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Greens call for caution on tall buildings - response to Urban Living consultation

Bristol Council's consultation on its new Urban Living document has closed. Green Councillors have raised concerns that the Council risks being overenthusiastic in its support for tall buildings and needs to pay due care to the potential negative aspects of such development and respect the opinions of the public who responded to the consultation.

Green Councillor Martin Fodor said:

“As a Green I’m naturally keen to see better quality places to enhance urban living, and most of what’s in this document is helpful. However, what’s worrying is the overwhelming range of views submitted by residents and civic organisations which are being ignored by the council in its apparent enthusiasm to encourage more tall buildings. There needs to be much better consideration of the many downsides of these projects, for example greater cost, worse environment for children, environmental impacts, and so on. Otherwise we risk opening the door to developers to get permission and then cut corners in corporate projects that could blight our city for decades to come.”

The full response by the Green councillor group is below.

Urban Living - Bristol Green Party councillors’ submission on the formal consultation.

We broadly welcome the publication of new, draft Urban Living guidance for the city, and support the goal of high quality, denser developments to accommodate people and create communities.

Creating higher density, urban living, when done well, is a positive step for the city, to support public transport and active travel and to ensure people have the choice of living closer to work, leisure, and facilities in a healthy environment.

Provided green and blue infrastructure (natural and water-linked landscape elements such as sustainable drainage, parks and food growing land) are integrated into the city and its development, both new and existing, then the quality of life and sustainability of the city can be improved.

We have already made our case for a Green approach to urban living. As we said in our initial submission:

We do want to see high quality, well designed urban areas, with mixed uses, including employment, leisure, and play. There should be prioritisation of active travel, safe streets, healthy places, public spaces, leisure, play areas, and quiet spaces. We support a commitment to age friendly, child friendly, and all ability friendly places. 

Mid rise and low rise developments can create all these with evidence of success in achieving successful, popular, and high density areas people want to live in. The evidence for tall buildings achieving all these is much more doubtful.

At the same time we cited our concerns with the proposal for more tall buildings:

Tall buildings have extra costs and penalties for higher construction costs, slower delivery, fire safety, usable space wasted in service shafts, maintenance costs for lifts, lower recycling, higher carbon in both construction and operation eg for water pumping, the need for concierges and security, wasted land around them, and shadow and air turbulence impacts on surrounding areas.

There is limited evidence they would actually deliver more homes for a diversity residents, families and mixed communities on the same or less land, as traditional, popular low and medium rise areas do. 

The urban living policies on quality and design need to be tighter, as we know many details offered in applications get lost and negotiated away before or during construction.

We drew the administration’s attention in our previous submission to a report produced by government in 2001/2 - which doubts that tall buildings even produce higher densities (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmselect/cmtlgr/482/482.pdf).

We now comment on the formal consultation, and point out that there seems to be an unwillingness from the Council to acknowledge the extent and depth of unpopularity across the city for the continued advocacy of tall buildings. Even in the case studies there is clearly a limitation on local evidence for the delivery of successful tall buildings in the city, with some shortcomings (cladding and entrances) being cited for the Quakers Friars tower. The absence of obvious models for successful tall buildings should add to the warning.

The consultation responses documented by the council should show the lack of viability for the policy:

Invited stakeholders said: “Guidance needs to positively say where tall buildings will be encouraged whilst setting out their limitations in terms of delivering affordable housing, using land more efficiently and delivering successful placemaking. Assessment criteria will still be required.” [quotes from Consultation report]

The Survey and consultation results quoted show:

  • Clear majority  strongly disagreed that new buildings should be allowed to be significantly higher than those around it.
  • The majority agreed that new building heights should reflect the prevailing building height of those around it.
  • Levels of public support for the locations proposed for higher density development ranged from a low 24% (local and district centres) to a moderate 58% (large vacant sites), with areas close to existing and proposed transport hubs receiving the second and third highest level of support (just 47-55%).
  • There was strong support for new residential development being primarily delivered in low and mid-rise developments, rather than high rise tower blocks.
  • There was  strong disagreement that Bristol should extensively promote high rise tower blocks to meet its housing need.

In addition: “the majority highlighting the need to expand the remit of the document to included  other UK core cities and European examples. It was also commented that the document could have included more studies of tall buildings.”

We think this is needed and must acknowledge the many down sides that can occur with these developments.

It was requested:

“The future maintenance and management of schemes should be considered at planning stage.”

Without this there could well be failing projects again – as with the 60s and 70s legacy of degraded and unmaintained buildings that became virtually uninhabitable in so many British cities.

Detailed survey results:

  • “Strong objection to the promotion of tall buildings to meet housing need from visual, social and environmental perspective.”
  • “Not enough emphasis on green and blue infrastructure within both public and private realm, concern that higher density development will fail to deliver enhancement without stricter guidance.”

Comments on quality standards needed suggest additional standards be introduced, with key themes set out below:

  • Standards related to sustainability of buildings such as insulation and use of renewable energy, passive heating, water capture
  • Standards more specifically related to the provision of green infrastructure and SUDs both in the private and public realm.
  • Standards for the provision of public open space and sports facilities to be provided off site, if it cannot be accommodated within the development.
  • Standards to apply to student flats, build to rent and cluster flats and in private residential to guide mix of units.

In summary:

We therefore ask the administration to think again regarding the proposed tall buildings policy. Otherwise we are concerned that the largest, corporate developers will see the opportunity to propose and get permission for minimally compliant tall buildings that will damage the city’s quality of life and risk the many problems pointed to. This, for instance, can harm mental health and wellbeing and stifle the ability of children to play and socialise, affect those suffering isolation, and also reduce the diversity of housing types achieved.

The Green councillors’ ambition for the city remains one of: high quality, well designed urban areas, with mixed uses, including employment, leisure, and play. There should be prioritisation of active travel, safe streets, healthy places, public spaces, leisure, play areas, and quiet spaces. We support a commitment to age friendly, child friendly, and all ability friendly places. 

Mid rise and low rise developments can create all these with evidence of success in achieving successful, popular, and high density areas people want to live in. The encouragement of tall buildings will irrevocably change the skyline of Bristol. It is not something to be undertaken lightly, but only after a fuller of consideration of many potential downsides – especially in residential blocks – and widespread public concern that needs to be carefully considered.

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