Copy of letter sent to Council Leader and Executive Member in response to the new Local Plan’s ‘Choices’ document

Below is a copy of the letter sent to Council Leader Donald Davies and Executive Member James Tonkin:

I saw the recently-released ‘North Somerset Local Plan 2038: Choices for the Future’ document and wanted to get in touch with a response. There are several  areas where I’d strongly support the direction in which the Council is heading but, equally, others where I fear it could make current problems worse. 

‘Garden Villages’ (Mostly) Gone

Local people have always accepted we need to build more homes in North Somerset, because they want affordable places for their children to live as they grow up. But concreting over green fields or degrading the rural environment isn’t the right way to do it, so I’m delighted the small town (called a ‘Garden Village’) between Churchill and Congresbury has gone from 3 of the 4 choices in the consultation document. I hope we can eliminate it from the fourth option too, because it is appallingly un-green: it will need a great deal of costly, carbon-intensive new infrastructure and will massively increase car commuting, which will raise emissions and create even more congestion on narrow rural lanes and roads. 

Build Up, Not Out

I was also delighted to see an increased focus on ‘Build Up, Not Out’ and much-needed urban regeneration in urban areas like central Weston across the choices document. ‘Build Up Not Out’ is greener, because it makes it easier for people to live within bicycling or walking distance of where they work, and because it uses existing community infrastructure (whether it’s roads, water, power, schools etc) more efficiently instead of having to start everything from scratch if we build on green fields. It increases the development potential of almost every existing building in central Weston, which should make it easier to attract much-wanted investment. And it gives us the chance to bring fresh life to places like Weston high street as they stop being retail-only districts, and become more ‘alive after five’ instead. 

As you know, I’ve been pushing for this for some time, both nationally and locally, so the recent Government extension of Permitted Development Rights (PDR) which does as I’ve been asking is extremely welcome. But for the PDRs to work, we need to take two further steps:

  1. The first is for North Somerset Council (NSC) to devise and agree its own Local Development Code (sometimes called a Style Code). This will give local Councillors control of the size, height, style and materials of anything that is built using the new PDRs, so they match the best of what is already here and so local builders know what they can and can’t do. It means there’s a strong democratically-elected local voice in how our communities will look and feel in future, and it creates a ratchet towards distinctive and beautiful public spaces as buildings are built, improved and upgraded over time as well. But it only works if NSC defines a good local development code soon, so I hope that this is an early part of your plans. There is help and support in creating local codes from experts in organisations like Create Streets which I can help you access if you aren’t speaking to them already.
  2. The second is for Government Ministers to count more of the homes that will be built under the new PDRs against whatever housing targets each local Council has to achieve. Your officers have made clear to me that, at the moment, they don’t get enough credit or recognition from central Government, even if they create PDR opportunities for thousands of good-looking new town-centre homes and apartments to be built, and that clearly isn’t right. So I hope you saw me raising the issue alongside Liam Fox in Parliament recently, and I plan to pursue it vigorously with Government Ministers in future too. I will keep you informed of how they react!

New Green Belt

There’s a lot of discussion in the document about ‘changes to the Green Belt’. Many of them would affect the north of the District, in Liam Fox’s constituency, so I will leave him to represent local views on those proposals. But there are two important missed opportunities for more. new green belt in the south of the District which don’t feature in any of the 4 options. They are:

  1. A block of completely new green belt in the southeast of our District, stretching inland of the M5, from the southern edge of the existing green belt down to the northern boundary of the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
  2. A new commitment by North Somerset Council that every acre or hectare of Green Belt which is removed in the new plan will be replaced by at least 3 new ones elsewhere in the District (‘3 in, 1 out’)

Taken together, these two measures will protect more of our local environment forever, no matter what future local plans or Government Ministers may propose. They will ensure we are a sustainable, green community where wildlife has places to live, and where our children and grandchildren can enjoy North Somerset’s green spaces as much as we have. I hope you will include them both in the final version of the Plan. 

Help From Bristol & Central Government

There are two more areas where we need help from outside:

  1. The first is from Bristol Council. For at least 40 years, North Somerset has soaked up the overspill of their unmet housing need but, with the new PDRs which Government Ministers are introducing to encourage ‘Build Up, Not Out’ (above), there is no need for us to keep doing it anymore. In fact it’s time to turn the tables, because the same arguments that mean ‘Build Up Not Out’ would be good for central Weston, apply even more strongly to large areas of Bristol which are just two stories tall at the moment. The number of good-looking, green and affordable homes which could be built within a short walk or cycle ride from work in Bristol is potentially huge; far bigger than anything that could be delivered in North Somerset. So it’s time for a reset in our (and their) long-held assumptions, and for them to return a favour by absorbing some of North Somerset’s unmet housing need, after decades of us doing the same for them. I hope you will begin discussions with them about this as soon as possible.
  2. The second is for Government Ministers to reconsider the draft housing targets which they have floated as being needed to be built in North Somerset over the coming years. You have already written to me about this, and both I and Liam Fox agree with you that the proposed figures are impossible. I have already written to Ministers making this point alongside yourselves a few months ago, and I hope you also saw both Liam and I driving it home to the Housing Minister in a Parliamentary debate recently too. I am looking forward to continuing to work alongside you on this in future. 

Banwell’s Bypass

It was wonderful to see the Banwell Bypass in all four of the options in the Choices document. I have spoken to Government officials as well as Council ones, and progress looks slow but steady. Local people will want to see this project delivered as quickly as possible, after we’ve all waited so long. 

Stop Ignoring The M5

Even if we maximise every opportunity to create sustainable and green communities where people live closer to work by ‘Building Up, Not Out’ in Weston and in Bristol; and even if we improve train and bus transport links dramatically (as we should), the M5 north of Weston between J21 and J20 will still need work. Given the jams and congestion it causes already, and all the extra homes which are due to be built in our area, the number of commuter car journeys will inevitably increase. We can and should minimise the rate of growth and make each journey cleaner, and the pandemic may create a one-off cut in commuting too, but no-one seriously expects the long term underlying trend to change or reverse.

So we shouldn’t kid either ourselves or local residents that the M5 can be left out of the local Plan. In fact it’s a major local opportunity, if we can get J21 and M5 flowing smoothly, we’d be gifting local people as much as 5 hours a week extra with their families, reduce damaging emissions and make Weston more attractive to businesses, investors and visitors too. I’ve already begun discussions with Highways England and Transport Ministers, and they are all receptive. But it’s very early days and there’s still a long way to go. I hope you will accept that this can’t be ignored any longer, and that the local Plan must include motorway improvements as a central and strategic part of our local vision for the future.

I am also concerned that all four of the options suggested in the Plan document include a new employment zone on the inland side of J21. Given the problems the junction has already, creating a new commuter bottleneck as more people have to struggle out of town to work on the other side of the M5 and back seems silly. We should certainly be creating sustainable communities where there are plenty of new jobs to go with the extra houses, but they should be close to each other to minimise commuting and emissions, and certainly not on opposite sides of a junction that’s already a bottleneck. 

I hope this helps, and I look forward to working with you so we can keep the various welcome positive measures in this document, while fixing the remaining problems too. 

Yours sincerely,

John Penrose
MP for Weston-super-Mare