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?”
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.
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.email@example.com thanks.”
I have written:
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.
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.
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.
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 )
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.
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:
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!
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?
Please, for all our sakes, show some real imagination. Display some energy! Don’t ruin our city by caving in to the developers.