It is a question that’s probably been around for as long as houses have been built: which is more important, preserving and protecting green fields, trees and hedgerows, or providing new homes for people to live in?
For the people across South Bristol, it’s not a philosophical debate, it’s a very real issue, as plans for much-needed homes on much-valued green fields are drawn up, ripped up and argued about.
The question has traditionally been couched in terms of progress vs NIMBYs – and the planners and developers have most often won.
Many a local campaign to stop the next extension of Bristol’s suburban sprawl into the fields on the edge of the city has been fundamentally undermined by people inside the city, pointing out that there’s a dire shortage of homes and almost everyone is living in a house that was once built on a green field.
But now there’s something new. An added urgency to efforts to preserve the shrinking green spaces in and around the city.
In January 2020, Bristol City Council became the first in the country to declare an ‘ecological crisis’, to follow on from being the first to declare a ‘environmental emergency’.
While they are both catchy phrases and mean nothing without action, they do mean slightly different things. The environmental emergency brings with it questions about transport, building materials, energy use and all the other things that create carbon emissions and fuel climate change.
The ecological crisis can be very much closer to home. The dire warnings about climate change have been with us for decades, but another warning has been around nearly as long – the long-held knowledge that species like bees and butterflies are vital to our own survival as a species, and that we would struggle to survive a decade on the planet without nature’s pollinators.
Across Britain, natural habitats are being destroyed, species are becoming extinct, and then there’s the more abstract but equally important benefits to our own mental health of having access to green spaces, trees, plants, grass, birds and insects.
So what happens when the housing crisis meets the ecological crisis? Nowhere in Bristol is this a more immediate issue than south of the river.
North of the river, Bristol has long spilled out over its historic boundaries into South Gloucestershire. The benevolent flat land of Emersons Green, Cribbs Causeway and Kingswood is almost continually being built on.
South of the river, it’s a different story. The city expanded quickly here after the war, reached the bottom of the natural barrier of Dundry Hill, and stopped.
The rapid expansion of the 1930s and 1950s was done in a way – by accident or design – that left undeveloped land between communities, green fields that still have never been built on.
The post-war planners built Hartcliffe and Whitchurch on the other side of the vast open and mainly green space that was once Whitchurch Airfield.
The big council estate of Knowle West was built in stages at the top of the hill above Bedminster before and after the war, leaving the slopes to the north and to the west untouched and semi-wild.
In Brislington, if a farmer didn’t sell the land, the city planners just moved beyond it when they wanted to build the next industrial estate or housing development, leaving behind an area that’s become known as Brislington Meadows.
In the 60 years or more since, generations have grown up around these semi-wild South Bristol spaces – this side of the city feels a lot more semi-rural than the more packed-in, densely-populated north of the river or east Bristol.
There are horses grazing in fields between Knowle West and Windmill Hill, a working farm in Bedminster Down, meadows and ancient hedgerows in Brislington, Ashton, Hengrove and Bedminster.
Now, though, there are 12,500 people on the waiting list for housing. There are around 600 families in temporary accommodation, which could be anything from a hotel room in Swindon to a cramped one-bed flat in a tower block, or one room in a shared house in Southville.
A common factor in the election was the sight of all the mayoral candidates agreeing, and almost trying to outdo each other with the numbers of new homes they would get built.
And while there were lots of pledges to build thousands of new homes, there was less detail on exactly where those new homes would be built. When challenged, the answer from most who don’t want green fields to be built on is that ‘brownfield’ sites within the city should be built on first.
But in turn that prompts a backlash from people living near sites where densely-packed apartment buildings or “too-tall” tower blocks are built.
So greenfield sites within the city are catching the eye of council planners. In March 2021, before the election, the council listed all the land it had transferred over to its new housing development company, Goram Homes.
Fed up of trying and largely failing to get profit-first developers to include enough affordable homes in their plans, the council created Goram Homes as a way of doing the job themselves.
The list of sites included many in South Bristol, which would be the location for hundreds of new homes in total.
And one of them was the Western Slopes – the steep hill that separates the western edge of Knowle West with the Malago Valley and Bedminster below. Back in the 1950s, the council stopped building Knowle West at the top edge of the slope and there isn’t another house until Headley Park on the other side of the valley.
In between, there are green fields and hedges, trees and great thickets teeming with nature. Few people talked about it until Bristol Live revealed plans for hundreds of homes on the Western Slopes, and people who live in Knowle West, Headley Park, Hartcliffe and Bedminster all revealed just how important it was.
The question of whether or not this large green space in South Bristol should be built on became an election issue, after Mayor Marvin Rees confirmed at least some of the Western Slopes would be built on.
In a letter to Danica Priest, one of the campaigners to stop development of the slopes – which form the hillside between Knowle West and Hartcliffe Way in Bedminster – Mr Rees said that while working out what would happen to the land was in the ‘really early stages’, his preference would be for affordable homes on the land currently owned by the council.
Mr Rees, who won the election last week and will now continue to have to grapple with the homes versus environment dilemma, said the issue was a complex one. “It’s important to stress that we’re at really early stages in terms of what might be allowed on the site,” he said.
“We are trying to identify any areas that could be developed with minimal damage to ecology and without significantly reducing access to green space.
“Nothing has been decided yet, and any decision would follow extensive consultation.
“We have ambitious targets around affordable homes and will try to deliver as many as we can through sites, but we are limited through existing planning powers,” he added.
“We don’t know what the make-up of the site could be at this stage, but of course our preference would be for affordable homes,” he said, adding that the council would continue to work with Avon Wildlife Trust, because they ‘have demonstrated an understanding of the complexity of development decisions and the competing priorities we have for the city’.
“We will continue working with them as any plans progress,” he added.
The Mayor mentioned Avon Wildlife Trust, the most established of all the nature-focussed groups and organisations in Bristol that seek to protect our green spaces, wildlife and ecology.
And it was the Trust that the mayor also quoted when he announced a slightly different decision on another piece of green open space on the other side of South Bristol, at Brislington Meadows.
There, the open spaces left behind by post-war planners and never built on had the same hedges and fields, trees and bushes. But Avon Wildlife Trust said this was too important a place to be lost to the 300 homes, including 90 council homes, that were about to be proposed there.
So before the election, the Mayor and the local MP Kerry McCarthy announced the land would not be built on, despite Homes England spending £15 million of taxpayers’ money on the site for housing a year earlier, in April 2020.
“We need to balance our response to the housing crisis with our response to the ecological crisis,” he said, outlining the very essence of the dilemma faced by the city.
“Tackling them both at the same time isn’t mutually exclusive – and of course, we can only meet our climate targets if we continue to build eco-friendly homes and retrofit our houses so they’re more energy efficient,” he added.
“We were the first council to declare an ecological emergency. Brislington Meadows region is rich in biodiversity and supports a thriving ecosystem – we’re protecting our natural environment, while delivering on our housing goals.
“The meadows were included in a housing plan in 2014 before we fully understood the size of the ecological crisis. Working with Avon Wildlife trust and other city partners, we are reviewing the plan against the ecological need,” he added.
“We’ve tripled affordable housebuilding and built 9,000 homes since 2016, with thousands more in the pipeline. But in the case of Brislington Meadows the disadvantages of developing the site outweigh its advantages,” he added.
For Ian Barrett, the chief executive of Avon Wildlife Trust, every bit of green land not built on is an opportunity to protect Bristol’s fragile ecology. “Brislington Meadows is an important habitat for wildlife, which provides vital access to nature for local people,” he said.
“As the city’s ecological emergency declaration shows, there is an urgent need to make space for nature to halt and reverse wildlife declines that are undermining the life support systems on which we all depend.
“The Trust welcomes all commitments to protect habitats and green space for the benefit of people and wildlife,” he added.
The question of which pieces of green land will be built on and which are preserved is usually answered in a long, drawn out process called the Local Plan, which sees the inherent conflict between the desire to keep green land and the desire to see more land opened up to development, played out.
In the last local plan, ratified in 2014, Brislington Meadows, Hengrove Park and the Western Slopes were included. But do seven years of the declining quality of our environment, declining numbers of bees and butterflies, and the ticking clock of the climate emergency mean green spaces could end up being taken out of the local plan before homes are ever built on them?
Faced with the housing crisis overtaking the ecological crisis, Avon Wildlife Trust joined the Mayor’s One City initiative. The first success was to make that January 2020 declaration. The next step, says the Trust, is to work with the politicians and planners as they grapple with the decisions.
“Bristol is facing a number of emergencies at the same time, including the ecological emergency, the climate emergency and a housing crisis, which has led the council to set ambitious targets for house building,” a Trust spokesperson said back in April.
“Avon Wildlife Trust does not believe that building on important wildlife habitats is the answer to Bristol’s housing crisis. We need to find solutions that enable us to address the climate, nature and housing emergencies at the same time. In the longer-term that is likely to mean building higher density zero carbon housing in existing residential areas.
“Once land has been allocated for housing, it is very difficult for councils to reverse these decisions, particularly given compulsory Government targets for the supply of housing land. Nevertheless, we are working with Bristol City Council to look at the options for protecting these habitats where possible,” he added.
If taking land back out of the Local Plan is something the council now has to consider how to do with Brislington Meadows, it is certainly something the residents of Knowle West and Headley Park want to see happen with the Western Slopes.
But could it be too late. This area of undeveloped green fields and woodland, that hasn’t been formally protected like the Northern Slopes around the corner of the Knowle West hilltop, came into the housebuilders’ sights.
One part of the Western Slopes at the Bedminster end of Novers Lane already has a developer beginning the process of asking for planning permission to build 157 homes.
And in March, council chiefs sanctioned the transfer of the council-owned land at the Knowle West end of the slopes to the council’s own housing development company, Goram Homes.
A report on that transfer outlined the possibility of another 440 homes being built on the bigger, southerly portion of the Western Slopes.
Lucy Dale said the slopes are teeming with wildlife, right in the heart of South Bristol. “I’ve lived opposite the Western Slopes for 11 years and the area is teaming with wildlife,” she said.
“Not only are there horses but foxes, voles, small mammals, the hedgerows are full of birds and I have seen buzzards, falcons and heard owls too.
“It would be devastating to build on this small haven for many a protected species,” she added.
For Tony Pitt and Lucy O’Melia, the Western Slopes improve the mental health of the people of Knowle West, one of the most deprived areas of Bristol, and of the country, as well as for everyone living in this part of South Bristol.
“It’s amazing to see horses grazing in the city,” said Tony.
“The green fields, trees and scrub have soothed my mind and been massively beneficial to my mental well-being during lockdown and before then.
“Buzzards soar over the hills, owls hoot at night, and a sparrowhawk swoops through hunting birds. It’s real wild nature in the city.
“This can’t be sustained if we build on every green space in South Bristol. My life will be less rich, my happiness impaired. The city needs housing but we should stop all building on green spaces and use all the vacant or underused existing buildings or plots first,” he added.
Campaigner Danica Priest, whose letter to the mayor received a personal response, said she was ‘very disappointed’ in the reply she received. The mayor did not rule out development there, as he did at Brislington Meadows.
Avon Wildlife Trust hopes the same conclusion about Brislington Meadows can be made about the Western Slopes – or at least the southern end which the council does own.
“This is an important habitat for a wide variety of birds, mammals and rare wildflowers on the slopes between Novers Hill and Hartcliffe Way,” said Avon Wildlife Trust.
“The Council have assured us that there are no foreseeable plans for development on their land in this area and we are in discussion with them about whether it is possible to protect it from development.”