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.