Planning for the Future – a hopeful new beginning

The government recently released a white paper calling for a total re-orientation of the UK planning system – Planning for the Future (PFF).  Large chunks came straight out of the report of the excellent Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which I have summarised elsewhere in this blog (see: BBBBC).  

Nicholas Boys Smith – not an architect or planner – largely wrote BBBBC.  Before that he had a career in and out of the civil service and then founded the consultancy Create Streets because of his discontent with what is being done to UK cities by architects and developers and by the planning system.  His complaints:

  • The UK has some of the ugliest cities in Europe.  They are also being remorselessly high rised, though there is strong evidence that ordinary people prefer more traditional building forms.
  • The UK also has an extraordinarily clunky, opaque, and slow planning system, which frustrates ordinary people, and which commands almost no public support (Grosvenor report). It has been tinkered with endlessly and nothing seems to improve it. 
  • And the UK has a housing crisis.
  • These elements, to his mind, are connected.

At the core of Boys Smith’s vision is a move towards local democratic plan-making, and towards code-based plans, i.e., plans which set outline conditions for developers to meet. If they are willing to meet these democractically-decided outline conditions, developers should be able to build without the need to write 200 page proposals and go to planning committee. This sort of code-based system, universal on continental Europe, will speed things up and produce more houses, make the process easier for small builders, and enable decision-making to be handed back to the people, who will be able to decide what sort of towns they want. Both of these ideas are stamped all over PFF and repeated many times. 

People want development, he believes, and (despite developers’ accusations) are not generally NIMBYs.  But they want good development.  BBBBC and Create Streets want the planning system to reflect less of what architects and developers want for us, and more of what we want for ourselves. 

We should bear this background in mind when reflecting on the shrieks of outrage at PFF’s message from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Boys Smith’s report was (if anything) anti-architect and anti-developer, but for ordinary people.

Ironically PFF then landed in the lap of a populist Conservative government and a minister with a dodgy reputation.

So is this a neoliberal power-grab?

There is evidence of something of a “car crash” between BBBBC’s urbanistic vision, and the developer interests which had the ear of Secretary of State Robert Jenrick.  The recent government expansion by diktat of the permitted development scheme is an example of this schizophrenia, with government overriding local democratic planning  (TCPA – Is this the end for democratic planning?).  It is hard yet to judge because PFF is more a green paper than a white paper and is still unclear on essentials. 

Yet PFF embodies that same vision as BBBBC, in the same words: it argues that moving to a democratically-influenced code-based system can reduce the time from project conception to build-out, reduce planning risk, reduce costs and so help smaller builders participate and help more houses get built, and place community input much earlier, where it has a chance to make a difference, thus hopefully improving outcomes (i.e. give us more beauty). 

It also shifts power away from current power-holders, viz from our councillors to “best in class consultation” – no local plan to be accepted unless evidence is provided that this has truly taken place.  

Yet some elements not in BBBBC have caused special concern:

  • The call for local councils to designate all land into 3 zones – growth, renewal, and conservation. PFF’s vagueness about what placing land in each category precisely means makes judging this difficult.   

Professor Mattthew Carmona is clear that free-fire zoning systems do not produce acceptable results (Japan), that zoning models which add layers of rules per district tend to generate paperwork and history-bound immobility (US), so that for acceptable results you need local frameworks everywhere, i.e. masterplans combined with codes (Germany).(Planning for an uglier future). Which requires a lot of local resourcing.  Increased resourcing is promised in PFF – but it doesn’t feel very local.

  • Another important new element is the top-down imposition of housing targets.  National government will set the numbers, local government will decide where stuff gets built (details still lacking).

Some elements in BBBBC are regrettably lacking:

  • The suggestion for equalising the burden of taxation on newbuilds, and on the refurbishment of existing buildings – has been dropped.  A pity because refurbs are very much more environmentally friendly.

How should we react? 

Elements which seem positive:

  • The ambition to move away from a discretionary system in the hands of councillors towards a more consultative system with a strengthened local planning cadre (1.17, 1.18) which directly interacts with ‘the people’ seems positive (though genuine consultation is expensive and difficult).  
  • The move to more visual, digital and shorter local plans, which ordinary people can intuitively understand, helping them make genuine choices, is a huge plus. Modern digital software makes it incredibly easy to understand visually what planners have in mind (see https://vu.city/vucity-bristol  You can fly around the city virtually seeing what things will look like. Hopefully the council would show alternatives – We need to build X new units, so shall we do this, or this or this?
  • The move to a code-based system with its various benefits, bearing in mind that poorly-implemented code-based systems can be even worse than what we now have (see Carmona).
  • The replacement of CIL and s106 by a standard contribution scale based on sale values, removing endless gaming of the system by developers (1.19), seems a plus.

Negative elements

  • The whole discussion of the difference between Growth and Renewal areas, and what each implies, is suspiciously obscure. 
  • The proposal that “Development management policy” should be lifted out of local hands and placed in hands of the government (Proposal 2, esp 2.13).  “Development management policy” is nowhere defined, so it is impossible to know what this might mean, which counts as a negative. If it means everything that is (e.g.) called ‘DM____’ in the Bristol Local Plan, well this is unrealistic.

Ho hum elements

  • A new ‘national standard method’ for establishing housing requirement figures (Proposal 4). No detail is given (see planoracs), so this is difficult to judge.

Conclusion – there is currently no planning democracy in Bristol.  Maybe this offers us real hope.

Inevitably people will feel that local democracy is being undermined by PFF. But local democracy in Bristol planning hardly exists. Our Supplementary Planning Document was written by a mayoral appointee, passed by a mayor-appointed cabinet, and is binding on members of the Development Control Committee.  If they reject buildings permitted by the SPD’s terms they will be over-ruled on appeal, at great cost to the council.  So our present system represents the views of one man, the mayor.  That may be some people’s idea of democracy, but not mine or (I wager) yours. 

There is a long way to go before PFF’s proposals are fleshed out.  But surely the idea that plans should be visual, and decided at an early stage by local people, and that no plan should be approved without the council showing that it has listened to local people and acted on their suggestions, could be a step forward.

Footnote:

An interesting and competent summary of Planning for the Future (no reading required!) was given to a council scrutiny committee by Sarah O’Driskoll, who got it down to 10 short minutes with good visuals in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cwm6ATDeKA&feature=youtu.be (from 1:44). Quite a good summary though she arguably did not greatly explore PFF’s somewhat idealistic aspiration of taking planning power away from the council and putting it in the hands of ordinary people instead!

Followed by a lot of panicky comment from councillors who, while admitting they haven’t read it, are planning to put forward a cross-party protest about it, coordinated by chair, councillor Paula O’Rourke (who hasn’t read it either).

Bristol planning officers Zoe Willcox, Sarah O’Driskoll, and even cabinet member Nicola Beech seemed quietly positive about it.

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report – compressed!

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report is Beveridge-like in its ambition.  But it is very long (190 pages) and arguably not helped by the relentless talk about beauty which occupies large chunks of its first 52 pages. I have therefore compressed its key points into 3 ½ pages as an aide-memoire.

At the report’s heart is a pincer-like approach to the different elements of our construction, architectural training and planning systems and a wealth of suggestions for fixing the (diverse and complex) structural impediments which now make it difficult to build well in Britain. The core thrust, somewhat concealed, is to graft a continental-style plan-based system onto the UK’s entirely different system of so-called ‘development control’ which is based on permissioning individual buildings.  

The report divides itself into 8 proposals or themes, as follows (titles rephrased for clarity, with original headers underneath reference):

  1. We should move to a more plan-based system
  2. …with a stronger democratic input
  3. Long-term stewardship by developers should be incentivised
  4. Regeneration of older buildings should be encouraged by tax changes; regeneration in general should be oriented to building a ‘sense of place’ through a Minister of Place and other measures
  5. Urban neighbourhood densification should be encouraged by relaxing some standards
  6. Greenery should be encouraged
  7. The education of planners, architects, transport planners etc should be reformed to promote a wider understanding of placemaking
  8. The planning system should be better resourced

Proposals are numbered for ease of reference to the original document

(The original phrasing was:)

1] We should move to a more plan based system, with 2] a stronger democratic input:

Councils should be required by the NPPF to masterplan (PP5) and be encouraged to do so on an area basis, not just site-by-site, within the context of a redefinition of the aim of the planning system to include ‘achieving beautiful places’ (PP1).  

Local authorities should be encouraged to produce detailed design codes (PP6) which define publicly, visually and quantitatively the form, density and standards of development allowed in specific areas.  Several alternative forms of codes are suggested, but one option (following Prof Matthew Cardoma) is that codes should include four elements – community and land use; landscape setting; movement; and built form/massing issues.  Authorities could be helped by the publication of a National Model Design Code (PP7) from which they could lift designs and ideas.  

Local plans should be informed by engagement with residents on local preferences and desires using a nationally recognised process for co-design, and should embody these discoveries in their design codes (PP4, PP11). Local authorities should discover empirically what beauty means to members of their community and what the local ‘spirit of place’ is considered to be.

“This agreed process would make planmaking much more accessible to non-professionals and facilitate the transfer of best practice across the country (PP11).”

Developers should also be required to demonstrate how proposals have evolved as a result of local feedback.

This will all be easier if plans are made digital (PP12).

This shift towards a plan-based system will speed approval of planning applications (PP9):

“If a robust design policy, which is based on community engagement and which has been properly examined, has been established, the detailed planning application stage should be relatively straightforward. The focus should be on compliance with the site-specific design policy, whether contained in the local plan or in a supplementary planning document.”

This in turn (PP10) requires beefed-up enforcement powers to ensure developers follow the plan, and could be supplemented by involving enforcement officers in early discussions about any scheme.  

Suburban intensification should similarly be facilitated by the development of street consent mechanisms for codes allowing, eg, extra floors, if there is a majority approval in the street (PP14).

Permitted development rights, which are now causing unacceptably low-quality outcomes, should have standards (PP8).  

These local thrusts should be backed by National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) explicitly stressing ‘placemaking’ and ‘the creation of beautiful places’ (PP1), and development should be required not only to produce ‘no net harm’ but to produce a net gain (PP2), presumably so that local authority decision-makers feel empowered to take beauty into consideration when accepting or rejecting proposals.  Refusal of ugly schemes should be publicised; the Planning Inspectorate should have a consistent message about placemaking (PP3).  

The National Design Guide (2019) should be more visual, and (one has to say it) more conventional, stressing a hierarchy of squares, streets, and green spaces.  

3] Long-term stewardship should be encouraged

Higher quality developments would be encouraged if developers retained control of large sites long-term, rather than merely building and selling (PP15).

This requires a change in tax policy (PP17), since a “long-term hold” strategy tends to produce income taxed at 40% and to incur inheritance tax risks, whereas a “build-and-sell” policy is taxed as capital gains at (at most) 20%, and may get entrepreneurs relief and other tax advantages.  

Other ideas are the creation of a ‘Stewardship Kitemark’ (PP15) for good-quality long-term developers, and a patient capital fund financed by the public sector to invest in developers who earn the ‘Stewardship Kitemark’ (PP16).

4] Regeneration of older buildings should be encouraged; regeneration in general should be oriented to building a ‘sense of place’

The tax policy on building new places and re-conditioning old places should be equalised (PP23).  New buildings are not now charged VAT, while VAT is charged at 20% on repair, maintenance and adaptation of existing buildings.  Obviously, this discourages reconditioning existing buildings.

New buildings should be required to submit to an adaptability test (PP24) to ensure that longevity is built in.

A Minister for Place should be appointed (PP20); as well as Chief Place Makers in all authorities (PP21); Regeneration should be re-oriented to being place-led (PP22); Measures should be taken to revitalise high streets (PP25) and to re-orient ‘boxland’ to housing (PP26)

5] Neighbourhood densification should be encouraged

To revive the tradition of building tall dense houses in city centres, some relaxation of standards may be required (PP27):

  • encourage councils to require lifts only in a proportion of cases
  • discourage minimum back-to-back or front-to-front requirements
  • reduce daylight and sunlight requirements
  • discourage councils from imposing minimum parking space requirements

National policy framework for healthy streets (PP28) – upgrade the Manual for Streets and make it policy, not guidance (PP29); Various measures to support car-free towns, tougher emission standards, etc

6] Greenery should be encouraged

There should be more emphasis in the NPPF on greenery (PP30); two million new street trees to be planted (PP31); urban orchards encouraged (PP32); and re-greening of streets (PP33).

7] Education should promote a wider understanding of placemaking (PP34).

Councillors on planning committees should be given short courses on urban design, well-being, sustainability and public preferences. Planning officers and highway engineers should be trained in place design, and in public preferences and engagement, funded by government.  A central component of all courses in architecture, planning and other built environment qualifications should be empirical research on the relationship between urban design and well-being, health and sustainability, as well as public visual preferences and preferences on urban form, (PP35).  Design reviews should be encouraged, with a proliferation of competing bodies encouraged (PP36).  

8] Planning needs to be better resourced (PP37)

….particularly during the shift to strategic planning which BBBB envisages.  It needs to be digitized.  Planning centres of excellence need to be created (PP39).  The length of planning applications needs limiting (PP38).  

Homes England needs to stop judging developments primarily on price, and emphasize design quality and sustainability in weighting scoring (PP41, 42); its targets need to be made more long-term; it needs to be encouraged to take a more master-developer role using form-based codes (PP43). Public sector buildings similarly need to be encouraged to demonstrate civic pride (PP44).

Conclusion:  Despite problems of length and style and some curiously unrealistic suggestions, like the suggestion that Chief Place Makers be appointed in all authorities, or the detail required in the National Model Design Code, or the suggestion that every new home should have access to a fruit tree, the report seems to hit many nails on the head.  

The problem is that such fundamental reforms require a lot of political support.  Beveridge caught the tide of history, and as World War 11 ended his report gained firm political support.  There is no comparable support today.  While Secretary of State Robert Jenrick has indicated broad interest, other figures within the Conservative Party are pushing for the nirvana of deregulation, the short-term case for which has been strengthened by the need to rapidly revive the economy after Covid-19.  

Expert views on high-rise Bristol

“Should Bristol become a high rise city?” The conclusion of the three expert speakers at the Bristol Civic Society’s March 5 event at the Arnolfini theatre was an unambiguous no. Tall buildings are bad for the environment, and bad for happiness. Matthew Montagu-Pollock reports.

With lots of graphs and charts, this was a research-heavy evening. Much of the information was surprisingly new – one wondered why no-one asked these questions before. First up was Professor Philip Steadman of UCL, an expert in buildings’ energy usage (PDF version of talk). Steadman has compiled an extraordinarily large data set of 612 UK office buildings, new and old, large and small, airconditioned and naturally ventilated, to compare their energy usage, using actual energy consumption figures. This had not previously been done before anywhere in the world.

The results were a big surprise. Tall buildings use dramatically more energy than other buildings on an ongoing basis, in fact 100% more energy per square metre. Their carbon emissions per square metre are more than twice as large. Tall buildings in fact never use less energy, except in the case of one Foster building where the architect has effectively encased one tall building inside another, obviously a highly expensive undertaking. Steadman was surprised by this result, because existing theoretical models of energy usage forecast that tall buildings should be mildly more energy-intensive, using around 15% extra energy. Conclusion: the computer models that architects use to forecast ongoing energy use are highly misleading, when tested against real-world observations.

What is the reason for the extra energy use? Lifts only use 3% of a tall building’s energy, so they don’t explain it. Maybe the air-conditioning? No – the effect survives even if you separate out non-airconditioned buildings. So what is the reason? Though this is speculative, the most likely reason appears to be that tall buildings are exposed to cold air and wind in winter, and heat in summer, because they stick up. So they need more heating and more cooling.

Tall buildings also use more “embodied energy”, I.e. energy consumed during construction, before the building is brought into use. A group in Australia looked at embodied energy and height in office buildings, studying two low-rise offices on 3 and 7 storeys, and two high-rises on 42 and 52 storeys. On average, the embodied energy per square metre of floor area was 60% greater in the tall office buildings. So their construction has an extremely high environmental impact in terms of energy and carbon use.

We are often told that to densify urban space we need tall buildings. But this too is an illusion, argues Steadman. Tall buildings’ shadows tend to block neighbouring buildings’ light, so they need to occupy extra space. So in real life the typical mid-rise building has the same Floor Space Index (FSI) as a tall building (FSI = floor area, divided by land area used), I.e. tall buildings do not in practice provide extra density.

This can be intuitively demonstrated by re-arranging Foster and Partners’ 41 and 36 storey 250 City Road scheme into an 8 storey courtyard building. Both schemes would occupy the same land space, and yield the same usable areas, and have the same FSI, even though one is massively taller than the other.

Steadman’s research suggests that:

  • Energy usage intensity in UK office buildings increases with height, and is doubled going from 5 storeys to 20 storeys and more.
  • Embodied energy usage in Australian office buildings is 60% greater in high-rise than in low-rise.
  • Energy intensity also increase with height in UK blocks of flats.
  • Computer models of energy use do not appear to predict these effects.
  • The densities achieved by tower buildings can generally be achieved in slabs or courtyard buildings of less than half the height.
  • Conclusion: Much energy could thus be saved by building lower, without sacrificing density.

Next speaker up was David Milner of Create Streets, an urbanism think-tank founded in 2013 by Nicholas Boys Smith, who was recently co-head of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (PDF version of talk).

Create Streets are quiet revolutionaries, pioneering the collection and creation of quantitative research, which is increasingly available and, in their view, highly necessary given that architecture and planning largely lack a tradition based on empirical evidence, at least as psychologists or the sciences would understand such evidence.

Create Streets has gathered evidence which looks at how building forms can increase human interaction and happiness. What proportion of health might be derived from the environment? About 40%, according to US research. And what built forms add pleasure, encouraging sociability and happiness, and improving mental health?

  • Trees and green – but preferably green in smallish spaces, with private green areas, or areas shared among rather few people (e.g. a small park)
  • Streets with no or only slow-moving motorised traffic
  • Streets with active facades rather than dead spaces
  • Symmetrical buildings, with detailing and decoration
  • Views of water
  • ‘Traditional’ rather than ‘modern’ building designs
  • Buildings with colour
  • Small squares rather than large squares
  • Green suburbs (though the stress of commuting can completely undo the associated increase in happiness)
  • Mid-rise buildings rather than high-rise

Each of these effects is highly supported. Collectively they greatly outweigh income effects. Interestingly, Create Streets’ findings demonstrate the considerable distance between the predispositions of many architects and the tastes of ordinary people (many architects prefer tall and modern building designs, while research shows that than most ordinary people prefer mid-rise buildings, and traditional designs).

The evidence is also clear that tall buildings cause greater loneliness and more depression, are not optimal for children, are associated with social relations that are more impersonal and where helping behaviour is less than in other housing forms. “Crime and fear of crime are greater [in tall buildings], and…they may independently account for some suicides,” notes an important survey by Robert Gifford (2007) quoted by Create Streets which concludes: “the literature suggests that high-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people.”

Third speaker up was Rab Bennetts, who led us from Le Corbusier’s futuristic vistas to the “international style” of today’s globalised highrise cities, including the social housing of the 60s, and the towers of Dubai, Hong Kong, Panama, and the City of London (PDF version of the talk 3MB).

With long experience as the founder of the UK’s leading sustainability practice, Bennetts shared with us the embodied costs of building high. The following image is more or less what a building’s lifecycle looks like, with red emissions when using new materials either to build or maintain a building and brown lines where it’s using energy over time. More of the emissions happen during the construction stage than during the entire working life of the building.

The typical cost of not only the materials but of transporting them to the building site is so large that it could take 50 years at least before even a very ecologically friendly new building actually becomes sustainable.

Bennetts confessed that he himself had not been guiltless. Tasked with masterplanning an Islington canal-side site he had sought to reduce heights and density on the canal by completing the area with a 25 storey building. But as the site was sold on and the design passed from developer to developer the building got taller and taller, setting a precedent for 2 more neighbouring high rises which have since totally overpowered the local environment.

What should be our ambition? To re-use old buildings. To use natural materials which absorb carbon, so as to achieve a zero carbon footprint almost from the word go. Seemingly an almost impossible ambition – but one we should aim for.

Videos of presentations:

Professor Philip Steadman

(PDF version of Prof Philip Steadman’s talk)

David Milner

(PDF version of David Milner’s talk)

Rab Bennetts

(PDF version of Rab Bennetts’ talk)

New data suggests a dramatic decline in public confidence in the Mayor

In March the Bristol Civic Leadership Project announced that Bristol council’s leadership had become more visible since 2012, presumably because of the Mayoral system. Some politicians celebrated the research as demonstrating the popularity of Marvin Rees’ leadership, while others commented that visibility does not necessarily mean quality. 

Unfortunately the Leadership Project published only a 4 page analysis in 2020, as opposed to 57 pages in 2013 and 65 pages in 2015.  Hidden in the announcement was the fact that much of the latest data was not being released. The Leadership Project also chose not to remind the public that they had done three large-scale surveys – in 2012, 2014 and 2018.  Instead, they compared only the situation in 2012 and 2018.

The effect was to hide a dramatic decline in public confidence in the city’s leadership between 2014 and 2018.  Since Marvin Rees assumed office, confidence, trust, sense of ability to participate, in fact every single indicator available in the latest results (which can then be compared with the 2012 and 2014 results) shows there has been an extraordinary decline in public perception of the mayor and the city’s leadership under Marvin Rees.

I have taken every piece of the 2018 data which was made available in the 2020 publication, and compared it with the earlier results.  This means, simply – no data cherry-picking. The results are striking.

The most positive aspect of the introduction of the mayor’s role has been to raise the visibility of city leadership.  Yet while there was a big improvement under ex-mayor George Ferguson, things have gone backwards under the current mayor Rees.  Here are the results of polling of a representative sample of Bristol Citizens:

Strikingly, the sense of democratic participation increased under Ferguson, but fewer citizens now feel involved and able to make a difference than before the mayoral system was introduced:

Finally, trust in the council’s decision-making capacity, which improved during the Ferguson era, has dramatically declined to levels inferior even to the supposedly muddled and disunited pre-Mayoral days:

These results reflect polling of ordinary citizens – 658 respondents in 2012, 1013 respondents in 2014 and 680 respondents in 2018.

In addition to consulting ordinary citizens, the Leadership Project consulted three groups of leaders: councillors, community and business leaders, and public management and professionals. 

Councillors have been less than happy with the introduction of the mayoral system, not surprisingly as power has moved away from them towards the mayor.  Still, on a couple of issues there has been a step-decline under Rees, and in no case an improvement.

Strikingly, fewer councillors feel that responsibility for making decisions is clear now than ever before:

Democratic accountability and checks and balances are seen to have dramatically declined under Rees:

More councillors are now unhappy with how well their constituents’ views are represented:

The most gung-ho supporters of the mayoral system were the community and business leaders:

But more of them now feel that the clarity about who makes decisions is lower now than under Ferguson and lower than even in pre-mayoral days:

Particularly marked is the change during Rees’ tenure in the views held by the third group of leaders surveyed, the managers and professionals.  They saw an increase in clarity of leadership under Ferguson, but now see a decline to even pre-mayoral days under Rees. Their views are particularly surprising given that Ferguson operated largely un-assisted for much of his tenure, while Rees has brought in several expensive managers.

The Bristol City Leadership Project did not make their full results available in March, or we could have explored these issues in more depth.  Why they chose not to is unclear – possibly, they wanted their audience to concentrate on contrasting “before the [institution of the] Mayor” and “after the Mayor”.   But this is a pity.  For example, the poorest segment of Bristol’s population had the highest expectations of improvement from the introduction of the mayoral system in 2012, and were most disappointed by what it actually delivered in 2014 (which may have contributed to Ferguson’s defeat).  It would be interesting to know where they stand now. 

In any case one thing is clear – mayor Marvin Rees can take little comfort in the results.  Nor can supporters of the mayoral system. The system appears to have performed less well than hoped, particularly under the current mayor, as reflected in a decline in leadership ratings on every single measure between 2014 and 2018. 

Links:

https://bristolcivicleadership.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/the-prospects-for-mayoral-governance-in-bristol-13-march-2013-130313.pdf

https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/805865/the-impacts-of-mayoral-governance-in-bristol

http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/policybristol/briefings-and-reports-pdfs/D1625_Pike_Policy%20Report_Mayoral%20governance%20in%20Bristol_web.pdf

A critical decision-point for Bristol

‘Urban Living’ is a policy document being introduced by Mayor Marvin Rees. This is a misguided attempt at solving the housing crisis by removing most restraints on tower blocks. It threatens to transform Bristol from a mid-rise European-style city to a high-rise North American-style city like Houston or Toronto. Councillors should reject it.

 

Bristol’s tall buildings policy

At the turn of the new century a wave of tall buildings was being built across the UK, specially in London.  In the face of this, and with the memory of the social and structural problems that had emerged from the high rises of the 1970s still fresh in people’s minds, opinion in some historic cities became alarmed, and tall buildings policies were developed.  In Bristol, the Supplementary Planning Document No 1 (2005) was produced, followed by the adoption of similar policies in Edinburgh (which have saved Edinburgh’s skyline).

SPD1 was designed to discourage tall buildings (though this was not explicitly stated). The policy was clearly labelled a tall buildings policy, and was very thorough (68 pages long). An important aspect was reliance on the framework of protecting historic assets, views and conservation areas. Not only are drawings and textual descriptions given of views that must be protected, but these are extraordinarily extensive, and in several parts of town it is actually suggested that it would be desirable to remove existing tall buildings. Only 3 areas are endorsed as suitable for tall buildings – Broadmead, parts of Old Market, and Temple, and even then endorsement is highly qualified by the desirability of protecting views, and protecting conservation areas.

The historic environment

SPD1 judges the historic environment to be highly important.

This means that under SPD1, tall buildings were unlikely to be approved in many sites in the city centre, and in many other locations.


In addition, where a tall buildings application was made, applicants were required to submit alternative plans for achieving the same density through a mid-rise and low-rise developments:

Entire areas of the city were straightforwardly ruled ‘inappropriate’ for tall buildings:

Harbourside
Redcliffe
Base of St Michael’s Hill
Stokes Croft
West End

The guidance was clear, unambiguous, and not hedged about with caveats (pp 52-55).  The following collects the areas where tall buildings were deemed inappropriate:


Other areas were said to have ‘only limited opportunity for tall buildings’:

Old City -but SPD1 recommends removal of Grey Friars and Froomesgate House  (p50)
St Michael’s Hill – only one high rise possible, an iconic building at the top of the hill (p 53)

In other  areas it was also suggested that existing tall buildings should be removed:

West End – ‘preference for removal of existing tall buildings’
South Redliffe – post-war towers should be removed (p46)
Clifton – removal of Clifton Heights Tower Block recommended (p48)

Which left only three areas of the City centre judged well-suited to tall buildings, and then only so long as views and conservation areas were protected – Broadmead, parts of Old Market, and Temple.  For instance the document expatiates at some length on the need to avoid over-shadowing Temple Meads Station, or Old Market’s conservation areas and historic assets.

A map was produced of area where tall buildings might be considered, with blueish areas judged possible – Temple, Broadmead, and parts of Old Market, plus the city centre loop and gateways to the city, plus one iconic building on St Michael’s Hill – but this is subject to many caveats about proximity to historic buildings, conservation areas, and the need for designs for future tall buildings to be of higher quality than existing ones (p19).

SPD1 adds (p19):

Protection of views

The most powerful weapon in SPD1’s armoury was probably its sections on the protection of views.  It is worth stressing how extensive these are (pp 17-27, 46-51, 56-59, (i.e., 21 pages) and the contrast with short and decidedly ambiguous section on views in the successor document, Urban Living (4 pages).

Tall buildings should not be located so as to damage:

[1] Views out of the city (pp 22-23):

[2] Views into the city (pp 20-21):

[3] Views between one part of the city centre and another (pp 24-25):

Extensive verbal descriptions were provided of these views, with many grumbles about awfulness of existing tall buildings, and the desirability of removing them.

Many other design principles were provided in SPD1 which gave grounds for objecting to tall buildings.

The reader is left in no doubt that tall buildings are disliked and mid-rise is preferred.  The whole of SPD1 can best be understood as a determined attempt to stave off tall buildings, carefully providing Officers and Councillors with as many grounds as possible to reject tall buildings. Whether they did so was of course up to them, and recently this has increasingly not been the case.

Urban Living – a sea change

Bristol is now introducing a new policy, after a high profile call by Mayor Marvin Rees in his maiden speech to abandon restraints on tall buildings.

The policy has been through a statutory public consultation process in which 85% of respondents, in the largest response in the city’s history, rejected all the sections on tall buildings.  However despite a promise by officers to take the tall buildings sections out of SPD1 (promised at the June 13 Harbourside launch of the results in the absence of city planning head Nicola Beech), the sections on tall buildings have since been strengthened.

The Urban Living final draft encourages tall buildings, and assumes that they will be widely built, with the result that a very much smaller proportion of the (anyway much-reduced as compared to SPD1) tall buildings discussion is devoted to providing grounds for objection.

The document’s title (“Urban Living”) does not mention tall buildings, and it devotes to them only 11 pages (versus SPD1’s 68), burying them within other material.  This treatment is obviously deliberate. The earlier sections of Urban Living contain so many laudable passages on design, people-friendly streets, outdoor spaces, sizing of homes, etc that the thoughtful and positive tone may lull the unwary reader into believing that little has changed.  On the contrary, everything has changed.

It is now much harder for Councillors to find policy grounds on which to base rejection of an application for a tall building – and much easier for developers’ consultants to argue that their building is policy-consistent. It would be a dim developers’ consultant who could not use the Urban Living policy grounds to support almost any tall building application, given that tall buildings are now encouraged in virtually any location in the city.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a dramatic recent increase in tall buildings proposals and applications, given the status of Urban Living as ’emerging policy’ to which councillors should pay attention.

High rise proposals as at September 2018:

Planning permissions granted:

Projects in discussion:

Rumours:

  • Various developments on the north side of Castle Park (Wine Street), with rumoured heights of 14-18 storeys.
  • Possible high-rise city, Chinese investors willing, in the Cumberland Basin.
Tall buildings will be encouraged where….

The word “encourage” was never once used in relation to tall buildings in SPD1, except disapprovingly about Birmingham (p4).  In Urban Living tall buildings are “encouraged” in a critical set of paragraphs (pp 50-51) which carry most of the weight of Urban Living’s policy guidance on tall buildings: effectively such guidance has been shrunk from 68 pages in SPD1, to a few brief paragraphs in Urban Living.

A map is provided (p23). Its meaning is obscure as no ward boundaries are indicated, but we are told that hyper-density (not defined) is possible in St Philips, Avonmouth, Hengrove Park, land released through the Green Belt, Hick’s Gate, Filton, and some former PIWA sites and there is ‘significant potential for intensification’ in Bedminster Green, Temple Quarter, City Centre, and some former PIWA sites.  Presumably all are judged high-riseable, given that Bedminster is within them and the city is pushing hard for high rises in the midst of Bedminster’s quiet Victorian suburbs.

The reader will notice that the reasons for encouraging tall buildings are very widely drawn:

The encouragement of tall buildings is illustrated thus:

A development like Little Paradise in Bedminster would easily pass on these criteria; it is massive, has lots of lower level buildings in addition to the towers, is near to public transport, within reasonable distance of a range of local facilities, and arguably would create landmarks (what tall building wouldn’t?) and improve the legibility of the city (again, what wouldn’t?).

Given the importance of Views as a reason for objecting to high rises in SPD1, it may be argued that Urban Living retains a certain amount of material about long-range views.  However the (small) relevant section (p51) asks only whether the tall building ‘makes a positive contribution to the long-range, mid-range and intermediate views to it’, i.e., it does not mention harm done to views being a ground for objection:

The Appendix C referred to (pp 66-67) does not, in fact, provide ‘further guidance’ but is simply a list of landmarks, without any indication of what use is to be made of them.  Should one site tall buildings bang in front of them?  Or away from them?  Urban Living gives little indication, though in the paragraph ‘Fig 8: Locational criteria’ there is the phrase that “A tall building should not be located where:  – it has a detrimental impact on the city’s historic environment (see Appendix C)”.   Detrimental means what?  The reader may want to contrast this cursory treatment of views and the historic environment with the many pages devoted to the subject in SPD1, which make it absolutely clear that tall buildings should not be sited in view-lines, which are explicitly set out, with the proviso that even those are not exhaustive.

Alas, in Urban Living these very few ambiguous statement are all there is, in terms of the provision of location and view-based criteria, for objecting to tall buildings.  There are other grounds for objection, such as insufficient schools and transport, but these are not enough.

The rest of the guidance frankly assumes that tall buildings are coming, that they will be built, and makes various remarks about them.  Some are frankly fatuous.  The Visual Quality section floats the idea that tall buildings are needed ‘to help people navigate themselves about the city’ (p53) which surely makes absolutely no sense in a city like Bristol with a dynamic topography and many existing landmarks.  Many of the remarks are so vague as to be meaningless, such as “Proposals should consider how to exploit exciting advances in lighting, whilst limiting light trespass, and sky glow.”  What does this mean?  Not everything is so bad; the remarks about the base of tall buildings make sense (p53).  But there is so little in terms of useful material for objecting to tall buildings per se that the general drift to encouragement overwhelms everything else – as is the clear intention.

What action to take?  Incorporate SPD1 wholesale into Urban Living

High rises are usually seen as ‘merely’ an aesthetic issue.  They are not. The case against high rises is strongly evidence-based, backed by the world’s leading urbanists such as  Jan Gehl and the late Peter Hall.  The case is based on both financial and health considerations.  It also involves the city’s attractiveness, which impacts its tourist revenue and its capacity to attract high quality talent.  For these reasons across Europe, rich historic cities have taken great care to preserve their classic profiles.

If high rises are Marvin’s answer to the affordable housing problem, we are in trouble.  A substantial body of research tells us of increased mental health issues for mothers with young kids and a general increase in residents’ social isolation, and rates of depression. It’s worth asking the architects and developers of high rise how many of them choose to live in one. Unsurprisingly – very few.

These buildings are also considerably more expensive than mid-rise, so do not solve the problem of housing affordability. They introduce a new ‘demand-class’, investors, often foreign investors, attracted by the defensibility of high rise apartments with concierges when their owners are absent. These are not the people we should be targeting.

These buildings will alter the feel of Bristol as a whole. Massive, overshadowing blocks will dwarf the beauty of our historic city to the detriment of an entire generation of Bristolians – and of our economic prospects.

Conclusion

Urban Living is irredeemable as written, since its purpose is to encourage tall buildings. The best solution would be to incorporate SPD1 in its entirely into Urban Living, i.e., retain the improved building standards of Urban Living, while also retaining SPD1’s restraints ontall building.  There seems no reason why the two cannot be combined.  The title could be changed to: “Urban Living and Tall Buildings.”

Until September 25 Urban Living is still in final consultation so could conceivably be improved. But it cannot be substantially altered without being re-consulted on, and that will not happen.

Meanwhile it is important to submit your views.

When it emerges in final form, presumably little changed, Urban Living should be called-in and rejected by Councillors, to encourage the adoption of a more moderate draft which better secures the city’s growth, more affordably, more healthily, without damaging this historic city’s USP by overwhelming it with tower blocks.

(The Urban Living is ‘advice’ not ‘policy’, so it falls to the Mayor and Cabinet.  The City Plan, which will follow and give clearer locational guidance for tall building, is ‘policy’ and will require adoption by Councillors, so is more suitable for a challenge)

Source Documents:

Supplementary Planning Document No 1 (SPD1) 2005
Results of the first consultation on Urban Living (2018)
Urban Living – final consultation draft (August 2018)

Welcoming Councillor Nicola Beech

The Bristol Campaign Against Tower Blocks runs a Facebook group, which Councillor Nicola Beech, Cabinet Member for Spatial Planning and City Design, joined on Wednesday.

I welcomed her to our group:

“I’d like to welcome Councillor Nicola Beech, who joined the Bristol Campaign Against Tower Blocks Facebook group on Wednesday.

“And while you are here, Councillor Beech, I would like to take the opportunity to ask you a question!

“You’ll be aware that the world’s leading urbanists such as Peter Hall  and Jan Gehl are agreed that mid-rise cities are healthier, easier to live in, solve the problem of creating low-cost housing better, and have built forms in which residents have lower depression rates.  You’ll know that mid- or low-rise housing is preferred by the overwhelming majority of ordinary people.  You’ll know that Bristolians voted 85% + against tall buildings in the consultation on the Supplementary Planning Document.

“We are all, I believe, puzzled as to why you ignored the consultation survey results  And why ignore the consensus of modern urbanists?  Do you disagree with them, or have you just not read them?  I am genuinely puzzled, I just don’t understand.  We’ve heard no explanation except this phrase about tall buildings expressing ‘ambition and energy’.  Where do these ideas come from?  Could you help us understand your intellectual underpinnings?

“Surely what is needed on this issue is open debate?”

Let us hope she replies. Please encourage her here: Bristol Campaign Against Tower Blocks (facebook group) 

Unlikely of course. Because what is extraordinary about this episode is how a small group of people – Mayor Marvin Rees, and councillors Nicole Beech and Paul Smith – have imposed a new policy with devastating implications for the welfare, appearance, and future prosperity of the city without any discussion.

The Mayor never appears in open forums, never faces unscripted questions from the public – except in safe, strictly local community groups, where he can be assured of smiling faces and a photo-opp.

On the big questions, he dares not face the public.

He has put out a set of statements justifying his behaviour, essentially saying that he does not need to consult or debate with the citizens of Bristol, because he was elected to take decisions.

This is not how citizens of democratic countries expect to interact with their leaders.  We expect openness and communication.  We expect support to be gathered for policies by their being explained and discussed.  On tall buildings this has not happened.

At present debate on the issue is being overwhelmed by the Arena question.  But in the long run tall buildings will have a more profound impact on our city.  It is vital they should be debated.

Request: get Mayor Marvin Rees out of his bubble

Bristol Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire has asked for comments on the Arena proposals: “As MP for Bristol West- with all the implications for people who live and work here – I would appreciate any comments. Constituents can email Thangam.debbonaire.mp@parliament.uk thanks.”

I have written:

Dear Thangam,

To an extent the Arena issue is an opportunity to raise another arguably even more important issue. Many people are agnostic about the Arena but are absolutely horrified by the alternative plan, which epitomises the mayor’s desire to cover Bristol with high rises, against a popular consensus that these are not wanted (see evidence: http://bristolcommentary.uk/).

The arena issue highlights this threat – look at the horrifying plans!

Marvin Rees appears to live in a sort of bubble, ignoring public opinion and making mistake after mistake. This is an administration where almost all decisions have to go through the mayor’s office, neighbourhood partnerships having been dismantled. People have no idea how to get themselves heard, and Bristol now has a real democratic deficit. Rees overrides the wishes of councillors, including most Labour councillors, creating great bitterness. He rarely appears in open public sessions outside his own geographical comfort zone. Consultations are arranged in focus group structure, making direct questioning of the responsible politician generally impossible.

To push his high-rise policy he appointed as BCC head of planning Nicola Beech, formerly a long-standing PR in the consultancy JBP whose job was to lobby on behalf of residential developers, who has aggressively promoted to developers the message that George Ferguson’s time is over and that high rises are now ‘in’. The result has been a torrent of high rise proposals. However as almost any planner will tell you, there is an inverse correlation between high rises and providing affordable housing. The new policy will have a disastrous impact on Bristol’s skyline and on Bristol’s long-term economic future, because it will harm its Unique Selling Point – its beauty, charm, and pleasant environment. You only have to look at the new plans for Temple Island to get the point.

I would be delighted to talk to you about these problems along with other citizens who are in despair at the way the city is being led, and the horrendous transformation we are living through.

Best regards,

Matthew Montagu-Pollock
http://www.bristolagainsthighrises.com/

Reminder: Bristol is overwhelmingly against high rises

Three months ago, by a stunning majority, Bristolians rejected their Mayor’s call to  “show ambition and energy” by populating their city centre with tower blocks.  The statutory consultation on tall buildings in Bristol, which lasted from 26 Feb – 12 April, received more responses than any previous Bristol consultation on any other subject ever – 665 responses.

Because of our strong suspicion that Mayor will ignore the results – his second annual address said tall buildings is still policy – here’s a brief reminder of the clear and overwhelming results of the consultation on the draft Urban Living Supplementary Planning Document (SPD).

How Bristol voted

Respondents were asked 9 questions. Here are the major points.

Respondents are not convinced by their Mayor’s view that tall buildings are necessary to meet the housing crisis (85% rejected this idea, and only 11% were in favour):

 

 

 

 

 

 

The idea that new buildings should be allowed to be significantly higher than those round them is rejected by 82.01% of respondents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Support for high density developments is specially low in contexts where transport, schools and open space infrastructure were likely to be insufficient. Then, only 6% supported higher density blocks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Respondents strongly prefer that new residential units should be provided in low or mid-rise residential developments (87%), as opposed to high rises (7%).

However our respondents are not extremists.  They agree that new buildings should be allowed to be modestly higher than those around them (45.06% for, 43.75 against).

But they feel that in general, new buildings should reflect the prevailing heights of those around them (only 9.42% disagree).

 

 

 

 

One can speculate the extraordinarily strong response was partly prompted by the very aggressive positioning in favour of tall buildings by the Mayor after the 2016 mayoral election (given that the issue had not been raised in his 2016 manifesto, and not subsequently consulted on except to 2 groups consisting 85% of building industry professionals).

Bristolians suddenly faced the prospect, with absolutely no warning, of their city being rebuilt with a morass of ill-considered high-rises in the centre foisted on them by a strongly free-market Labour administration, with close links to developers.

Strikingly, Bristolians overwhelmingly accept that densification is a laudable aim. As the report says: “The majority of respondents supported the aspiration…to significantly increase densities in identified Urban Living focal areas through a design-led approach.”

Densification, Bristolians agree, is necessary to make their city more afforable, more liveable, more walkable, more sustainable, healthier, better at promoting residents’ happiness, and more vibrant.  They support a minimum density of 50dph and a maximum of 200-250dph in central areas.  They support densification near transport hubs, and they support redeveloping low density industrial areas, particularly to the east of the city.

But they refuse to believe that these aims require high rises.

What worries people most

The following quote from the consultation’s “Detailed Survey” picks out the main concerns of respondents (p25):

      • Concerns about the social, health and wellbeing impacts of living in tall buildings, with respondents citing research indicating a number of negative effects including: increased levels of stress and mental health issues, affecting both adults and children, poor social outcomes (even when socioeconomic conditons are comparable), increased crime and fear of crime.
      • “General concerns about the function and liveability of tall buildings such as the provision of private space and access to communal space.
      • Expense of building tall makes them less likely to deliver affordable homes and so fails to deliver mixed and balanced communities.
      • Concern over impact of tall buildings on both local context, but also city wide character in relation to the city’s unique topography. “Scatter gun” approach to location of tall buildings strongly resisted, with many citing the existing SPD1 as providing more appropriate guidance on tall buildings.
      • Many respondents suggesting a definition of 8-storeys for a tall building, with support for the contextual definition provided within the guidance.”

145 respondents chose to give feedback by letter – a very high number.  Two major areas of comment were standouts, according to the summary (pp 31, 32):

Few support the Mayor’s vision:

      • “The statement in the Mayor’s forward (‘I want Bristol’s skyline to grow etc.’) must be seriously challenged. Given the unique topography and character of our city the two positions he advocates are irreconcilable: The promotion of tall buildings will lead to a permanent change in the scale, appearance and character of the city. Since it is essentially irrelevant to the provision of housing it should be with in a separate update to SPD1; Tall Buildings, dealing with all building types.
      • “We do not support the Mayor’s statement, “I want Bristol’s skyline to grow. Tall buildings… built in the right way… in the right places…and for the right reasons…communicate ambition and energy.” There was no public consultation to precede the Mayor’s initiative.”

An entirely different vision is needed:

      • “[The draft SPD] Lacks a vision statement/nontechnical summary; there is scope for setting out an inspirational vision for living at high density that matches Freiburg,Vauban, Accordia Cambridge or Cambridge Clay Farm etc.
      • “There is a clear need to relate new development to the necessary transport infrastructure, schools, GP surgeries, other local amenities and appropriate open spaces.”

This is an extraordinary result.  This is a decade in which the high-rise horrors of the 60s appear to have largely been forgotten elsewhere in the UK.  In London 510 buildings over 20 floors are planned (according to a 2017 survey), with only a few boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea and Richmond free of tall buildings proposals.

Yet Bristol is resisting the vision of “modernity” symbolised by shiny towers.  Instead it favours the more sophisticated urbanist vision of the Happy City widely current in continental cities.

This urbanist vision has been embraced by cities like Munich, Lyons, Toulouse, Freiburg, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Montpelier, Vienna and many others but is little known in Britain, as lamented by our greatest urbanist Peter Hall in his last book Good Cities Better Lives: How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism (2013).  However Bristol, showing its distinctiveness, its quirky, progressive, and forward-looking character, has responded to higher ideals of city living than the Mayor’s “me-too” desire to copy the dull models of Leeds, Cardiff, and Birmingham.

Bristol wants an inspirational vision – but the Mayor has not provided it.

 

Stunning high rise consultation results – but we fear they’ll be ignored

Campaigners tend to be pessimists. The forces arranged against them are all-powerful, and they feel fringy people, bearing placards and shouting odd slogans, while most of the world ignores them.

So there was surprise and relief yesterday when the results of the consultation on the Urban Living Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) were unveiled in a meeting on the Harbourside – overwhelming rejection (virtually unanimous!) by the around 600 respondents to the new tall buildings policy. “If it is a tall building, we don’t want it – put that in your pipe and smoke it,” was the general response.

Maybe tellingly Nicola Beech, the political face of the tall buildings policy, was absent (said to be sick). In her place were the planning department’s three most senior officers, who filled us in on the preliminary results (details to appear next week, reported here).

What followed was amazing:

A quote from Nye Bevan, holy icon of British socialism. What matters, said Nye, is not just the number of homes, but their quality – how they will be seen by future generations.
Unvarnished presentation of Bristols’ rejection of tall buildings, complete with bar charts .
Statement that the SPD had not, goodness no, been intended to legitimise tall buildings. And it was disgraceful that some developers had interpreted it in this light. Gosh, how could they?
A promise to remove controversial pro-tall buildings statements from the SPD, and relocate them into the draft new City Plan (giving objectors 2 extra years to make their case)
A concluding quote from architect Lloyd Alter, said to be the core essence of the SPD:

There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity. At the Goldilocks density, streets are a joy to walk; sun can penetrate to street level and the ground floors are often filled with cafes that spill out onto the street.” (Lloyd Alter, Guardian, 16 April 2014 )

Wow! That is our quote, used by the Bristol Campaign Against Tower Blocks http://bristolagainsthighrises.com/ !

Curious that it has been adopted as the “real meaning” of the document we were objecting to!

With these amazing results, why are we worried?

We should not assume that this is the end of the matter. It is not.

The planning officers in Bristol have been put in an impossible position. They have been pressured by a largely ignorant council leadership which believes that the solution to the housing crisis is to build tall. The planners know, and the vast majority of the planning community agrees with them, that building tall is more expensive, bad for residents, destructive of communities, bad for cities, and especially inappropriate for historic cities like Bristol.

But many of our councillors don’t realise this. Genuinely ignorant, some  – not all! – believe that the victory of tall buildings in London and in many cities around the world means that it is now accepted fact that “tall is good”. To put it simply, they haven’t done their homework.

Developers, of course, are keen to profit from this misconception. They talk, and they talk, to your councillors. They meet them at consultancy dos. They wear suits and ties. They have complex diagrams and arguments. They look professional, they seem to know. They say tall buildings will bring money to the city. Never mind that they will mostly be built in locations where they will cause the most damage (because that’s where you turn a quick profit).

So the problem is our councillors, who cave in to the developers. Also, much increased pressure on the planning department under this administration now means that our planners, often, recommend approval of tall buildings despite being unambiguously against established guidelines (which planners are supposed to follow). Bristol Council ignored both its own guidelines in the Tall Buildings Supplementary Planning Document (2005), and the neighbourhood plan, and local opinion, last November when approving the 26-floor application for the Former Ambulance Station (https://www.bristolcivicsociety.org.uk/former-ambulance-st…/) on Castle Park. There was only one vote against approval in the planning committee (Lib Dem).

There’s a way forward. But it will be hard work.

No palace – but it harbours WHAM,  a lobbying powerhouse

The admirable Windmill Hill and Malago Community Planning Group (WHAM) has it right. Councillors will listen to your votes. That’s why WHAM leaflets, walks the streets, tells people what is happening. Bristol City Council did its best not to publicize the tall buildings consultation, but WHAM helped raise awareness. Not by meetings of professionals, but by going out leafleting, working from the Windmill Hill Community Centre .

And ordinary people responded.

There’s a lesson. Over the next couple of years there will be enormous numbers of tall buildings planning applications. The list of planned high rises grows daily, and soon will cover all areas of the city: 26 storeys on the south east edge of Castle Park. 17 storeys on Wine Street. 22 storeys in Redcliff Quarter towering above Finzel’s reach. 14 storeys on Bath Road at Totterdown Bridge and two 20 and 22 storey towers on Bedminster Green. And an entire high-rise city, Chinese investors willing, in Cumberland Basin.

WHAM have shown us what works. Campaigning, leafleting, and lobbying your councillors really helps.

Community groups can help stop the wreckage spreading:

WHAM – Windmill Hill and Malago Community Planning Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1511895115798962/ )
Action Greater Bedminister (https://greaterbedminster.org.uk/about-us/
• The BS3 Planning Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1642204666052119/ )
Old Market Community Association (https://www.facebook.com/OldMarketBS2/)
Redcliffe Forum (http://www.redcliffeforum.org.uk/)
Totterdown Residents Environmental and Social Action (TRESDA) (https://www.facebook.com/groups/TRESAcic/)
Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society (CHIS) (http://www.cliftonhotwells.org.uk/)

The key councillors to lobby appear to be those on Development Control ‘A’ Committee (https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/mgCommitteeDetails.aspx…) and Development Control ‘B’ Committee (https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/mgCommitteeDetails.aspx…) and most importantly, your local councillors.

Sorry – it really is necessary to get walking the streets. We have to leaflet, tell people what is happening. Popular pressure works. There is no alternative.

You must tell your councillors what you think. And if you are a community leader, please help get the word out.

Paul Smith’s ‘pragmatic’ approach to solving the housing crisis

Paul Smith, Bistol’s cabinet member for housing, considers himself a pragmatist. He argues that to solve the housing crisis, the city should allow developers to build where they want. “Let’s just get started!” he said at a recent conference. We have a housing crisis, we need to attract investment. “Tall buildings are not the objective,” he claims. “The pink bits in the Urban Living Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) are focused on places where people will build. It is not (he says)’Let’s have some tall buildings here because Birmingham has got them!’ The key issue is getting housing units built where we can attract investment.”

There are a couple of things wrong with this.

First, tall buildings ARE the objective of Mayor Marvin Rees and cabinet member for planning Nicola Beech. They have said so many times in speeches and public declarations, and have lamented that Bristol is “falling behind” Manchester and Birmingham in the number of tall buildings.

This is a race that we are losing, they say. We desperately need to catch up by building more towers because they “express ambition and energy”. In other words Paul Smith is fudging the aims of his colleagues.

Second, the pink bits in the Urban Planning SPD have something in common. They are mainly in the most beautiful, pleasant, and (partly because of that) economically most active parts of Bristol.

Of course developers want to build there!

The question is, does that make sense? Is that the way a forward-looking city should be looking at what’s been handed down, its beauty and attractiveness? In a recent survey Bristol was named as the UK’s No 1 IT city in terms of value added per employee – ahead of London, Cambridge, and all others. Bristol’s pool of skilled talent is a key draw, but the second reason that employers give is the drawing power of the sheer pleasure of living in Bristol. The city is beautiful and pleasant to be in, so skilled people are attracted here.

Build over the centre so that it is no longer beautiful, but looks like any other generic high rise city? Just the job! Very practical!

                   Lovely Leeds – the future of Bristol?

The result of this kind of approach can be seen in Leeds, which has allowed its historic centre to be taken over by skyscrapers. Arriving at Leeds station you are confronted by a nightmare jumble that is generic, unattractive, stressful and confusing. At the recent Future Cities conference I mentioned to an academic from Leeds that Bristol planned to do what Leeds had done. “I don’t think anyone much in Leeds would now want to do what Leeds has done to itself,” she said.

To allow developers to build tower blocks in the most beautiful parts of the city doesn’t make much sense. Better, maybe, to designate the Urban Living SPD’s pink bits as places you cannot build tower blocks.

That’s partly tongue-in-cheek. However the fact is, beautiful parts of the city will always attract planning applications. This has to be controlled, otherwise it has the potential to ruin the city. The free market does not necessarily beautify.

A better approach would be to encourage large-scale development in a few strategic areas where developers do not now naturally want to build. St Phillips Marsh springs to mind, with its marvellous road connections and proximity to Temple Meads, and potentially attractive riverfront. It now has acres of dull single storey boxland commercial buildings, which have potential precisely because they are run-down, under-used, yet well-connected to transport and right in the centre of Bristol. Why not plan intense, mid-rise development here to house thousands of people in an attractive and vibrant environment, with excellent connections to the rest of Bristol?

What I am suggesting is that the city must be prepared to lead the market rather than follow it. It should transform run-down areas into places so attractive that developers will want to invest in them. And at the same time it should preserve the parts that are now admitted by all to be the crown jewels of Bristol.

Lead the market. Make the ugly more beautiful, not the beautiful uglier. Transform well-placed but run-down fringe areas into central areas. Have your high rise if you wish (though it makes no sense, since more people can be housed at less cost in mid-rise buildings, with better emotional and mental health outcomes). But do so where new buildings will really improve lives.

The best way of showing “ambition and energy” would be to create extraordinarily beautiful places where now no-one would think to invest. Imagine something like Wapping Wharf in St Phillips Marsh. Why not?

Tower Block in Windmill Hill. Is this the way to create a vibrant community? People living in nearby houses say they ‘never meet’ anyone from the blocks.

Please, for all our sakes, show some real imagination. Display some energy! Don’t ruin our city by caving in to the developers.