The examination of the West of England Joint Spatial Plan (JSP) reported back at the beginning of August and a fuller response came in September, where – in their words – they “set out in more detail our fundamental concerns about the soundness of the JSP”.
These concerns centred on a few major issues and also reflected the reservations of a number of stakeholders – Business West and the BPAA included - and which we had backed with some really sound research.
One reservation was the nature of the spatial strategy proposed by the four authorities – in essence, that it was inconsistent and not justified. We were particularly concerned that the sustainable implications – especially the SDLs (strategic development locations) put forward by the LAs weren’t justified by the allying transport evidence. They weren’t on transport nodes, for instance.
Had they pushed forward with those, it would have led to housing developments in areas where it was hard for authorities to mitigate against knock-on transport implications. That, in turn, would have made it harder for West of England to bid for transport infrastructure, along with higher costs for the public purse.
There was also debate around housing numbers, where we felt more were required to meet the ambitions of the region than had been set out in the JSP.
Finally, the thorny issue of employment land and which would have led to a squeeze in locations where businesses most need it. There was an assumption in the JSP that - by not supplying land where it was needed - demand would be displaced to fringe locations in unproven areas. Or to places like Avonmouth, where there are significant infrastructure problems – notably transport - which would have made it very hard for the local labour market to operate properly.
It’s important to note that the Inspectors made the point that their report was not a critique of how agencies are working across the city region. But there were significant flaws in what they had done – and they needed to go away and start again.
It's disappointing that we’ve got to this stage – and having to go through another lengthy public examination and all the costs involved in that. On the plus side, it’s an opportunity to start afresh – with the local authorities taking on board what we’ve been saying for some time and produce a plan that is sustainable for our businesses and pressured housing needs… and which will pass the next inspection.
It’s clear that any route going forward will be based upon the standard methodology - which is the Government’s method of calculating housing need. I think there’s a broad acceptance from the business community that we now need to work on that number, which is higher than the previous number – but not as high as the academic assessment that we commissioned.
We must also bear in mind that there will be a review at some time in the future, and that may produce a different housing number from the Government.
It’s critical that, if we are to get the growth to accommodate new companies in the region and see the ones already here expand and succeed, we need to have the right sort of space in the right places. We also have to have a plan that starts to address our deficit in transport infrastructure, and has spatial growth linked around a strong underpinning transport plan: one that is credible for central government and for which we can win funding.
Will this lead to an hiatus in development? With political will, there’s no reason why this can't be taken forward relatively quickly. We are aware that officers are addressing some of the flaws raised by the inspectors but we haven’t yet seen any political leadership in taking forward a future plan.
Hopefully we will see some of that in the months to come.