Bristol is now the UK’s leader in ‘authoritarian democracy’.

Bristol is a lively city, rich but bohemian, with a large creative sector, possibly the most physically attractive large city in the UK.  Over the past five years it has set out on a little-heralded experiment – an experiment in authoritarian democracy, which is unique in the UK.  Its pioneer is Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees, who has installed a system which discourages debate, rewards conformity, and concentrates almost all power in the hands of one man. The claim is that the new system will be highly efficient, particularly insofar as it redresses inequalities affecting deprived citizens such as BAME and working class communities, and more generally will “get stuff done”. 

Bristol’s experiment began after it was made possible by the Localism Act 2011, which triggered referendums on transitioning to directly elected mayors in 10 cities in May 2012.  Only one city, Bristol, voted for change.  In Bristol the vote in favour of an elected mayor was won by the campaign of architect George Ferguson, an independent (who became the city’s first elected mayor). Other people in favour included the local Conservative Party, the local paper the Bristol Post, and a Bristol academic advocate of directly elected mayors, Professor Robin Hambleton.

In the second election for mayor in 2016 the personal nature of the contest helped attract attention, and turnout greatly increased from 27.92% to 44.87% of total eligible voters.  Labour’s candidate Marvin Rees more than doubled his previous total from 31,259 votes to 68,750 votes, while George Ferguson barely moved his, from 37,353 votes to 39,577 votes.[i] 

One result of Bristol’s mayor following the (no-doubt well-meaning) advice of Professor Hambleton, is that the authoritarian potential of the elected mayoral system has been greatly developed. The key architecture of the new system is the ‘One City Plan’ – Hambleton’s core idea – administered by a newly-established mayor-appointed City Office. ‘One City’ has six boards which represent different facets of the city’s life – all appointed by the City Office, i.e. by mayor Rees. The One City logo features in most Bristol publicity and is constantly promoted as a “bold, imaginative idea” with (at latest count) 546 goals stretching till 2050.[ii] 

The boards are entirely appointed by the mayor through the City Office.  Bristol’s 70 elected councillors have been relegated to deciding planning applications, local CIL and s106 decisions, voting on the annual budget, and asking awkward questions (“scrutiny”). They have only minor other roles.

One City boards consist of academics, business leaders, and people linked to the mayor’s political networks from around the city. 

This sounds fine until you realise they have no actual power – they can only recommend – and that people who are not sympathetic to the mayor are not appointed. Those who become critical or awkward can at any time be removed.  Ideas that the mayor does not approve of are not welcome.

Bristol also has a cabinet appointed by the mayor. 

However cabinet members, who are all Labour councillors, tend not to show up, as all decisions are in fact taken elsewhere – by the mayor’s inner circle in the City Office.

There was once a local participatory system in Bristol known as the Neighbourhood Partnerships (NPs) which emerged from the Localism Act 2011. These popular community groups were established when the Lib-Dems had a majority and had formal power to influence planning in local areas.  They met 4 times a year to allow communities to set out their vision and establish general policies to guide neighbourhood development.  But Rees abolished them. 

The problem with this structure is obvious.  Quite aside from being undemocratic, citizens cannot get ideas through to the mayor.  Power is extraordinarily centralised.  To communicate with the mayor you need to belong to one of his political networks, or be invited by him to sit on a board. 

How in this system is the mayor to be told that he is in the wrong?  The mayor never appears in public without questions being pre-scripted or (alternatively) being in control of the microphone.  Under him there are no US-style “town hall” meetings at which anyone can speak.  His message is at all times rightly controlled. 

In contrast, the previous mayor, a naturally gregarious man, allowed anyone to ask him questions, openly, in front of any audience. He could be seen night after night at events, listening, talking, interacting. Sometimes he would be annoyed by questions, but he put himself on the spot as – one might think – an honest if perhaps incautious leader should. 

One department which has expanded in Bristol (in an era of cuts) under the current administration is the city’s public relations department. The PR department sends out a continuous stream of “city-happy” messages, many of them referencing One City. These are purportedly for the common good but of course all implicitly reference Rees, who continuously reminds the public that he created One City.  One result of this extensive PR work has been an unprecedented number of awards won either by Rees or by the city.

Mayor Rees’ isolation behind a wall of PR may be why increasingly odd ideas have emerged unfiltered from the mayor’s office.  The most important was the announcement that Bristol should become a high-rise city, made in Rees’ first annual speech of October 2016. Tower blocks, a fondness for which he appears to have developed in the US, suddenly became planning policy in this previously mid- and low-rise city, and a new Head of Planning – previously a developers’ PR – rewrote the city’s Supplementary Planning Document to encourage them, incidentally causing a massive escalation of land values as developers eagerly bought up land, which in turn made the provision of human-scale housing difficult. Although towers are not part of what makes Bristol an attractive city, and were not mentioned in Rees’ lengthy pre-election manifesto (so taking Bristolians entirely by surprise)[iii] the mayor has complete control over cabinet and policy, and despite enormous disquiet from architects and amenity societies expressed in the largest-ever response to a statutory consultation (87% of respondents were opposed to high rise),[iv] passage of the Supplementary Planning Document (“Urban Living”) encouraging tower blocks was assured. The impact on a beautiful, historic, city gently nestling around a harbour will be profoundly damaging (see the Bristol Civic Society on tall buildings [v] and this link). 

Another unilateral mayoral decision was to move the city’s long-planned new arena, which was on the verge of being built, from the city centre to a disused airfield on the city’s outskirts.  The justification for moving from a pedestrian-friendly to a car-only  location (incidentally discouraging concert-goers from shopping and dining in the city centre) was to sell city-centre land at high prices.  The implications for traffic and the centre caused every councillor including all Labour councillors to vote against the idea. Yet the plan was pushed through.

Land sales in the centre are the motivation of another plan, to run a dual carriageway up the river Avon towards Bristol’s iconic suspension bridge – again, to clear city-centre land and sell it off to high-rise investors. This is likely to destroy Bristol’s major tourist attraction, the view of the gorge and the historic suspension bridge.  Unfortunately Rees has developed a doctrine that elected local councillors should not be included in such decisions because they are ‘political’, so instead of the area’s residents and councillors being represented in consultations, a group of business interests and mayoral supporters from around the city with almost no local representation were assembled to take forward the new road scheme, and declared to be a “consultative” body.[vi]  Which then met in secret. 

The mayor has frequently promised to build an underground in Bristol, another strange top-down plan. Any feasibility study would show that an underground is impractical in Bristol because the cost of boring down wouldn’t be offset by a high frequency of service such as you would get in London.  Trams are feasible, but an underground isn’t.  But the idea is regularly surfaced.

Why do so many unrealistic ideas surface?  Why are they pushed so hard?  The simple answer is that the institutional checks which existed under the previous system have been abandoned.  The mayor now has enormous power.  But combined with power, there is also a question of character. Mayor Rees appears to believe that people who criticise his policies always do so for self-seeking political reasons, or for other reasons which can be discounted. He will not engage intellectually, he will not consider alternative evidence, he will not accord those who criticise his ideas the benefit of the doubt, he believes that their motives are always questionable.  He knows what is right and what is wrong, and that is that.

As a manager, Rees has an unfortunate record.  In his first two years, half his senior staff left, including a CEO he had insisted on recruiting against advice who took a large payoff.[vii] 

The mayor’s egocentric management style has caused unhappiness among his own Labour Party councillors. Five Labour councillors have so far resigned amid allegations of leadership bullying. The resignation statement of the latest, Jo Sergeant, noted that Rees sees local councillors as an “annoying inconvenience” and has “no respect” for any members other than those Labour individuals in his “inner circle”.[viii]  She said he set up the City Office and One City Boards as an “alternative council” to make policy in a way that “circumvents democratic process”.[ix] She describes the Bristol Labour party as being “focused on power for power’s sake and beset with a culture of fear and bullying”.

Other Labour councillor resignations include leftists Harriet Bradley and Nicola Bowden-Jones (who also complained of bullying), Eastville representative Sultan Khan (who said he was tired of “infighting”), and former head of housing Paul Smith, believed to have found it impossible to do his job given pressure from above. Not all bullying is from the mayor, but none is ever dealt with, even when complaints are made. That is partly why only 17 out of the 37 Labour councillors elected last time are running for re-election.

Labour councillor Mike Davies, standing down but not resigning, noted that: “There has been such a disparity between my hopes before I got elected and the reality of being a councillor under the mayoral system…It has been a demoralising experience.  Under the mayoral system so much experience, talent and expertise has gone wasted.”[x]

The mayor’s relations with opposition councillors have been even worse than those with members of his own party. Councillors emerge from the council chamber shaking with rage and humiliation after the mayor, who controls microphone time while others’ responses are strictly time-limited, insults and condescends to them.  Members of the public are often treated with disdain in chamber by the mayor. Rees is self-confident (he gives easy and relaxed interviews, which always impress visiting journalists), but intolerant of criticism.  His view, often expressed, is that he is right, while those who disagree with him are playing politics and wasting his time.  This doesn’t make for easy relationships. 

The mayor also bullies journalists.  Democracy reporter Adam Postans was target of a day of mayoral ridicule and snide jokes (“it would be nice if we had a journalist in the chamber” – titters from mayoral sidekicks) to which he had to listen but could not respond, and was then publicly berated in City Hall corridors – all because he had described a new city waste disposal plant as a ‘dump’ (it was later pointed out that the city’s official web site calls it a ‘tip’).[xi] 

Who are you bullying today, Marvin? Seen on 21 April at 39-43 College Green, opposite City Hall

One aspect of Bristol’s total centralisation of power is that the administration keeps decisions secret until the last possible moment.  Why isn’t clear – no rationale is given – but it makes local participatory democracy impossible. 

An example: in his 2017 annual State of the City Address Rees suggested that the Bristol harbour’s western end, known as Cumberland Basin, should be a priority for new housing. This is a sensitive area.  The view up the Avon Gorge of the suspension bridge is internationally famous as the most recognised image of Bristol.  It draws large numbers of tourists and is a source of great pride and pleasure.  Therefore one might have expected extensive public engagement.

In January 2018 a feasibility study was commissioned from Arup to reconfigure the area’s transport.[xii]  In February 2018 Rees made an Asian sales tour and took with him a sales brochure (which was not made public).[xiii]  When this was leaked, residents of the Cumberland Basin learned that a new name, Western Harbour, had been given to the area where they lived. Rees’ brochure claimed the project would unlock 15-20 hectares of developable land potentially providing 3,500 homes with a gross development value of over £1 billion. Yet none of the people living in the area, nor their councillors, nor the wider city, had been consulted about the homes plans.

Given Rees’ well-known preference for tower blocks, residents were worried.  In early 2018, locals pressed the Mayor’s office for community involvement.  However to date – three years later – no community involvement has been undertaken. In February 2019 the growth and regeneration committee (a scrutiny committee), discovered that senior council employees had given engineering and design consultants Arup “free rein” to assess 10 options for the area.  Yet elected councillors had not been told.

Bizarrely, the boundaries of the affected area kept changing, apparently to get more land to sell off. In the Bristol Local Plan of February 2018 the “highly desirable location for residential development” for 3,500 homes was only north of the river.[xiv] By March 2019, the proposed housing area also covered land south of the Floating Harbour, including some of the loveliest and best-used riverside parkland in Bristol. 

20 months after the Arup report was commissioned, neither the report, nor the brief, had been made public.  When the scrutiny councillors were finally allowed to see it they were shown into a private room, one by one, supervised, and were not allowed to take notes. Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Wright said that in his 12 years as a councillor he had never experienced such secrecy from Bristol City Council. He told BBC Radio Bristol that it is “completely remarkable for the council to act in this way”.[xv] 

Finally a public consultation was launched in late 2019, during the August holiday period.  But only 3 out of 10 routes Arup had studied were included (and none of the others were shown).  Little detail was given: large proposed roads were shown as mere pink lines, making it impossible to assess their impact, and there was no indication of separate pedestrian and cycling routes, and no computer visualisations. No option was given to repair the existing bridge, which most people considered the most viable option. 

The public response was overwhelmingly negative, including a stinging critique from the Bristol Civic Society.[xvi]  But these objections were ignored, as they had been previously with the Urban Living SPD and most other planning consultations. In November a “consultation” group to implement the plans was set up consisting of Rees’ friend business leader John Savage, plus other leading business figures in the Savage circle, plus people from Rees’ political networks. But no elected councillors were included, and only one local group representative. 

Perhaps mercifully Covid-19 then closed down the discussion. With an election looming the risks of ignoring public opinion were mounting, and the pandemic’s impact combined with the climate crisis caused a worldwide change of attitudes to new city road systems. In the following year the council finally promised to “go back to basics” with a “meaningful” public consultation, after 4 years of not listening and not engaging. But the new list of suggested consultees are mostly entirely unrelated to the area (but closely linked to the mayor) such as WECIL (where his election agent is director), Knowle West Media Centre, Ujima Radio, Voscur, and St. Paul’s carnival. Rees has since made clear that he considers opposition to the plans to be NIMBYism, the product of white privilege, remarking for good measure that many opponents live in ex slave-owners’ houses.[xvii]

This secretiveness and the disdain are entirely typical, repeated in every consultation on the built environment held under Rees.  Typically the public competition for the most important site in Bristol – Canon’s Marsh – was held in secret, and decided in secret. The public are not to be allowed to see the losing bids.  Asked by Lib Dem councillor Mark Wright why the bids were being kept secret, Rees replied that the competition submissions were not being kept secret, they were merely confidential. What leader does not allow his citizens to see the submissions for an architectural competition affecting the most prominent site in a beautiful, historic city? 

Importantly, the work of the council’s scrutiny committees has been made almost impossible by secrecy. The administration has limited councillors’ access to information, reduced time available to read it, and limited the meetings held. Scrutiny is an important council function and is needed to keep a strong executive in check.  Scrutiny was problematic under the previous mayor, but the issue has grown exponentially.

A typical tactic is to delay production of vital papers.  During the Arena decision-making, 842 papers were released on a Friday afternoon to be read for a meeting a week later.  As already noted, during the Cumberland Basin saga it took 20 months for the consultants’ report to be made public.  In November 2019 the chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Board (OSMB) complained about the process surrounding scrutiny of delays in publishing Bristol’s clean air proposal papers meant members had only three days to examine more than 1,000 pages of reports. [xviii]

The mayor’s response to such complaints has been to criticise councillors for the creation of ‘fake debates’, arguing that ‘one of the death-knells of getting things done in Bristol is to begin to get people on these benches to play ping-pong with it’. [xix]  To “play political ping-pong” is a favourite Rees expression for making points he disagrees with. 

Bristol’s administration under Rees closely supervises its citizens.  £90,000 is paid to social media company Impact Social to track online platforms,[xx] with citizens’ social media mentions of the mayor and City Council being sent to the Head of the Mayor’s Office and to the mayor’s policy advisers. Though the Impact Social contract says “information from the analysis will be available to anybody upon request,” it took an investigative reporter, Joanna Booth, to make these reports public. Conservative Leader Councillor Mark Weston commented:  “This is the first time I have heard of the company ‘Impact Social’ and, given the apparent cost of their contract and supposed non-partisan status, I am surprised that these monthly reports are not more widely circulated or distributed.”  Liberal Democrat leader councillor Gary Hopkins added: “We knew nothing about this and it is quite staggering in its gall. The cost of the Mayor’s Office is quite appalling in any case and this is disgraceful.”

Almost all initiatives – bicycle racks, special needs education, or whatever – must now be channelled through One City, through the City Office, or through other partner network organisations. This has had a chilling effect on Bristol’s lively tradition of popular participation.  No agenda is likely to progress unless framed in terms likely to appeal to the mayor or his appointees, and channelled through organisations already connected to the system.

An example: a structure to make grants to organisations in BAME and deprived communities has been set up – the Bristol Impact Fund – but to apply you must explicitly commit to the ideological goals of the administration, such as being ‘equality led’, and ‘supporting community empowerment’ or ‘be in a strong position to collaborate with Bristol City Council and the One City Partnership to understand and work to address inequality caused by poverty and low income, class, racism, sexism, disablism, heterosexism or ageism and bring about meaningful change for people experiencing these inequalities.’[xxi]  Voscur, Bristol’s long-established voluntary action organisation, has now effectively integrated itself into One City, channelling large amounts of the charitable funds it receives into the same networks. The newly-established social investment organisation “CityFunds” channels another £10 million in a similar direction.  These organisations are very interested in supporting something called “Asset Based Community Development” which speaks a religiose language of self-empowerment. The effect is that money is given to people who speak this language, i.e. speak the same language as the politicians in power.  There is an obvious danger that giving money on ideological grounds rather than objective criteria will engender a classic “Tammany Hall” structure, named after the corrupt New York political machine which gave patronage to low-status groups in exchange for votes for New York Democratic Party candidates.  Such corruption seems an almost inevitable outcome of Bristol’s rapidly developing system.

An interesting feature of many of these organisations is that (like the mayor and John Savage) they have an explicit religious commitment. CityFunds is evangelically-led, and the new city-funded Bristol Housing Festival is also entirely staffed by evangelicals (it even has its own chaplain).[xxii]  The mayor’s engagement with the US California Bethel Church, a spirit-healing cult with its own much-expanded version of the Bible, has been probed by reporter Joanna Booth. [xxiii]

One surprising claim made by Hambleton is that the One City system will reinforce local ‘place based’ democracy against the forces of neo-liberal globalisation. [xxiv] In practice the opposite has happened. One City represents, at least partly, an alliance of the mayor with business interests. The distant genesis of this alliance was the formation in 1989 of The Bristol Initiative (TBI), which stemmed from a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) project to increase business involvement in local politics, partly based on the view that for many businesses, their success depends on the competitive performance of the city in which they are based. The Bristol team was formed in 1989, funded by subscriptions from local firms. John Savage, a charismatic Christian businessman with local connections, was chosen to head a small full-time secretariat.[xxv]

The Bristol Initiative has morphed into an enormously influential network. Today, almost no important aspect of city governance is free from the influence of the (renamed) Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative (BCCI) and of its regional extension Business West, exercised through a vast network of BIDs, Chambers of Commerce, and cultural organisations.  Some see it as the modern-day equivalent of Bristol’s previous ruling elite, the Merchant Venturers, whose copybook was blotted by involvement in the slave trade.

Although Savage backed Rees’ opponent George Ferguson as continuity candidate in the 2016 mayoral election, he then became a kind of mentor to the new mayor, based on a previous relationship and friendship. BCCI personnel, with their philosophy of pro-capitalist social endeavour, now interpenetrate the One City system.  John Savage’s 2011 book “High in Hope” strongly influenced Rees’ infrastructure projects.[xxvi]  The resulting business-mayoral alliance completely bypasses elected Labour representatives and places BCCI’s business interests at the heart of the city’s decision-making. 

Cultural institutions play an interesting role in this new “consensus”.  Bristol considers itself a vibrant, cultured city. But this is a recent phenomenon. Strong traditions of municipal cultural provision – good cultural buildings, prestigious symphony orchestras (CBSO in Birmingham, the Halle in Manchester) – are typical of Britain’s industrial centres. But Bristol’s traditions and history are different. They are less marked by the Labourist and collectivist traditions which in Manchester and Birmingham generated institutions of local cultural pride, so effecting a reconciliation between labour and capital.  In contrast, it has been said that Bristol’s business leadership has been “strongly marked by the severe and joyless aspects of Protestant non-conformism”, and that partly as a result, in the past the city generated relatively weak cultural institutions. [xxvii]

The situation was partly transformed by BCCI, which hit on culture as high-impact way to reinvigorate Bristol, then suffering from the UK’s recession. It adopted a pattern of city boosterism through prestige cultural projects typical of many cities in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s (e.g. Bilbao’s Gehry-designed museum).  A local firm of arts consultants, Boyden Southwood Associates, was appointed and published a report in April 1992.  The academic Ron Griffiths noted that: “To the delight of the arts community, the report articulated a powerful set of arguments in support of increased city council spending on the arts” despite severe central government pressure to cut spending. The report argued that in the ‘competition of cities’, a cultural strategy could help Bristol consolidate its position as a regional capital and “become (again) a city of European significance”.[xxviii] The central message was that the city currently fell below its potential.  It needed a cultural strategy to maximise potential – and compete against other cities. 

One interesting aspect was the stress placed on the built environment.  The report recommended that an ‘arts and entertainment zone’ be developed in the city centre to take advantage of institutions such as the Watershed and the Arnolfini. It also advocated prioritising an existing proposal for a new centre for the performing arts on Canon’s Marsh, to act as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the arts and entertainment district. 

Due to a lack of national funding, the centre for the performing arts was never built and the intended location remains empty. But a charitable body was formed, the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership Ltd (BCDP) with board members from Bristol City Council, South West Arts (SWA) and the BCCI. A Head of Cultural Development (Andrew Kelly, formerly the director of the Kirklees Media Centre in Huddersfield) was appointed and took up his post in April 1993.

One of Kelly’s most successful and popular initiatives has been The Festival of Ideas, set up in 2005. The Festival is a series of invited talks given by prominent authors and academics. It invites feminists, egalitarians, anti-colonialists, third world voices, people with off-beat ideas, and a brilliant cross-section of the world’s leading writers, economists, artists, and thinkers. It presents a Bristol which is tolerant, open to ideas, experimental, progressive, indeed radical. It has been a sparkling performance, and Andrew Kelly is rightly celebrated for his achievement.  But what it does not do, is raise radical issues within Bristol.  There are few ‘for and against’ debates about the most challenging issues that Bristol faces, unless there is effectively already a consensus that the current administration endorses, or a local struggle which lies safely in the past, or a debate between politicians within the safe confines of the four yearly election cycle. The Festival of Ideas plays almost no role in debates about Bristol here and now. 

It is reasonable to ask what is the effect of the Festival of Ideas.  What does it mean to give the impression that all ideas are tolerated and open for discussion, when in fact the Festival of Ideas does not in fact hold (many) discussions about Bristol?  Do people even notice?  Is it important that they do not notice?  Does the rich panoply of choices, speaking of liberation, radicalism, free choice, and cultural quality, the active thrust of intellectual cross-fire, seduce the audience into forgetting that here, in this particular city, no such choices are being presented, that there is no intellectual cross-fire about possible futures open to the city?  If so, we may ask whether it functions as a conservative force under the guise of liberation. Herbert Marcuse’s phrase “repressive desublimation” springs to mind.  Is it realistic to expect radical challenges to ‘how things are done’ to find a place in the Festival, when its head is an appointee of council and business interests?   Is it realistic to expect it to be anything more than a pleasant surface, the kind of ‘culture’ that speaks of righting injustices elsewhere or supporting the day’s conventional obsessions, without offering discussion of actual choices that the city faces?  This – and the evisceration of the local press by the internet age – is the cultural background to the strengthening of the Mayor’s power in cooperation with business interests.  

To return to the theme of business-administration co-operation, Bristol’s business interests now have a Labour administration which gives them better access to policy-making than they ever previously enjoyed in Bristol’s post-war history.  Business, and the dominant faction of the Bristol Labour Party, are now working together, supported by the administration’s propaganda machine. 

What of Rees’ actual track record? He argues that “getting stuff done” is the key test of his administration, and of the One City system. So let us draw up a balance sheet of achievements and failures. 

Rees’ five years do not seem to have brought many achievements.  The administration had met surprisingly few of its campaign promises.  The mayor’s core campaign promise was housing: “We will build 2,000 new homes – 800 affordable – a year by 2020.”  On the council’s own figures in 2019/20, 1350 homes were built of which 312 were affordable. Goram Homes, a newly-established council housing company, has not yet built anything. 

Completing a city-centre arena, a major project of the previous administration which was shovel-ready, was promised – but was not done.  Greater transparency and accountability were promised (“We will be democratic. We will listen to communities and devolve greater powers to neighbourhoods”) – clearly not achieved. Strengthened Neighbourhood Partnerships were promised – but they were abolished.  Promises on 20 mph zones and RPZs were made – and not kept. An integrated transport network was promised – but not delivered. 

The administration has been financially accident-prone.  The city’s power distribution company Bristol Energy, started under Rees’ predecessor, was allowed to build up more than £50 million in losses, although opposition councillors had been warning against continuing to invest since 2016. Poor scrutiny arrangements were a key cause of losses building up.  Other losses due to inadequate scrutiny include £60 million of unexpected rebuilding costs at the city’s concert hall, Bristol Beacon, previously Colston Hall.  

On the positive side, the administration has promoted more BAME staff within the Bristol Council bureaucracy, and increased the heft of BAME networks associated with the mayor such as the Black South West Network, an important achievement given past relative neglect of such communities, not least within the Labour Party itself. 

Turning to active harm as opposed to mere failure to do things, the encouragement of tall buildings, their appearance all over the city,[xxix] will cause enormous damage. 

Bristol is a beautiful city which it makes absolutely no sense to spoil by a program of building tower blocks in the city centre. They are unnecessary to produce densification.  They are more expensive to build, so will deliver less affordable housing, a key administration goal. The evidence is also clear that tall buildings cause unhappiness – a survey by Robert Gifford (2007) concludes: “the literature suggests that high-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people.’[xxx]

Tall buildings are also less sustainable than mid-rise.  The science suggests that they use dramatically more energy than other buildings on an ongoing basis, in fact 100% more energy per square metre. This has been shown in research by UCL’s Professor Philip Steadman, using a large data set of 612 UK office buildings, new and old, large and small, air-conditioned and naturally ventilated.[xxxi] More important, tall buildings also use more “embodied energy”, i.e. energy consumed during construction – maybe as much as 60% more “embodied energy”.   Over the lifetime of a building, embodied energy is typically more important than ongoing energy use.

Finally, it is generally agreed that tall buildings will harm Bristol’s appearance.  Bristol’s beauty is a key factor which draws tourists and skilled incomers.  The more beautiful a city is, the urbanist Richard Florida has pointed out, the more successful it tends to be at attracting new jobs and new residents, including the highly educated and affluent ones.[xxxii]

To summarise, Bristol’s misconceived tall buildings programme has been pursued by the administration without understanding the issues, and without taking proper advice. 

It seems impossible to separate this ongoing mistake from the power structure the mayor has built up which has reduced his ability to hear outside advice and the views of his citizens, causing him to adopt unwise policies. 

As Griffiths noted in his article in 1995, the strategy of cultural boosterism adopted by Bristol (which partly motivated efforts to keep Bristol’s built environment beautiful) always depended on a delicate coalition of forces – a coalition between a socially-oriented business network, and (on the other hand) politicians and citizens who desired a city beautiful, which they suspected would also be a city prosperous.

That coalition has now morphed, as a result of a complete shift in views by one element in the “alliance” – our current mayor. Business improvement districts (BIDs) are enthusiastic about the change, since in any particular location BIDs will always put locally increased receipts from new tall buildings above the city’s beauty. One might have expected BCCI to challenge the change in policy, but BCCI has been a supporter of the high-rise push (as evidenced by Destination Bristol’s positive comments on high rise planning applications). Result: the administration has encountered no opposition, except from local campaigners, to pushing through permissions for high-rise blocks in the centre’s most sensitive locations – against the wishes of most Bristolians and most residents. 

Griffiths’ 1995 words now seem prophetic:

“It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the cultural strategy may come to be used essentially as a vehicle for attracting private sector funds for the redevelopment of underused sites in the city centre, and that wider cultural development issues may become secondary. In other words, there is a possibility that, under certain configurations of balances of forces at work, the support and goodwill that emerged around the cultural strategy could lead to it (and the partnership arrangements cautiously constructed to carry it forward) being used as a smokescreen, or legitimizing device, to conceal a harsher property development agenda, whatever the original intentions of its authors and sponsors.”[xxxiii]

That is exactly what has happened. 

The mayor’s unhappy performance has now put on the agenda a question: should the elected mayoral system be abandoned?

In reality, the system has pros and cons. 

Elected mayors tend to be more ‘visible’ (which may be why national politicians find them easy to deal with).  But though national politicians have long been attracted to the idea the elected mayors deliver better local government, evidence is lacking that directly elected mayors improve economic growth, citizen welfare, governance, or, indeed, succeed in what is often claimed to be a major benefit, securing resources for their cities, despite the claims made for them.[xxxiv] 

Elected mayoral systems do however concentrate immense power in the hands of one person.  Is that a plus or a minus?  It partly depends on the character of the person who is elected. Since the electorate has usually only been briefly been exposed to most candidates before the election, and so cannot make a proper judgment, the character of the mayor is (in a sense) largely a matter of accident.

If the mayor’s visibility is the aim, the system has been successful in Bristol: our mayor is all over the world, attending conferences and receiving awards.  If democracy is the aim, research clearly suggests that the public now feels less able to influence the political system than before the elected mayor was introduced, i.e. participatory democracy has been reduced.[xxxv]

It would seem likely that most Bristolians value their ability to participate in the democratic process more than they value the visibility of their mayor. We should also worry about the closed features of the One City system, and about the ongoing reduction of councillors’ powers of scrutiny, both of which reduce the diversity of views reaching the mayor.  We should worry about the unwillingness of our mayor to interact directly with his electors, and the expansion of his public relations apparatus against a background of reduced media budgets, and the lack of fora where open, democratic discussion takes place. 

Too much power has been put in the hands of one person, and the city is clearly suffering


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayor_of_Bristol#2016

[ii] https://www.bristolonecity.com/dashboard/?fwp_sdgs=2eb742a9c421bd81fc55e04f260a281a

[iii] https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/labourclp407/pages/233/attachments/original/1460111184/Our_Bristol_Plan.pdf?1460111184

[iv] http://bristolcommentary.uk/bristol-overwhelmingly-against-high-rises

[v] https://www.bristolcivicsociety.org.uk/expert-view-on-high-rise-bristol/

[vi] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/what-people-working-huge-western-3943376

[vii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-50004983

[viii] https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/news/former-labour-councillor-pens-stinging-resignation-letter/

[ix] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/former-labour-councillor-launches-scathing-5190007

[x] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/labour-councillor-speaks-out-against-5194855

[xi] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/bristol-mayor-marvin-rees-jokes-3629185

[xii] https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/documents/s30396/Cumberland%20Basin%20sch%201.pdf

[xiii] http://www.bristolnpn.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Dec2017_Bristol-Investment-Brochure_EN.pdf

[xiv] https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/documents/s30328/Houses%20of%20Multiple%20Occupancy%20-%20New%20Article%204%20Directions.pdf

[xv] Well reported here: https://www.bristol247.com/opinion/your-say/the-way-the-council-has-handled-the-cumberland-basin-project-is-insulting/

[xvi] https://www.bristolcivicsociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Western-Harbour-Response.pdf

[xvii] See: https://twitter.com/stillawake/status/1380644608523243523/photo/1 In Marvin Rees’ online talk, he presented his view of the community response to development in Western Harbour as NIMBYism: see the section on Western Harbour https://youtu.be/ShJn4fXHLiw at about 33 minutes in.

[xviii] https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/documents/b18740/Supplement%20-%20Report%20from%20Scrutiny%20Commission%2005th-Nov-2019%2016.00%20Cabinet.pdf?T=9

[xix] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/mayor-marvin-rees-blasted-truly-3554660

[xx] https://ephemeraldigest.wordpress.com/2020/02/19/how-close-an-eye-is-the-mayor-keeping-on-bristols-residents/

[xxi] https://www.voscur.org/bristol-impact-fund2

[xxii] https://www.bristolhousingfestival.org.uk/team

[xxiii] https://jo-stillawake.medium.com/who-is-marvin-rees-faith-adviser-and-what-effect-does-she-have-on-him-3fd67c3737d2

[xxiv] Robin Hambleton (2019): The New Civic Leadership: Place and the co-creation of public innovation, Public Money & Management, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09540962.2019.1592908, and Hambleton, R (2015). Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based Innovation for a Bounded Planet. Bristol: Policy Press.

[xxv] Griffiths, R. 1995: Cultural strategies and new modes of urban intervention, Cities, Vol 12, No 4, 253-65

[xxvi] https://drive.google.com/file/d/1P_5xOn-sNCx2Nz8WLsKTdoQT-XkZd4FQ/view

[xxvii] Griffiths, R. 1995, quoting Roger V. Clements(1969), Local Notables and the City Council, Macmillan & Co

[xxviii] Boyden Southwood (1992a, p4) A Cultural Strategy for Bristol: Final Report. Boyden Southwood Associates, Bristol.

[xxix] http://bristolcommentary.uk/bristol-tall-buildings-recently-built-permitted-or-in-planning

[xxx] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233490985_The_Consequences_of_Living_in_High-Rise_Buildings

[xxxi] https://www.bristolcivicsociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Philip-Steadman.pdf

[xxxii] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-15/how-a-city-s-beauty-affects-its-economic-growth

[xxxiii] Griffiths, R. 1995

[xxxiv] This issue is well discussed in Ed, David Sweeting (2018): Directly elected mayors in urban governance – impact and practice. Bristol: Policy Press

[xxxv] http://bristolcommentary.uk/new-data-suggests-a-dramatic-decline-in-public-confidence-in-the-mayor

Bristol tall buildings recently built, permitted, or in planning

Five months after his election as mayor, Marvin Rees revealed an ambition which had never been mentioned in his manifesto – to encourage tall buildings in Bristol.   

Here are the tall buildings that Bristol now faces: 

Castle Park View (Developer: Linkcity/Bouygues) 17/04267/F

  • 26 storeys
  • Site was within the Old Market Quarter Neighbourhood Development Plan (OMQNDP) area, but the requirement to consult OMQNDP was ignored by developers and council.
  • Old Market Community Association account here

Redcliffe Quarter: (Developer: Change Real Estate, now another developer) 16/02349/F

  • Permitted on 14 Dec 2017. This is a massive development.
  • 22 storeys: will be visible from everywhere in the city
  • The new owner is seeking to lower the height of the tower and raise the height of the other buildings.

Image

Former Fire Station (Developer: Cubex) 19/01255/F

  • 16 storeys at highest point. Huge. Objections from the City Design Group, Historic England, and Urban Design Forum, but officer recommended approval.
  • Permitted in December 2019

Gardiner Haskins (Soapworks) (Developer: First Base) 20/01150/F

  • 20 storeys: not yet permitted.
  • But will be soon – merely held up by developer wishing to keep the use flexible, which did not please the Development Control Committee.

Student, residential buildings + school on Silverthorne Lane

(Developer: Square Bay) 19/03867/P

  • The tallest is 17 storeys
  • Permitted on August 6 2020
  • Held up by flooding concerns
Image

Temple Island student accommodation (Architects: AHMM)

19/02952/M

  • Permitted in December 2019.
  • 22 storeys, 16 storeys and 9 storeys (a little lower than original proposals)
Image

Probable buildings coming up in central Bristol:

  • The northern edge of Castle Park – tall tower?
  • The former Arena site: 10 blocks of up to 24 storeys?

Bedminster (below) is the city’s most contested area. The council made informally clear to developers that the area should have tower blocks. Developers piled in chaotically and without co-ordination, bidding up land prices, no MasterPlan having been developed by the city. Eventually consultants Nash Partnership were called in to master-plan, aggressive heights having been put into the Urban Living SPD and into the Local Plan.

A residents’ group, Windmill Hill and Malago Community Planning Group (WHaM), has continuously challenged the proposals. Some heights have been reduced, some designs have been improved, but it is a wearysome process with developers appealing rejections and, when the appeal is refused, coming back with new proposals only marginally different from the original.

Little Paradise Street (Plot 4) (Developer: Dandara) 18/06722/F

  • Permitted October 2020, despite strong City Design Group reservations over height, high proportion of single-aspect flats (64% in private, 72% in affordable units), and worries about daylight
  • 6% afforable (21 out of 316)
  • 16 and 14 storeys

St Catherine’s Place (Plot 2) (Developer: Firmstone) 20/04934/P

  • A new 14 storey application, with no affordable housing, was approved in March 2021.
  • Committee members followed BCC officers’ recommendation to refuse the original application, despite a height reduction from 22 to 16 storeys. An appeal against this refusal was dismissed in February 2021.
  • 0% affordable out of 180 flats

Pring Hill Site / Malago Road (Plot 1) (Developer: a2 Dominion) 19/00267/F

  • The original 12 storey application was recommended for refusal by officers and was in fact refused in September 2019 – so an appeal was launched
  • In April 2021 the appeal was dismissed.
  • 7% affordable (40 out of 590)
  • No new application has yet been made.

Dalby Avenue (Plot 3) (Developer: Sydney Freed) 20/05811/F

  • Plans submitted in December 2020
  • Multiple buildings up to 9 storeys
  • No decision yet
  • 0% affordable (out of 837 student units)
  • One of the most worrying developments, given its multiple impacts – but with City Design Group input, cladding changes and a little height reduction has improved it

Triangle between Malago Road, Whitehouse Lane, and Hereford St (Plot 5) (Developer: Dandara)

  • Still in consultation – three buildings, with the largest up to 10 storeys, yielding 105 affordable homes our of 350
  • The buildings wrap around Bedminster Green.

Totterdown

Bath Road, Totterdown (Developer: Yarlington Housing Group) 18/04620/F

  • 17 storey tower, plus other blocks
  • Approved March 2019

Commentary:

Marvin Rees’ desire to bring more tall buildings to Bristol meant rewriting the city’s planning law (see account of how it was rewritten).  To do this, Rees appointed councillor Nicola Beech, previously a developers’ PR, as head of planning.  She pushed through a new Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) “Urban Living” in 2018 to replace the 2005 SPD (which had protected Bristol from tall buildings (see comparison of new SPD and previous SPD). This new document then had to be consulted on, by law. Residents, ordinary citizens, architects and amenity societies, in the largest response to any consultation in the history of Bristol, overwhelmingly rejected tall buildings. This response was ignored by Rees and Beech.

While densification of city centres is often good, helping make cities walkable and helping support public transport, the densest cities in the developed world are not US cities with towering high rise centres, nor UK cities following suit like Leeds or Manchester, but historic mid-rise continental cities like Barcelona and Paris.

These dense European cities are more beautiful, more sociable, pleasanter to be in than the US cities. They have gentle mid-rise centres, connected by good public transport (typically trams).  So why are we rushing to go high when it is not necessary?  The argument ‘for’ – which pleases developers – is based on false logic, as has been eloquently argued in Bristol before the Bristol Civic Society by UCL’s Professor Philip Steadman, Create Streets’ David Milner, and Bennetts Associates Rab Bennetts

Mid-rise densification can house as many or more residents (see Steadman), is more sustainable because it uses less carbon (see Bennetts), makes residents happier (see Milner), and will produce many more affordable housing units, because it is less expensive to build per square metre. It is also more beautiful which, research suggests, in the longer-term is likely to increase Bristol’s prosperity by attracting talent to the city.  

Sources of information on planning applications:

Centre / Castle Park / Redcliffe: No organisation tracks applications in this area. The best source is the Bristol Civic Society (BCS) Planning Issues Status page, and Planning Issues, and Planning Archive. There is also a BCS twitter, which frankly needs more effort: @BristolCivicSoc

Bedminster. The best source is the WHaM site and, for keeping up to date, the WHaM Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1511895115798962

Totterdown / Bath Road. A source is Totterdown Residents Environmental and Social Action (TRESA) , though it is primarily social. More useful for keeping up to date is TRESA’s twitter: @TRESAci

City-wide: The best source is the Bristol Civic Society. The Neighbourhood Planning Network has an excellent Current Topics page. Specifically on high rises: https://www.facebook.com/groups/169400953696154.

RIBA awards an honorary fellowship to Marvin Rees

The award of an honorary fellowship by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to Marvin Rees is shocking and extraordinarily unfortunate. It is as if John Betjeman, during the famous ‘Fight for Bristol’ of an earlier generation, had placed his prestige squarely behind building a hotel in the Avon Gorge and cementing over the harbour. That the UK’s most prestigious architectural institution has indicated its approval of what Rees has been doing is tragic. How can groups now argue, correctly, that good planning principles point in another direction entirely?

Of course Rees is not being awarded for any architecture, but for ex-housing head Paul Smith’s work in housing. RIBA’s explanation for the award was that: “As Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees founded a city owned housing company to develop and build homes. He has overseen a major housebuilding programme, increased the percentage of affordable homes and embarked on the largest council house building scheme for over 35 years.”

In fact, the number of new homes built under Rees has fallen, as compared to the previous period. The mayor’s core campaign promise was housing: “We will build 2,000 new homes – 800 affordable – a year by 2020.”  On the council’s own figures in 2019/20, 1350 homes were built of which 312 were affordable. Goram Homes, a newly-established council housing company, has not yet built anything.  As the Bristol Post’s Amanda Cameron recently wrote. “Fewer than 350 new affordable homes have been built in Bristol each year for the last four years, new figures from the local authority show. Marvin Rees pledged to build 2,000 new homes – 800 affordable – a year by 2020 before becoming the city’s second elected mayor in May 2016.”

Which he has failed to do.

More generally the award will be tragically misinterpreted. It will be treated as an architecture award. Not least because the honour allows recipients during their lifetime to use the suffix Hon FRIBA.

This is very unfortunate.

Because this is a mayor who has pursued an aggressive campaign to fill this beautiful mid-rise city with high rises, without considering the mid-rise alternative, and without once mentioning in his pre-election manifesto that he was in favour of high rise buildings.

He has disbanded neighbourhood forums. He decides planning policy through fake consultation groups, selected by himself. He has entrusted policy to the ‘One City’ structure excluding all dissenters and dissenting opinions, makes policy on the hoof entrusting detail to consultants whose reports are then hidden. He runs the most public-relations dominated administration in Bristol’s history, refuses open discussion, is persistently rude to opposition councillors. His administration routinely refuses to come to council committees with policy statements in due time, so that policy can be properly examined.

Marvin Rees has even appointed a developers’ public relations officer to write the city’s planning policy! An appointee who then abandoned the careful views framework of Bristol’s 2005 Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) (which inspired the policy which saved Edinburgh’s skyline). Instead, the SPD protecting Bristol’s views was replaced by this administration’s 2018 “Urban Living”, whose purpose was to encourage tall buildings.

Meanwhile large swathes of the city are being devastated. Walk across the park to look at Castle Park View. Walk down the Avon Street, the new dismally dense, characterless and lightless canyon street behind Glass Wharf. Contemplate the appalling plans for the Gardiner Haskins development. Look at the dire Silverthorne Lane and the inappropriate plans for the university residential quarter in St Philips.

Whole new areas of Bristol are being thrown up without any concern for design, without green, without light, without sympathy for the human beings who will navigate them, and contrary to the mayor’s election promises, offering only a very small proportion of affordable developments. Look at the plans for the future of Bedminster, at the awful buildings in Bath Road. Look at the alarming plans for the Western Harbour, for new highways along the Avon and a bridge near the suspension bridge.

And we haven’t even got started on the city’s ridiculous transport policies which have been the despair of health experts and of environmentalists, as Rees fought off pedestrianisation, argued for cars, failed repeatedly to meet national pollution targets, and criticized environmentalists as anti-working class, even though the poor bear the harshest health impacts of traffic pollution.

But our mayor is a vote-conscious politician. So shortly after Extinction Rebellion invited Greta Thunberg to Bristol and Covid-19 hit, he suddenly became the man who (his account) had courageously pioneered green policies for the city, and his PR machine even put him in with a paid entry for a Green Leaders prize which he was duly awarded. Which of course has as much authenticity as a child drawing a £5 note on scrap paper! Yet RIBA, oblivious, awarded him…

So what activated RIBA? All this must be understood in context. Ongoing, at present, is a dramatic remaking of England’s built environment, now touching Bristol. This process is steamrollering across the land, joining in an unholy alliance the giant architectural practices with hundreds of staff, the big developers, and city mayors desperate for money, willing to sell off key plots in city centres to fund their austerity-depleted budgets. The big architectural practices put up offices in target cities, lobby politicians, and 10 years later, another city has been entirely transformed, often for the worse. Yet almost no-one writes about this process, and there is little public awareness of the powers at work. These are things largely ‘done to’ a passive populace, which is relentlessley targeted by the misleading mantra – “build up or out”. The coverage of architecture and above all, of planning, by even the best newspapers such as the Guardian and the Times is quite thin, concentrating on individual buildings, while the professional coverage is siloed behind paywalls (Architectural Journal, Architectural Review) in magazines which are largely practicality and achievement oriented.

One part of this process is a ‘softening up’ of public opinion by the institutions which represent architects, such as RIBA, which tends to be headed by the leaders of large practices. Obviously whatever their quality, these practices are deeply implicated, financially and emotionally, in the ongoing process of transforming British cities with the morass of high rises which we see going up in London, Birmingham, Manchester and now Bristol.

We are but tiny fleas being crushed under these vast mechanisms. On the continent, under different planning regimes, the kind of disaster now overtaking Bristol is being avoided. But not here. Here, we seem done for.

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, which in the Bristol mayoral system is the mayor, who is given extraordinary power which has recently been exercised highly destructively, 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 decline in public confidence in Bristol Council under an elected 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. 

Comment by Dr Thom Oliver: Co-investigator Bristol Civic Leadership Project / Dr Thom Oliver (@Thomoli) / Twitter / Bristol Civic Leadership Project | A collaborative project on change in local governance 16 February 2021:

Thanks for taking the time to look at the Bristol Civic Leadership data, I thought I would send across a few brief comments on your analysis, which I hope should explain the logics of decisions to present what we did, and the limitations of our data.

In terms of length of report, we were limited by our own individual capacity (the Bristol Civic Leadership Project takes up a small/almost voluntary amount of our ‘day jobs’ as it were), Robin Hambleton is retired, David has a senior academic role at University of Bristol with a substantial teaching load, and I am personally limited given my role is research support as opposed to a 100% academic role. We were limited by time, capacity, and the desire of Policy Bristol to produce a ‘short report’ in line with their other outputs. We still have a desire to do something more extensive, but in the academic world, our institutional push would be more towards academic peer reviewed papers, as opposed to policy briefings.

In terms of the presentation of data comparing 2012 to 2018 as opposed to all three data phases. This is on two distinct logics, firstly the BCLP aims to consider the mayoral model, not the individuals within the role of mayor. Our questions and data are depersonalised, and the original frame of the research was to compare the pre governance under the leadership model, alongside the governance after the introduction of the mayoral model. The second reason for not comparing 2014 to 2018, is that it would be statistically incorrect to draw conclusions from such comparisons. Most shifts are not statistically significant (i.e. we cannot say with enough certainty that the respective changes in scores either up or down, could be explained or attributable to a singular known reason, the other variance, which we could not account for, or attribute could be the main factor in informing the change). 

Further to this there is a particular challenge that in each cycle we are not comparing like to like between the sample populations (although Bristol City Council do very well to balance the sample), again there is variance there which given the small sample meant we couldn’t draw ‘fair’ conclusions on between data cycles.

There will be further outputs from this data, based on current data and the continuation of questions in the Bristol City Council ‘Quality of Life Survey’ and ‘Citizens Panel’, all the data is available online here: Find Consultations – Bristol – Citizen Space searching ‘Civic Leadership’. So, I would encourage people to look at the data themselves.

Overall, though, and without any statistical power, there was a definite tailing off between both mayors across several variables, and this was anticipated, given the distance from the original point of contrast, non-mayor versus mayor, and a predictable withering on the basis that original expectations of what the mayoral model could do, being met or not.

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/