After a year of online consultations and council meetings, Councillor Don Alexander – Board Member for Goram Homes – is ready to get out into the community.
Tell us about your role with the council and Goram Homes?
I work closely with Goram Homes to bridge the gap between developers and the community and advise them on how they can approach community engagement. It’s where having a council-owned housing company really makes a difference. Some developers aren’t as keen to engage with communities – Goram Homes’ independence gives it the capacity to engage better. We want to do it really well, to make each development the best it can be and really involve the local residents in the process.
How are you planning to engage hard-to-reach groups?
Councillors have always faced the challenge of engaging hard-to-reach-groups in that those who you could help the most often don’t engage. I use social media because that channel opens up a link to these people but there’s no one solution. Local magazines in paper copy that go to an elderly demographic play a part, then you have faith groups, community groups and sports groups. You have to do it all.
How have you worked with Goram Homes during the pandemic to keep community consultation going?
I started working with Goram Homes on their first two sites during lockdown so the possibilities for engaging with communities were a lot narrower for obvious reasons. We want to get out there and walk the sites and that’s definitely what I’m champing at the bit to do. I want to answer people’s questions and allow them to respond and have two-way dialogue. Although we have found that some groups find it easier to join online consultations, there are many weaknesses to doing this over Zoom.
In your experience, how does good community consultation help housing projects?
There’s a moral responsibility to get the maximum input you can so that people really benefit and can be proud of a development in years to come. You can design something on paper that looks marvellous in theory, but local people have really valuable insight on what will actually work in practice. You can’t get that on the drawing board.
How will the partnership between Goram Homes and the council improve the city’s housing shortage?
Housing in Bristol is facing a sea change over the next decade. Goram Homes has ambitious pipeline of 2,500 homes to 2030, a large percentage of which will be affordable. The business model is to take land that isn’t being used as well as it could be and turn it into housing so there is a very eclectic mix of developments.
You have a lot of people living in substandard housing so to see this number of homes being proposed, and knowing it’s going to be quality and good for the environment, is a part of my job I’m very proud of. It’s what Bristol’s needed for a long time. We do art and culture well as a city but there’s another side to the city that’s been very left behind, and we have to address that.
How will you address issues concerning sustainability and the ecological crisis?
Bristol faces a number of challenges over the next decade: creating substantial quantities of affordable housing that are part of socially sustainable communities, increasing biodiversity, reducing carbon emissions and retaining the best of our heritage. I could add others.
But the planning process is much more rigorous than people realise. You have to replace trees by about seven times the number and we have a robust biodiversity policy so lots of money is spent on environmental surveys.
We want to have a positive impact on the ecosystem and carbon emissions overall – we recently won a ‘green initiative’ award for our development at Romney House – but that doesn’t mean not building and disturbing anything. People have to be housed and it’s a competing demand with an equal moral value.
The uncomfortable truth is that the city and its Council have to achieve all, not some, of these ambitions. The Energy Centre at Castle Park – a water-sourced pump that will provide low-carbon heat and hot water for local businesses and residents – shows Goram Homes’ ability to contribute the kind of bold solutions that Bristol now needs.
What’s your message to anyone concerned about Bristol’s housing issues?
You’re often talking to the people who are upset by changes to their view from their balcony; people who have time money and social capital to engage. But others with equally important views don’t engage, or when they do its out of anger because they’ve reached a turning point. These are the people we need to hear more from before it gets to that point.
I hover around social media a lot as a councillor and I am always happy for people to email me or get in touch so we can have a full discussion.
You can find Cllr. Don Alexander on Twitter @BristolDon. Goram Homes and Cllr. Alexander will soon be launching a series of face-to-face events to give local residents and communities a chance to find out more about our pipeline of developments. Please follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up to date.