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.

Author: Matthew Montagu-Pollock

I settled in Bristol in 2011 after 23 years in Asia, of which 16 were in the Philippines, mostly working as an investigative journalist in the Euromoney group.