What Marvin Rees wants

7 April 2018

This site tells the story of a major policy decision which will fundamentally change how Bristol looks. A change so important that in 20 years time this could be an entirely different city. Think Leeds, think Salford, think central Cardiff.

"This is perhaps the biggest mistake the City will make in 20 years," says one councillor.

Yet outside the building industry, almost no-one has heard of it.

In April 2017 Bristol's Council published the document 'Urban Living - Successful Placemaking at Higher Densities'. 'Urban Living' had emerged as a key phrase during an extensive process of consulting the public on the wider Bristol area's transport and housing priorities which began under George Ferguson in November 2015. During the consultations several questions were explored:

The phrase 'Urban Living' had been used during these consultations as a shorthand for concentrating housing in Bristol, primarily on brownfield land.

Densification was a popular idea, people clearly saw that traffic congestion, sustainability, and health imperatives made it necessary. But there was no mention of high rises during any of the consultations.

But the meaning of the phrase began to change dramatically with the new document.

The Urban Living document of early 2017 called for revision of the 2005 Supplementary Planning Document 1 on tall buildings, which had recommended 9 floors as a height limit throughout Bristol. And the Mayor was quoted on p10:

There were pictures of desired very tall buildings at St Catherine's Place, Bedminster (proposed height now 21 floors) and in Redcliff Quarter (22 floors):

And significantly the meaning of 'Urban Living', which was said (based on previous consultations) 'to command a very high degree of support', had shifted. The phrase began to mean not only building on brownfield sites, but also building high rises.

Which had not been consulted on during the two-year process, nor even mentioned.

Why the change? Because the Mayor had decided that the surest way to solve Bristol's housing shortage was to give developers a free rein. If they can build whatever they like, the logic is, they'll build more. The politician will fulfil his promise, the numbers of extra houses will be up.

The Mayor wants to make his mark. Remember?`

In other words Marvin Rees thinks high rises will be a positive legacy. He seems to think it'll be great, if Bristol looks more like Leeds.

So developers are to be encouraged to build - as tall as they wish.

There's a lack of democracy here. Marvin Rees' mayoral election campaign did not even mention tall buildings. And tall buildings are much more expensive to build - 43% when really tall - and to maintain, so they certainly won't achieve the objective of housing Bristol's less well off.

Yet the bandwagon rolls on.

Tall buildings were the primary focus in the next iteration of the Urban Living Supplementary Planning Document (Consultation Draft (Feb 2018). Readers were told that "a well-located, well-designed tall building can be a positive feature of a successful walkable, compact neighbourhood." In March and September 2017 senior councillor officers and cabinet members had met large groups primarily consisting of developers and building professionals. Simultaneously they were encouraged to submit planning applications for tall buildings.

Now there were diagrams of the sort of buildings desired:

Bristol's tall buildings were specifically encouraged to rise above other neighbouring buildings, rather than to blend in:

The Urban Living Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) had little ticks next to the admired designs. True, the document did recommend following Historic England's guidelines. Yet Bristol Council ignored both these guidelines, and the neighbourhood plan, and local opinion, in November when approving the 26-floor application for the Former Ambulance Station on Castle Park.

Clearly tall buildings are 'in', regardless of guidelines.

The remainder of the Urban Living SPD provides guidance on making planning applications and designs for tall buildings, such as avoiding dangerous wind tunnels:

Two pages are devoted to describing the 'three parts to a tall building: base, middle and top' with the following picture serving as an example to developers:

Bristol's planning documents are now studded with the phrase: "this would be a suitable location for Urban Living'. And the Urban Living SPD makes clear that this often means - high rises.

All of which ignores fundamental questions:

  • Historic cities on the continent like Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam, Toulouse, Lyon, Copenhagen, and many others have chosen not to go high rise, typically building no higher than 7 floors. These are the richest cities in Europe, partly because they offer attractive life-styles as shown by their positions on quality-of-life tables. Quality of life, liveable 19th century streetscapes full of bars and shops, attract highly skilled professionals. Do we want to sabotage Bristol's economic future?

    • Building high produces a generic landscape. Guangzhou looks much like Chengdu which looks much like Toronto. Is this what we want?

    • High rise does not mean higher density. Britain's sad post-war high rise estates have very low densities. Conversely, the highest density borough in UK is, surprisingly, Kensington and Chelsea. That's how to build a high-density town: build mid-rise, not high-rise.

    • Building high is in many cases 43% more expensive, and much less space-efficient because of lift shafts, extra concrete, and other utilities. High rise apartments are more expensive to heat. Maintenance is very much more expensive. High rises are therefore now shunned by social landlords.

    • Going high will not solve the housing crisis. Residential high rises are in the UK bought largely by investors and by foreigners, because of their high prices; office high rises suit large firms which require large plates. Frankfurt, a high rise city, has one of the worst housing crises in Europe. High rises will not solve Bristol's core problem - housing the less wealthy.

    • High rises tend to damage the street fabric, producing large, windy, dead spaces with little to interest passers-by.

  • High rise residences may make people unhappy. Research suggests that residents in high rises are more lonely, more depressed, less trusting of neighbours, know less people where they live, and are more likely to commit suicide.

Bristol has a growing tourist trade and attracts professionals partly because it is historic, different, and largely low or medium-rise. We are likely to sacrifice the city's historic character and charm based on a mistaken diagnosis.

Part 2: Why tall buildings make no sense for Bristol