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Building tall in Bristol poses real threats to the character of the city

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The city’s current administration seems gripped by an extraordinary desire to turn it into something more like Birmingham, writes George Ferguson

The recent publication of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report chimes nicely with the AJ’s campaigning coverage of the topic and comes not a moment too soon.

Nearly all the worst planning decisions are the result of chasing numbers at the expense of quality of place and community. Bristol is a prime example of the housing numbers syndrome: an expensive city, locking out many of those who cannot afford homes, even at so-called ‘affordable’ rents. This, combined with demographic changes, the 1980s Right to Buy legislation and a virtual halt in the building of council housing for more than 30 years has created a devastating social housing crisis in the city. 

We rebooted Bristol’s social housing programme some seven or eight years ago, in a move which included a panel of excellent local practices. It was a modest beginning, because the government, frustratingly, would not allow the city to borrow more than a pittance against the value of our existing 27,500-home council estate, despite my insistence that this was secure and solid infrastructure investment, paid for by rental income, and should not be seen as equivalent to increasing spending on services.

With the so-called ‘end of austerity’ this tight borrowing restriction has at long last been relaxed, enabling a much more ambitious council housebuilding programme.

The greatest opportunities lie in the long-neglected low-density suburbs to the south of the city, which could, with better planning, produce higher numbers than currently proposed.

But the danger is that my successor as mayor, Marvin Rees, seems to confuse high density with high buildings in our ‘city of villages’, where tall buildings stand out like sore thumbs. Bristol went through a terrible period in this respect in the 1960s and ’70s and I thought we had learnt the lesson that high-rise buildings do not build good communities. 

Nearer the centre, in the Bedminster Green development, I saw a great opportunity to build an exemplary high-density mixed-use community on what is largely council-owned land.

But, instead of being sensibly masterplanned, as was promised, it has been crudely split up into plots, with developers competing on height but not, sadly, on quality, losing the opportunity to make a sustainable development with civilised streets and spaces. 

Good, confident cities build on their own history and character. Bristol has heaps of both but, sadly, there seems to be in the current administration an extraordinary desire to be more like Birmingham than Bristol. This is resulting in some appalling planning decisions, including a banal 26-storey residential block next to Castle Park, towering over the historic core of the city.

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Shutterstock 693887656

However, the latest and most serious threat to Bristol’s heritage and community is what Rees has christened Western Harbour, named following a visit to Malmö in Sweden, which, with its ‘playable’ streets and community-driven planning is surely one of the best of contemporary European urban developments.

The problem with Bristol’s Western Harbour vision is that it comes with predetermined numbers and an appalling highway plan, which can only force the masterplanners into deeply uncomfortable solutions on a site that threatens Bristol’s most iconic views of the Avon Gorge, Brunel’s suspension bridge and the Georgian terraces of Clifton. 

So it’s a mixed bag, with a valiant attempt to build our way out of the housing crisis that I fear, with continuation of Right to Buy, is attempting to fill a leaking bucket – and, moreover, leaves us with some real threats to the character of the city.

George Ferguson, co-founder of Bristol-based Ferguson Mann Architects and a former president of the RIBA (2003-2005), served as the first elected Mayor of Bristol from 2012 to 2016

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Readers' comments (1)

  • 'An appalling highway plan' instantly brings to mind the scene greeting visitors arriving at Temple Meads station - who, if they walk past the rather chaotic bus stands on the approach ramp, are confronted with the inner ring road from hell - a dual carriageway of the sort beloved by city engineers in the 1950s and 60s.
    There used to be a pedestrian subway, with escalators, to link with the city centre - but many years ago this was abandoned and when I last saw the escalator entrance (long before George Ferguson's time as mayor) it was filled with rubbish.
    This spoke volumes about the state of the city of Bristol at that time, and is it any better now?

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