Viewpoint: Maintaining a thriving Bristol

30 January 2018

Allowing for the temporary blip of the January blues, I find myself looking towards the next 12 months and beyond with some apprehension.  Without wanting to bring up the dreaded ‘B-word’, this year is likely to have a significant bearing on the economy of the UK and South-West.

On a positive note, we are right to be confident about life in the West of England (WoE). Often cited as being the only Core City area providing a net contribution to the UK Treasury, the WoE plays host to some of the UK’s most innovative companies and accommodates some significant environmental and cultural assets.

However, in the face of Brexit jitters, Bristol can ill-afford to rest on its laurels, particularly as investors begin to look elsewhere, be it the UK or beyond. While Bristol needs to continue to be a pacesetter economically, the city needs to avoid the temptation to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and sacrifice what also makes it special and underpins its economic success – its liveability.

To this end, 2018 will see the adoption of the Joint Spatial Plan for the West of England.  This will set the vision and planning policy framework for the management of development across the WoE up to 2036.  Central to the strategy is the need to accommodate 105,500 new homes (and 82,500 new jobs) up to 2036.  Land is yet to be identified for 44,000 homes (42%), while to ensure that this volume of development is accommodated sustainably, 16,200 (37%) of these are to be provided via ‘urban living’ i.e. higher density development on previously developed land.

This level of development is not insignificant, when considered against the constrained nature of the key settlements and their surroundings.  It clearly, therefore, requires a proactive and creative approach rather than a piecemeal ‘business as usual’ mindset.  There has been the inevitable clamouring from the development industry focused on maximising the development opportunity – and rightly so.  However, the tendency to reimagine Bristol as a sort of Dubai-on-Avon risks threatening Bristol’s more nuanced attractions and the need to recognise quality of life as key to a strong economy.

Vital to creating successful places is successful place-making.  There are countless examples of cities globally, which successfully marry a strong economy, with high quality infrastructure, health and education facilities, public realm, cultural institutions, housing quality and civic engagement.  One look at Monocle’s Quality of Life Survey 2017 makes damning reading for the UK’s approach to managing its urban areas.  The UK does not feature in the top 25, which is made up of a mix of cities from continental Europe, North America, Australasia and East Asia.  Given that most of these are more densely developed than UK cities and that number one – Tokyo – is one of the densest of all, there is no escaping the benefits that higher density development can bring.

As Bristol has designs to continue as an outward-looking, successful international city, there is much that we need to learn from these other places about higher-density living.  Authorities such as Bristol will need to ‘grasp the nettle’, balancing the need to deliver on the numbers, with creating a better quality of life for all.  Higher density development – provided increases in land value that result are shared by all – generates the opportunity to fund infrastructure provision, create vital streets and spaces and deliver the agglomeration benefits off which business thrives.

Early signs are that the Council is trying to do so.  They are currently preparing an ‘urban living’ supplementary planning document, to provide a stronger steer on the kind of high density development sought within the city.  However, to be successful the city needs to go beyond a more traditional regulatory role, to that of an enabler.  Using its land and assets and working with developers and institutions with a longer-term view, the city needs to facilitate the kind of long-term, incremental change that fosters economic success.

This includes, for example, re-thinking the blanket protection of some industrial land and areas and – drawing upon more innovative models adopted elsewhere – considering how to combine residential with these other uses in a more sophisticated way.  Many of these areas developed into industrial areas for historic reasons.  We now need to consider 21st century solutions that better reflect the needs of a modern global city.  There will be no one-size-fits-all approach, but a need to think about how existing and new uses can be integrated over the shorter and longer term, to transform mono-functional, relative ‘no-go areas’ into thriving neighbourhoods with a day and night-time population.  There are many examples of where this has been done successfully – Bristol needs to learn from these to make the most of its assets, maintain its competitive edge and raise its game as a place to live.


This article was originally published on South West Insider.