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How Do We Build the Housing We Need in Bristol?

Bristol 650

Written by Paul Smith

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I come to this essay about the future while also deeply immersed in the past dreams for housing in the city for work I have been doing on the history of the Hartcliffe estate. In 1943 the council’s housing plan identified the need for around 30,000 new homes. Eighty years later, in 2023, the council’s draft local plan identifies a need for around 30,000 new homes. I could conclude this article simply by saying that in 2103 the future city will have a need for 30,000 homes, which we could just summarise as plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

In seeking to meet its housing need, Bristol, like many cities, seems to be locked into a battle between the need for more homes, the need to protect the natural environment and the desire by some to see the historic skyline unchanged. New housing is often opposed not just in the backyard, but from anywhere within the eyeline. One person’s developable brownfield site is someone else’s clear view, urban park or conservation site. One person’s developable scrubland is someone else’s site of important biodiversity or crucial open space. All these things can be true – it is a matter of genuine dispute.

We need to go back to some core principles to understand the housing function of a city. Cities exist to bring people together – for work, for culture and leisure, to access health services and public services and for education. It’s also where many people live; the UN estimates that two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) includes a right to adequate housing. The starting point for social policy relating to housing should begin here. The UN states that this right ‘Must provide more than four walls and a roof’ and sets a list of factors which determine whether housing is adequate, including: security of tenure; access to services such as water, energy and sanitation; affordability; habitability, namely providing protection against the elements and being a safe place; accessibility meeting the needs of disadvantaged and marginalised groups; location providing access to health and social facilities and away from pollution or other hazards; and cultural adequacy, reflecting people’s cultural identity. This is a significant list and one which we cannot say is met for all the citizens of Bristol.

As a start, the city, which is already committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, should also commit to Article 25 of the UDHR and the right to adequate housing. A plan should be developed for Bristol to meet these objectives, starting with an honest assessment of how far away we are from meeting each of the requirements of this part of Article 25. As part of this, Bristol needs to plan for a return to social housing accounting for more than a third of its housing stock (currently around 20 per cent), say by 2050.

We also need to ask what we mean by ‘Bristol’. The city’s boundaries have grown over time, incorporating surrounding villages. In 1373, when Bristol was granted its city status, it was little more than the central area of Redcliffe and Kingsdown. The most recent expansion in 1949 brought Bishopsworth, a village which predates the city, into Bristol. The original ambition after World War Two was a much more dramatic expansion, including Patchway, Filton, Hambrook, Mangotsfield, Kingswood, Downend, Warmley, Oldland, Whitchurch, Dundry, Long Ashton and Portishead, around twice the size of the current city. When the Centre for Cities publishes data about Bristol now, it combines the City of Bristol with South Gloucestershire.

Bristol, blocked from expanding in the 1940s, had to resolve its dramatic housing demand (the same housing demand as now) by building housing outside its boundaries for Bristol residents. Those developments included council housing in Keynsham, Cadbury Heath, Kingswood, Nailsea, Filton, Yate and Long Ashton. Bristol was able to expand its housing need by exporting them to those other areas. Bristol is now an island of council housing with municipal homes in the surrounding authorities all sold to housing associations.

My view, which will be both controversial and strongly opposed – possibly as strongly as the objections after the Second World War to the city’s proposed expansion when the city leadership was compared to Nazism – is that Bristol can only meet its housing needs through a boundary expansion not dissimilar to the one the ‘City Fathers and Mothers’ envisaged in the 1940s, maybe even more extensive, taking in Keynsham too. This would give the city access to more land for new homes, a larger tax base and a boundary which reflects the reality of what constitutes the city if one looked at an aerial photo rather than the archaic local authority boundaries. Under such an expansion it would need to be reflected that there is a parish council structure in the areas currently outside the city, that should be replicated within Bristol, enhancing the identity and a certain level of autonomy of Bristol’s historic villages and the twentieth-century housing estates.

There is a growing community-led housing sector within the city, giving local people more control over meeting their housing needs. Currently, the most successful of these has been Ambition Lawrence Weston. However, all are limited by the lack of financial capacity, leading also to the lack of human resources to drive forward their plans, which leaves them dependent upon the goodwill of housing associations to manage their projects or to operate only at a micro level. It should be remembered that Bristol’s council housing stock includes around 60 high-rise blocks which are approximately 60 years old. There needs to be an acceptance that many of these (and other housing built in the 1950s and 1960s using factory methods) are beyond their useful life and are failing to provide good quality homes for their residents. For some the answer will be a major upgrade, as has been successful in Park Hill in Sheffield, but for most the future can only involve the wrecking ball and dynamite. It’s not just about the individual blocks but also about the inhospitable neighbourhoods they have created with poor-quality open space and disconnected communities.

Who should decide which should be retained and which should be replaced? I would argue that this must be a choice of the residents. Bristol could tackle this – and some of the other issues of urban regeneration on council estates – by passing the estates into the ownership of the local community. Versions of this have been successful in other areas. Castle Vale, an estate in North Birmingham, was transferred to a community housing trust in the 1990s. In this model, the historic debt relating to the state was written off by the government and the trust received grant funding to assist with the costs of regeneration. In addition, as a housing association, the organisation can apply to Homes England for grants to build new homes. Another example is Poplar HARCA in Tower Hamlets, set up as a Housing and Regeneration Community Association. The association runs the housing and a range of other community services. Bristol would need to negotiate a financial deal with the government to ensure that similar organisations here would be able to manage significant regeneration funds, and the transfers would require a ballot of the tenants. In parts of the city, existing Community Development Trusts could take a lead in establishing these organisations; in others new organisations would need to be set up, or existing organisations could come together to create them.

One of the biggest challenges facing people in all types of homes – privately rented, social housing, owner-occupied – is their energy efficiency. Bristol has many homes which were built before the days of cavity walls. Currently, different schemes are available to different tenures of homes, leading to a piecemeal approach which is inefficient and expensive. Bristol could build on the concept of the City Leap – a partnership between Bristol City Council and Ameresco Ltd to accelerate green energy investment – to develop an area-based approach to decarbonisation and energy efficiency, mimicking the urban renewal schemes of the 1980s and 1990s. To achieve this, we will need a workforce skilled to undertake these huge and complex projects and the council will need to work with the sixth forms, colleges and universities to ensure that is possible.

People’s homes sit at the centre of their lives. Unfortunately, many are failed by poorly designed or constructed homes and badly designed communities. Bristol has enormous talent, and using this to address the quality of our homes and neighbourhoods would have a significant impact upon many other areas of civic life, including health (physical and mental), care, cost of living, crime and anti-social behaviour, climate change and the local economy. The opportunities will require a partnership between the council, the government, public and private bodies and – importantly – the citizens of Bristol. The tenacity required would be great, the thinking long-term and the investment significant, but the benefits and returns would be enormous.

Paul Smith

Paul Smith is CEO of Elim Housing, a charitable social landlord based in Bristol. He previously served as a Bristol City Councillor from 1988 to 1999, when he was chair of the Environmental, Health, Land and Property and Leisure Services committees, and 2016 to 2020 when he was Cabinet Member for Homes and Communities.

This article appears in Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol, a book bringing together essays from over 30 contributors, addressing some of the challenges the city faces and sharing ideas about how we might meet them. From dealing with the past, the future of social care, culture and housing to building a city of aspiration, the book looks to promote learning about the future of Bristol and encourage new ideas to come forward.

Free copies of Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol will be available at selected Festival of the Future City events in October 2023, or you can find articles featured in the book at

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