Which is more important: scale or ownership? Bristol currently offers a perfect opportunity to ask that question.
Bristol City Council in late 2013 announced that it is planning on releasing 10 major(10+)/'super-major' (100+) sites, mainly in south Bristol, that will accommodate an estimated 1,500 homes around the periphery of the city; all of them in 'low value' areas. As the primary equity investor, landowners have the biggest hand in creating quality places, so this is a truly exciting opportunity given the experience of our Mayor (an architect and developer). This is tempered by the fact that Bristol, like so many local authorities, has had to go through substantial cuts and still needs to refill its coffers as a matter of urgency, with these 10 sites potentially offering major generators of income for the Council. Local Authorities are typically under-resourced in terms of staff expertise too, hence the Mayor's recent re-structuring; he's brought in specialist experience at senior level to lead in this area.
The Cribbs-Patchway New Neighbourhood in north Bristol, which has been allocated 5,700 homes and 50 ha employment land, sits just outside Bristol City Council's administrational boundary in the urban fringe of South Gloucestershire Council (SGC). Given it is one very large site and next to substantial infrastructure (Parkway inter-city train station, 70,000 jobs, M4/M5 junctions, etc.), one can't help but get excited about the potential of this urban extension to transform the whole of the North Fringe of Bristol. This area is the economic powerhouse of the South West, yet quality of life and the public realm is very low: communities living around this area, like Patchway and Southmead, are some of the most deprived in the country. Yet, because of the scale of development proposed, there are things they should be able to do here (e.g. district energy network, public transport infrastructure, etc.) that will be out of the reach of Bristol's sites. On the other hand, the land in the Cribbs-Patchway New Neighbourhood is all in private hands, under the control of three major developers. I have tremendous faith in people in general, and developers are no different. I am sure they are all busting a gut to do their best, but there's no escaping the fact that they have a very different remit from a local authority: quite simply, they are not responsible for quality of life here over the long term. And on a purely practical level they are at three different stages of the planning process, which puts substantial pressure on those delivering on the ground and sadly limits their capacity to consider holistically.
In 2012-13, db+a in partnership with the WHO Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at UWE were commissioned by SGC to run two large stakeholder workshops to help with the Cribbs-Patchway New Neighbourhood Masterplanning. SGC wanted us involved for two reasons:
As a resident of Bristol actively involved in the Bristol Green Capital (BGC) Built Environment and Land Use (BELU) Action Group, I have had the opportunity of comparing these two large initiatives in detail. Given the new drive from central government for a new wave of Garden Cities, one can't help but wonder whether Bristol or South Gloucestershire offers the greater opportunity. There has been some talk recently of a Metropolitan Area allowing clear administration over all the urban areas of Greater Bristol. This would certainly make sense in terms of planning infrastructure and service provision more effectively: the Cribbs-Patchway workshops highlighted the yawning gaps between the different administrations in terms of education, health and retail, for example. But given the land ownership of Cribbs-Patchway is in private hands, I can't help but think that would only be half the battle. [It's important to clarify here that the problem is not private ownership per se, but rather the intention, experience and/or mandate of the landowners. Some of the best developments in the country have been under private ownership (e.g. Cadbury's, Clarke's, etc.), while some of the worst have been under public ownership.]
In answer to the question then: we evidently need both ownership and scale, and yet in Bristol's case we've no way of getting it without Compulsory Purchasing, which seems highly unlikely on sites like those in north Bristol. So on balance my hopes lie with Bristol City Council and their 10 lower value sites, though it's going to take some extraordinary collaborative planning to ensure the high quality we so desperately need. Let's hope the forthcoming Academy of Urbanism Congress 'Bristol: Towards a Greener Urbanism' can kick that all off in the right direction. I wonder if the decision-makers responsible for Cribbs-Patchway New Neighbourhood are coming.