get in touch with details of the changes which I believe need to be incorporated into North Somerset Council (NSC)’s new local plan, so I’m following up as you asked. I should add that I have discussed and agreed these points with Councillor Patrick Keating, so we are sending this letter as a joint, cross-party set of proposals.
I should start by saying that you’ve done exactly the right thing by abandoning the old Joint Spatial Plan (JSP). Starting again creates an important opportunity to finally get things right and, although there were plenty of positive ideas in the JSP which I hope will reappear in the new local plan, there were also some glaring problems that could easily have made matters worse, rather than better. The changes which will be needed to get the new local plan right are:
Abandon the ‘Garden Village’ between Churchill and Congresbury
We need to build more homes, but this proposal to concrete over the countryside isn’t the right way to do it. The proposal already faces significant opposition from local residents who are rightly concerned they will degrade the rural character of the area, are environmentally inferior because they will concrete over green fields and increase commuting, and represent worse value for money because they will require a great deal of costly new infrastructure.
The better alternative is to become much more ambitious about ‘Build Up Not Out’ with four or five story townhouses (rather than high-rise towers) in existing towns like Weston, ideally with pre-approved planning if they comply with a new North Somerset Council-produced design code so they match their surroundings and make the townscape more beautiful. It would bring fresh investment and regeneration to our town centre; inject fresh life into local coffee shops, bars and restaurants by keeping more of the town centre ‘alive after five’ when shops have closed; make better use of existing transport and social infrastructure; and be greener because fewer fields would be concreted over, and because people could live closer to their jobs which would reduce commuting. It would also allow you to re-argue the case for Bristol (large parts of which are only two stories tall, outside a few areas like Clifton or the centre) absorbing a much higher share of the expected new housing need in the greater-Bristol travel-to-work area, rather than most of it being imposed as urban sprawl on the neighbouring unitary authorities like North Somerset.
I hope your new local plan will be bold in this area. In the previous plan, only a fraction of the new housing was proposed for the centre of towns and there is a great deal more potential capacity for creating good-looking homes to match the ones which already exist in pockets such as Clifton, parts of Weston or more widely in Bath.
Face The M5 Issue Squarely
We must face the central problem of congestion on the M5 to the north of Weston, between J21 and J20. The rejected plan was largely silent about this, and instead proposed upgrades to the A38 between J22 and the airport, plus a J21a which only handled southbound traffic (ie to and from Taunton or Exeter, but not Bristol). Apart from a few (very welcome) proposals for better train services as a greener alternative to cars, the JSP was largely silent about improving capacity to handle the ever-growing volumes of traffic between Bristol and Weston, and the ever-worsening congestion between J21 and J20. This is one of the most important infrastructure problems south of Bristol so, for the successor plan to be credible, it has to face this issue squarely. I’m pleased to report that, at my request, the Roads Minister recently invited North Somerset Council to be more ambitious with plans in this area specifically, so the door is clearly open to a substantially-revised approach.
I should also add that, since it is essential to improve M5 capacity between J21 and J20 to handle the existing congestion anyway, it may also create better and much more cost-effective solutions for the expected increases in traffic from planned new homes around Nailsea and Backwell, and from Bristol airport too (under their existing plans, regardless of whether their additional expansion is approved or not). At the moment these developments will all increase congestion through North Somerset’s rural villages and narrow country roads, but nearby extra capacity on the M5 could provide you and local residents with cheaper and more popular answers to at least some of these emerging new problems too.
New Green Belt
We need a new section of Green Belt to cover the entire area of countryside south of the existing green belt and inland from any flood risks, down to the top of the AONB. This will create a stable, long-term level of protection for villages like Banwell, Sandford, Congresbury, Langford and Churchill, to stop the relentless planning applications from opportunistic developers on green field sites which are creating creeping urban sprawl.
I am delighted that, at long last, we have an opportunity to get this built with support from Banwell Parish Council. Given the longstanding traffic jams around the ‘Banwell narrows’, plus the established plans for housebuilding in nearby villages, it is needed more than ever. But we must not allow the coronavirus lockdown to derail the project. I hope you will be able to reassure me and other local residents by publishing a solid project plan, including deadline dates for each stage of the work, as soon as possible.
MP for Weston-super-Mare
Councillor for Blagdon & Churchill Ward