Zachary Spiro is a former adviser to Conservative Select Committee Chairs and is a consultant at Flint Global. He writes in a personal capacity.
If they can’t build homes, at least they could control the price. That, at least, is Bristol Council’s thinking. The city’s representatives are having a formal debate on whether they, not property owners, should set the rent at which properties are let out. The debate is largely academic: Bristol’s councillors have no power to impose rent controls even if they do decide they want to, and there is no prospect of new legislation to hand such powers over.
That Bristol is suffering from a housing crisis – like most of England – is undeniable. In the past 10 years, prices have almost doubled. A terraced house that would have cost you roughly £200,000 in 2012 will now set you back £393,630. A single earner with a 20 per cent deposit would need to be earning £70,000 to get their hands on a mortgage. For detached homes, the picture is worse: individuals without large inheritances, six-figure incomes or, ideally, both need not apply. In that time, rents have risen by a relatively mild but still eye-watering 54per cent, likely due to conversions turning living rooms into bedrooms or dividing larger houses into flats.
But why did this happen? For the answer, we need to delve deep into Bristol’s municipal history: its Development Framework. Adopted in 2011, this 164-page document claims to “consider how the city will develop over the next 15 to 20 years”. For those not immersed in the legal arcana, planning authorities (which includes Bristol City Council) are under an obligation to prepare formal documents setting out their approach to development. The council must then “have regard” to this plan when considering planning applications.
Bristol’s document is revelatory. Under the rules at the time, Bristol had to “take into account” the Government’s latest household projections for the growth of the region. These 2010 projections are based on headline 2008 population estimates by the ONS which turned out to be basically correct. They predicted the 2023 population of England and Wales to be 60.5m people: the 2021 census showed that the population of England and Wales was 59.5m.
Nevertheless, Bristol duly took into account the official estimates, and then threw them in the bin. It explains:
“[The estimates] do not critically evaluate likely future outcomes and do not offer a reasonably realistic projection”.
The Council then alighted on other projections of household need: all, by coincidence, lower. It concluded that, instead of the 70,000 new households projected from 2006 to 2026:
“29,000 homes [would] ensure a reasonable balance”.
Through some further finagling, this was lowered further to a minimum target of 26,400 new homes in the region from 2006 to 2026: 1,320 per year. This was the target Bristol set itself and just 38 per cent of what the ONS had said would be required.
Almost immediately, Bristol failed to deliver these homes. With the exception of 2011/12, there has not been a single year in the past ten where 1,320 homes have been completed in Bristol. In the last decade, an average of only 833 dwellings have been completed each year.
Even against Bristol Council’s lowered targets, there is currently a deficit of more than 5,000 homes in the city. Bristol’s framework document said it didn’t want the homes, and then ten years later, it didn’t get them. But wasn’t the end of problem: Bristol didn’t just deliver too little space, it also underestimated how many people would want them.
Not having homes didn’t stop new Bristolians being born or wanting to live in the city. Despite only 8,470 dwellings being completed in the decade to 2021, the population of the city increased by 44,000. For every new home built over the decade, a staggering five people have had to fit inside. The council’s preferred projections accounted for “an increase of 23,500 economically active people” living in the city by 2026. But ten years in, Bristol was already larger than they had planned for over fifteen. The 2021 census shows that 25,500 more economically active people were living in the city than in 2011. This population had risen 63 per cent faster than expected.
More people contributing to the economy is generally a good thing for a region: more businesses, more growth, stronger tax receipts for public services. But if these people don’t have enough space to live, rents and house prices will inevitably rise. For this, the council must take responsibility. If it had accepted higher population projections, adopted higher housing targets, or taken a more permissive attitude to granting planning permission, perhaps the crisis could have been averted. At the very least it could have been lessened.
That, more than anything else, is the underlying source of Bristol’s housing problems. The city fought for, and managed, to radically reduce its planning targets. And from almost the moment they were agreed, it was missing them. At the same time, it catastrophically underestimated the number of people that would want to live in their city.
At their core, Bristol’s crisis doesn’t require complicated analysis to diagnose, just two words: supply and demand.