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 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:

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

Reminder: Bristol is overwhelmingly against high rises

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

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

How Bristol voted

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

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







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







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







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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

What worries people most

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

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

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

Few support the Mayor’s vision:

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

An entirely different vision is needed:

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

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

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

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

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