Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Bristol City Council (TAB 24)


  1.  Bristol, a major historic city, is currently reviewing its policies and assessment procedures for tall buildings proposals in the light of recent pressures for development within its historic core areas.

  2.  Without a tall buildings strategy in the 1960's, and without the benefit of high quality design or sustainable objectives, the City suffered erosion of the historic skyline and degradation of the environment.

  3.  The 1960's legacy of poorly designed tall buildings in the city has resulted in strong public antipathy to further similar development.

  4.  A clear and accountable assessment and evaluation of tall building proposals is essential if a credible process is to be evolved which will gain the backing of the population and allow the sustainability and land use benefits of tall buildings to be clarified.

  5.  In relation to very tall buildings a specific process may be appropriate which could contain the following elements:

    —  central government guidance on the merits and advantages of a balanced approach to tall development, giving weight to a range of criteria based on sustainability and local context, where architectural merit will be one of a basket of issues to be considered;

    —  clear guidance on the assessment process as indicated by English Heritage and CABE;

    —  topographical and environmental assessment of potential impact on historic or otherwise sensitive contexts by local authorities, indicating potential areas of acceptability; and

    —  demonstrable commitment by developers to high quality development, matching the public aspiration to see architectural landmarks comparable to the best examples elsewhere in the world.

  6.  Generating certainty and promoting creative excellence should be the watchwords of any new high buildings policy, but these need to be set against consideration of impact on a valued local setting. Bristol's experience is what goes up tends to stay there so it must aspire to be the best quality that contemporary architecture can achieve, and then only if the context allows.


1.  Background

  1.1  Bristol is experiencing an urban regeneration programme unparalleled for over an hundred years, bringing positive investment in buildings in the City through private and public initiatives. Such is the scale of the current activity, the word "renaissance" springs readily to use.

2.  Context

  2.1  New investment in community facilities, schools, hospitals, new homes and businesses is the life blood of urban regeneration and gives the potential for a new quality of urban living. In the case of central Bristol it has been focussed around the rebirth of the old harbour and the historic city and in its Victorian suburbs. More development in the outer suburbs is contemplated as investment radiates outward.

  2.2  Bristol has a strong tradition of urban quality backed by a wealth of investment in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods. It is recognised, both by its community and by national assessors as an outstanding legacy of architecture and built townscape based on a topography of hills, river valleys and gorges, giving scenic views and framed landscapes.

3.  Consensus with the community

  3.1  The city has developed a consistent approach since the disaster of mass clearance and illiterate development of the 1960's. That approach has been one of respecting its urban past, restoring its historic fabric and rebuilding its urban architecture to re-establish a city of traditional streets and squares, re-emphasising the importance of the pedestrian and the reflection of human scale in a modern urban context.

  3.2  A greater part of the past 30 years has been spent re-engaging with the people of Bristol, establishing public/private partnerships, seeking consensus and encouraging new ways to invest to create jobs, build new communities and provide services. Linked with this has been widening agenda of traffic calming, pedestrianisation and investment in public transport infrastructure.

  3.3  Bristol stands today as a progressive urban authority moving forward with major new investment based on a renewed experience of a community working together to a shared agenda.

4.  Tall buildings: a changing agenda?

  4.1  There is nothing more evocative of 1960's urban planning than tower blocks and high-rise buildings. Although partially cleared of their social stigmas in the area of housing, they remain a matter where few examples of quality and merit exist in this country and arguably most of those lie within the London area.

  4.2  This then, is the context for revisiting this debate, at least for Bristol and its decision makers. The few existing tall buildings in this city are unloved, of low commercial value, and are mediocre in quality. Most date from the 1960's and are coming to the end of their natural lifespan.

  4.3  In view of the recent renewed interest in tall buildings, there is a need for central government to give clear advice on the assessment of such proposals and their potential to fulfil sustainability objectives and to provide an urban focus in the built environment,

  4.4  In Bristol the private sector has reassessed the potential of tall buildings and two schemes to remodel existing structures have come forward in the central area. A further scheme has been contemplated for a new tall building adjacent to I K Brunel's unique railway terminus at Temple Meads (listed grade 1) and a study by URBED has proposed three prominent landmark buildings on the edge of the Floating Harbour at Temple Back.

5.  Assessing tall buildings

  5.1  Given the strong public concern generated by tall buildings in this country there need to be very clear criteria for assessment which are accountable and transparent and which identify clearly public benefits and disbenefits. Without that basis the public will not be kept informed and involved in the decision-making process and it will be difficult to focus the debate on our changing goals as an urban society.

  5.2  Both English Heritage and CABE as guardians of our heritage and urban environment have responded intelligently to the challenge in their draft guidance issued in June 2001. This needs further definition at the following two levels:

    —  At the central government level—there should be Planning Policy Guidance on the role of tall buildings in meeting density, sustainability, transport and environmental objectives, stemming from government policy and backed by objective research.

    —  At the local government level—there needs to be an assessment of the impact on local contexts, including an appropriate urban and historic environment assessment, and a clarification of local sustainability objectives, all carried out by independent, suitably qualified consultants.

  5.3  This approach would enable the process of close scrutiny and high standards proposed by English Heritage and CABE to be applied.

6.  Bristol City Council's approach

  6.1  In the case of Bristol, a highly sensitive historic city where the built environment is a major public concern, planning policy is enshrined within the Bristol Local Plan 1997. In this document there are 22 policies which aim "to recognise the quality and special character of different parts of Bristol and welcome new development that improves the existing environment through good urban design" .

  6.2  Bristol's built environment policies especially focus on the regard which should be taken of local context and on determining whether or not development proposals "cause unacceptable harm to the character and/or appearance of an area, or to the visual impact of historic buildings, views or landmarks."

  6.3  This specifically takes into account "the existing landforms and natural features" and the premise that "the creation of townscape features should be considered in relation to their surroundings".

  6.4  Bristol is thus well positioned environmentally to assess tall buildings, given effective Government Guidance on strategic issues and guidance tests on acceptability. It should be borne in mind that this is one amongst a range of issues the local plan would require to be included in a formal assessment.

7.  Impact on the Skyline or Significant Public Views

  7.1  Bristol, like Bath, has been recognised as needing a skyline and topographical study to define areas of important or sensitive historic environment or landscape features which will need to have protected vistas or corridors established to ensure retention of the unique character of its built environment.

  7.2  Such a topographical study is under discussion and is hoped to proceed next year supported by CABE and English Heritage. If acceptable to the community, the findings could be adopted as supplementary planning guidance and give developers a steer as to where tall buildings could be acceptable subject to central and local government policies. The CABE and English Heritage paper is a step in the right direction, and this approach, if given backing by central government guidance could create a clear process for assessment, public endorsement and involvement.


  8.1  If the spectres of the 1960's are to be finally laid to rest, then there does need to be clear advice to developers and local authorities on the environmental benefits and costs of tall buildings and to how they should be assessed in the local context. Any scheme needs to address the tests of quality, sustainability, viability and impact on the urban environment if it is to gain the support of the community.

  8.2  Given evidence of the past in relation to tall buildings, an approach which recognises the special character of the built environment of our historic towns needs to be evolved which enables the best of the past not to be prejudiced by hasty decisions on development form. The guidance by English Heritage and CABE on tall buildings demonstrates an 'evaluative process' which draws out the key issues for assessment. This guidance "could either be adopted in whole or form the basis for local planning policy guidance".

  8.3  However, it needs to be recognised that a local planning context is relevant to planning decisions. This would set a clear framework within which tall buildings proposals could be successfully evaluated, with the support of a clear government position.

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Prepared 22 January 2002