Why the plan for a 3,000 new commuter estate near Banwell is a seriously bad idea
What’s the difference between a ‘Garden village’ and a very large isolated commuter estate built on countryside? Is there any difference, and does it matter?
The answer is yes, there are big differences, and yes, it matters a lot.
When it comes to considering North Somerset Council’s plans to build a very large commuter estate, accessed by the new Banwell Bypass, we are very lucky to have some expert advice available, specifically on that topic. Transport for New Homes are a team of planning experts who have gone out and investigated the reality of what has been planned for and built in the way of garden villages and towns, twenty garden communities in detail, and a further 15 communities more generally, including the Banwell Garden Village. plan. From that study, they found that the 20 garden communities looked at in detail risk creating up to 200,000 car dependent households.  Tellingly, this kind of unsustainable development on greenfield is referred to in the trade as a ‘cowpat development’.
The Garden Village Dream versus The Tarmac Estate.
The idea of Garden Villages and Garden Towns came out of a vision of sociable, green, communities, with centres easily walked to, and a sustainable transport system, public transport, walking and cycling, which was backed by the government from 2018, as a large-scale way of providing new housing, rather than building housing estates. There was government funding provided for advice to local authorities on how to build garden communities, and government funding through the Housing Infrastructure Fund to build new roads bypasses and junctions to unlock countryside sites for the large housing developments
Although the garden communities vision was for a brand new era of green low carbon living , the reality is that 90% of garden community plans included road capacity increases such as new bypasses, roads, enlarged road junctions, to cater for a massive expected rise in car use, not a reduction in car use. Instead of creating self-contained sustainable communities relying on sustainable transport, the plans have succeeded in opening up the countryside for large new areas of housing, and more commuting by private car.
North Somerset Council’s decision to build a bypass and a Garden Village near Banwell
Here in North Somerset, the Council applied to the government Housing Infrastructure Fund in 2018 for funding to build a bypass, so as to open up the greenfield near Banwell for 1,950 new Banwell Garden Village houses.
The Report comments on the Banwell plan: ‘Banwell Garden village in North Somerset and Culm garden village in Devon were so tied up with a bypass and motorway junction improvement that it was hard to see how they could end up anything other than commuter estates’.
Most garden villages are still on paper, like Banwell, but if the bypass and M5 junction are designed and built, the plan is for the new housing near Banwell to follow, whether it’s called a garden village, or a housing estate. North Somerset Council’s 2021 Transport Study, commissioned by the Council to inform the new Local Plan, describes the area East of the M5 near Banwell as a development area, and says that the housing growth near Banwell ‘ will be car-dominated’, because of the bypass, and also because the area is close to the M5. 
The need to reduce car travel
It’s difficult to see how we in North Somerset, already so deeply reliant on private car travel, which we know has to change, can accept, or justify, a very large new housing development whose residents are guaranteed to be just as reliant on private car travel as we are. We in the villages, and that includes the new settlement, have the highest levels of car use in North Somerset. As the Transport Study puts it:
‘ 87% of households ( in North Somerset) have access to at least one car. Lowest levels of car ownership are in the main towns, whereas rural and inter-urban areas have the highest levels of car ownership per household, with some rural areas having car ownership levels double the UK average. 2.6 Over three quarters (84%) of people travel to work by car, which is significantly higher than the England (68%) average (Figure 4). Conversely, only 3% of people travel to work by bus, and 2% by train, which is less than half of the England averages of 7% and 5% respectively.’
Reducing private car use in North Somerset is a priority for North Somerset Council.
The Council has declared a Climate Emergency, and has committed to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2030. Emissions from vehicles in North Somerset account for 42% of total carbon emissions, a very high level.
Apart from building an environmentally damaging new road and bypass, which in itself will cause high carbon emissions, building this isolated new settlement near Banwell will result in private car use by thousands more new households. The added emissions from their cars will hinder the Council’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change. Also, cars cause air pollution, which has serious human health and well being impacts.
So what can we expect for the new housing itself, and for the people and families coming to live in it?
Some good news is that Poundbury, near Dorchester in Dorset has succeeded as a new garden community people enjoy living and working in, because of careful design specially for pedestrians not cars, with the supermarket, garden centre, shops, cafes, pubs, community centres, offices and other workplaces and services being within walking distance. Poundbury was carefully shaped from the start around trees, small green areas and parks. Poundbury is exceptional.
The Report describes the consequences of going ahead with a car-dependent new housing estate:
- Layout for cars not pedestrians
- Lack of green environment, less room for trees, gardens and verges with a lot of parking space
- Expensive for those on low incomes- the cost of running one or two cars may be too great for those on low incomes
- Local shops and businesses don’t open- without people walking, people don’t use local shops and cafes. They drive out.
- Higher carbon emissions- we must look to the future. Sustainable transport is important for living within environmental limits and slowing climate change.
- Inactive lifestyles: more stress, sitting in jams, worrying about parking and parking wars with neighbours. It isn’t healthy
- Isolation. If there’s no bus, train or tram to jump onto to travel into town or further afield, with a lack of places to walk to , there’s a feeling of being cut off from the rest of society.
- Money wasted. Road building costs millions, then billions with more developments. This money could be used to fund sustainable transport networks, which is what the garden community vision is really all about.
- Parking city, not garden city. Gardens and green space are replaced by parking places. Parked cars block buses. It’s not good to have a home in a sea of tarmac.
- You have to be able to drive. Non-drivers and people who don’t want to drive can’t move into these new homes. Young people have little independence.
More cars mean more jams.
For those of us sharing the local road system with the literally thousands more cars from the new Banwell housing estate, the resulting traffic jams will be on the A368, A371, commuter roads like Nye Road, Hill Road, Sandford Road, Church Road, with much more traffic on the motorway and A38.
What about buses and cycle networks, as an alternative to private car travel?
Public transport and sustainable transport are at the heart of the garden community vision, local authority planners try hard to include them, but funding public transport is very uncertain, and it is usually pushed a long way into the future, the Report found. Cycling was found to be underfunded , with no garden community having sustainable transport costed and funded with delivery dates
The number of completely funded cycle networks for garden towns was zero. Garden villages were on the whole too far away from towns to cycle or involved dangerous roads.
How will the new housing near Banwell affect other North Somerset communities?
The new car dependent Banwell housing estate will mean much more traffic on our local roads, and more congestion in the villages. The original plan for the Banwell garden village was for 1,950 new housing units, but over 3,000 new houses were mentioned when the council decided to go ahead with the bypass.
The danger is that once the bypass has opened up the countryside area East of the M5 near Banwell to housing, even more housing will be allocated under the new Local Plan, which is still in the making. Sites have to be found for 20,476 new homes in North Somerset, under the government algorithm. 5,000 of these will go on previously developed brownfield land near Clevedon and Weston super Mare, which leaves 15,475 homes to be built, with sites yet to be allocated.
The Report concludes that the enormous gap between the garden community vision put forward by the government, planners and local authorities, and the isolated, car-dependent housing estates which are actually built. The problem centres on building developments in the wrong location, based on the wrong kind of transport, private cars.
Here’s what should be happening when new housing is planned for, Transport for New Homes says:
- New housing to be located and configured to avoid people being dependent on cars, and to enable low and decreasing travel by private car;
- Local authorities, working with their neighbouring authorities and transport providers, to plan housing developments along corridors with frequent public transport, or in places where they will facilitate such provision;
- New housing to be laid out to prioritise walking and cycling as the main means of access to local facilities, adjacent areas, and public transport stations and stops;
- Large-scale new housing to be designed around streets, places and spaces that are pleasant and interesting to be in, sociable and environmentally sustainable;
- Large-scale new housing to be built with a range of community facilities on site, or within easy reach by sustainable modes
- New housing developments to benefit adjacent and nearby communities in terms of extra or better quality local amenities and sustainable transport provision, especially on routes that fill gaps in existing networks
The plan to build a large new housing development near Banwell raises some very serious issues which need to be resolved. The starting point for this situation was North Somerset Council’s decision to apply for government funding for a new road, to open up the countryside near Banwell to new housing development. The decision to do this was made as a ‘procurement decision’, and residents in the villages most affected were not consulted about it. We still haven’t been consulted about the new housing development.
There are other serious issues raised, around building affordable housing people need rather than market housing local people can’t afford, squandering land by building low density housing in the countryside, building on brownfield instead of building on greenfield, and building on farmland when growing local food is increasingly important. There is also good news in the way people and communities are working towards a better way. These will be discussed separately.