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.


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.