Bristol deserves better – why do we always settle for second best?

It’s just a feeling, but how often do you think Bristol settles for second best? Do we accept something because it’s better than nothing and do we grab at things because they are on offer from Government and we don’t want to lose out? It’s a feeling that I haven’t been able to shake off for the last 20 years, ever since I stood for council in Bristol and was elected for the first time (I was a councillor in Bristol between 1994-2002). My involvement as a councillor meant chairing and being part of planning committees in Bristol and seeing the way officers and other influential people/groups in Bristol were involved in decisions that have an impact on all of us. I was involved in some good decisions and some bad ones, resisted many that I thought were wrong and both won and lost battles, but the one thing that always comes back to haunt me was the constant feeling that officers, business people and others seemed prepared to accept what was on offer even if it wasn’t very good, rather than fight for something better. I can’t remember the number of times I was told “if we push for more change and improvements they’ll walk away” or “if we don’t do it like this we won’t get the money” and frankly not much seems to have changed in the 10 or so years since I quit the council. Bristol still settles for second best!

I’ll give a couple of examples, that will no doubt wind a few people up, but there you go. I’ll also point out that this isn’t just the benefit of hindsight, many of these points were made before decisions were taken. Equally, I am sure others can come up with many more examples and not just planning ones which are most obvious, but other areas of life where we just don’t achieve what we could for Bristol? I should also add, that there are of course some excellent examples in Bristol of where things have worked well and we have many good schemes where public and private sectors have delivered something good for Bristol. This is not just meant to be about negativity, it is meant to be a question about aspiration and why we should seek to do better rather than settle for what we can get!

DSCN1078Firstly, Harbourside and the development process that left us with an urban landscape that few could hold in high regard. Yes some of the existing waterfront around Watershed/Arnolifini/Bordeaux Quay is good and yes I’ll accept that Millennium Square works, but the rest of it, developed by Crest Nicholson and others, is that really the best we could do for Bristol? I was one of those who led the revolt against the first planning application submitted by Crest for Harbourside, along with Labour colleagues Andrew May, Dave Johnson and Kelvin Blake, and the Liberal Democrat councillors on the committee we managed to get it thrown out (with a lot of public support from many in the city). But if you think what we have now is bad, you can only begin to imagine just how much worse it could have been. I remember the pressure we faced before, during and after that committee meeting, from officers, business people and other politicians and the most common argument was – it’s better than a derelict site, it’s an expensive site to develop, it’s the best we can hope for – all it seems happy to settle for second best.

After the refusal, we entered a long process of debate, discussion and negotiation with the developers representatives and planning officers about what needed to change, we wanted something at a more human scale, that related to the water better, that had ground floor uses to create lively space at all hours; we wanted houses not just apartment blocks and we wanted greenery and water throughout the development to bring it to life and make it feel welcoming. All reasonable requests and options, and actually the new architect brought in to respond to the discussion, Ted Cullinan, seemed to get it and draw up some plans that seemed to respond to much of what people wanted. These were of course amended but what was resubmitted to committee and finally approved was a whole lot better.

So how did we end up with what we have now then, you might well ask? I can only guess that in detailed permissions, the developers came back with amendments that were either approved by officers or by new committee members not involved in the original discussions, because I for one do not recognise what is there as having much at all to do with what I argued for and thought we had approved. Again, we seem to settle for a lot less than was possible and a lot less than Bristol as a city deserved. At the time the debate was complex and difficult, but a core group of us were very clear about what was needed and did everything we could to make it happen, but it seems that this just wasn’t enough as final decisions were taken somewhere to once more reduce aspirations to a base level that screams of “at least it’s better than a derelict site”! I remember George Ferguson submitting an alternative scheme for harbourside that reflected all of the points we were making and which would have created a sustainable, human scale development that reflected Bristol and its connection to the water; sadly the landowners and business interests were not as taken with that option as we were, even though we willingly gave it planning permission. So we end up with what is there now, which I am sure few of those involved can really have that much pride in, although many in the business community still talk about it as a success?

DSCN0367My second example, the Bus Rapid Transit Schemes! Yes, I know, much maligned by some and supported by others, and much debated. My view here is that once more we are settling for second best, because we don’t think we’ll ever get a tram system in Bristol, so we better accept whatever it is that we can get funding for and just hope that works. Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham, amongst others, all have trams but apparently it’s out of reach for a prosperous, wealth, growing city like Bristol? So instead we bid for and get funding for BRT, along routes that defy logic in places and certainly are not popular with local communities and we give up on any notion of ever having a tram – really, when did we get to the point of lacking so much vision or aspiration for Bristol? When all is said and done, BRT is just a bus, a nice bus and a modern bus, but it’s a bus, some of which will run along segregated routes, some of which won’t. Will it encourage all those committed car drivers out of their cars and onto a bus, I remain to be convinced. But as we keep being told, if we don’t just go along with it, and stop questioning, we’ll lose the money! Personally I’m not overly bothered about losing money for something we don’t really want and which may not make much difference anyway – a potential waste of money that we will just replace in years to come with a tram!

But the main point to make here is that now we have an elected Mayor, apparently much in favour with Whitehall and Westminster, shouldn’t we stop settling for second best and start pushing for what we really want? Shouldn’t we be thinking long term and more strategically? What are the big changes we can really make happen – could we draw up plans for a tram system and go to government with that? could we imagine in 10-20 years time starting again on areas like Hengrove Park and Harbourside and doing it properly this time? could we imagine some proper planning for key areas of our city?

I’d like to think so, but over to you the decision makers and influencers – will you make it happen and how can we help?


City Mayors or LEPs – who decides?

DSCN0159Following on from my last blog about the need for LEP Economic Plans to take note of poverty and social inclusion issues it seems timely to consider the role of LEPs. From many of the comments received in response to that blog (for example on LinkedIn discussion groups) there appears to be a view that LEPs are there to create jobs and that others should be (and are) responsible for thinking about difficult issues like addressing poverty. Indeed, if you consider that LEPs are supposedly business led and their focus is on jobs growth and GDP growth, then perhaps it is wrong to assume that they would have anything to say about social inclusion or how the jobs they create could be made more accessible to those most in need. Personally I disagree, but clearly there is some opinion out there that says LEPs are small organisations with limited funds and staffing so their focus should be on core issues in order to actually achieve anything.

In my view, this brings into question the whole issue of why we need LEPs, what their role is and why, particularly in cities, they are the right vehicle to deliver on economic growth in isolation. You could level these questions at various aspects of the role of LEPs by asking why they were set up in the first place – was it because the current government had such a low opinion of local authorities that it thought this was a better solution, and they were of course desperate to get rid of the Regional Development Agencies, so had to replace them with something? Or was it because they thought business could do a better job of deciding where investment in roads, buildings and other development should be? You could equally argue about he negative impact these types of quangos have on democratic accountablity, taking decision making away from locally elected politicians and putting it in the hands of appointed boards full of business people who are accountable to no one. Add to that issues around what role local communities have in LEPs and how they can engage with these quangos and their plans and it begins to create an interesting but perhaps negative picture.

Perhaps more importantly, the question that springs to my mind is about LEPs and city regions – when we have combined authorities working across some of our key cities and their hinterland and we have directly elected mayors in some of our core cities, how does this work when you also have LEPs, sometimes covering different spatial areas? Add to that the issue about whether or not you can really consider economic growth without serious attention to issues of poverty and social inclusion (and of course environmental sustainability) then you can see the landscape of decisions, plans and strategies becomes somewhat cluttered – who really holds the power and makes the decisions?

The recent launch by the Centre for Cities of their Think Cities initiative which sees cities as the focus for change and believes empowering cities as the mechanism to tackling a range of urban issues is critical and you can begin to imagine just where some of these clashes and tensions may occur. I can’t help but agree with the Centre for Cities, cities are where the most significant growth will be seen and where the greatest changes can be made to provide solutions to our biggest problems around housing, jobs, public services and skills. But where city authorities have to compete with, or operate through, LEPs this is bound to reduce impact, increase confusion and complexity and water down ideas and change. When you have to get agreement from other councils to every decision, plan and strategy, then too often the lowest common denominator is what you end up with. The idea of directly elected mayors was to create accountable, visible leadership in an area, but by introducing LEPs into the equation the government have significantly weakened the ability of those mayors to deliver on ideas and innovation because they are effectively working with one hand tied behind their backs.

But even ignoring the fact of added confusion and complexity, what about the functions and roles of LEPs, what are they there for and why are they supposedly best placed to deliver on local economic growth? LEPs are charged with providing “strategic leadership on local economic priorities” including planning, housing, transport, skills, jobs etc a pretty big agenda, but when you consider they were set up with little or no funding, have few staff and limited resource, you have to question whether this is just too much? Would they be better focused on areas that clearly require significant input from business, such as the skills agenda and business support? Why should they be responsible for planning or housing issues when these have been core local council domains in the past, and indeed many would argue, should continue to be led by those with the democratic accountability rather than those with potential for conflict and vested interest?

With a reduced role focused on business support and skills I could see a key role for LEPs working across larger geographies, supporting the work of city authorities to deliver on jobs, housing, planning, social inclusion and sustainability (amongst other things). But their current diverse role is clearly too much for many LEPs to grapple with and we are in danger of missing some key links across agendas and of delivering on very little, as we stretch LEPs beyond their capabilities and abilities.

This should be an important issue for Party Manifestos going into the 2015 election. If we are being encouraged to think cities, then we need to address the existing landscape of decision making to properly put cities at the forefront of our economy. For me that means that, at least in city regions, there is no place for LEPs.

Lack of Ambition, Lack of Creativity & a Missed Opportunity?

And so, at last, the West of England LEP has produced a public draft of its Strategic Economic Plan to 2030. This is helpfully out to consultation 1 week before Christmas/New Year with a tight deadline for comment by 24 Jan 2014 – plenty of time to read and digest a 76 page document! Available from here for anyone who wants to take a look –

I thought I’d write a few initial comments in this blog then go back to it for more detailed comments early in the New Year, but do you know what, not sure I’ll get to the detail after all. To say I was less than inspired would be an understatement, and whilst I know these things are always difficult and tough to get right, as well as meet government agendas, it just feels a bit like we don’t even try. I’m not sure what I expected really, as there has been little or no opportunity for individual residents like myself to know what was being discussed or debated or even considered for inclusion in this draft consultation document. But I probably should have known that what we would get is the same old stuff, the same focus, the same sectors, the same outcomes and the same old waffle about growth, ambition and quality.

If you can be bothered to scan through the document you will notice that there is barely any mention of South Bristol – again no real surprise, as there never is, it rarely if ever features on decision makers agendas, unless it’s about building a road through it to help other people in the sub region! I really must move on from that agenda!!

But I was disappointed to see the focus is entirely on the 5 Enterprise Zones/Areas and that nothing is focused on South Bristol except this notional 10,500 jobs that will miraculously appear once the Link Road is built. That’s it, that’s all that’s in there as part of the spatial focus in relation to South Bristol.  How is that helping to address the fundamental spatial inequalities we see in Bristol between north of the river and south of the river? It just doesn’t, so is this not important to a plan for the future? Shouldn’t redressing inequalities be at the heart of the plan? Yes I know it’s about growth and jobs, but if we don’t address the real issues and problems the idea of Bristol and the West of England being a prosperous area where people enjoy a high quality of life is just not true, or at least it is for some, but not for others.

I was left feeling that our politicians, businesses and others, who have been involved in the process so far, have missed a real opportunity to be truly ambitious and creative. They have gone for the safe option and focused on areas of success and obvious growth rather than doing anything different and they have focused spatially on the easy stuff rather than the difficult. So the plan will probably get approved by government but unfortunately will make little difference to those people in our sub region who are currently at a disadvantage when it comes to getting a job, having a decent place to live or improving their own quality of life – a missed opportunity to make a real difference!

What all this says to me is that local people and those interested in improving the quality of life for all Bristol’s residents should get together to write their own plan, that meets local needs, focuses on inherent inequalities in the city and above all shows some creativity and innovation. Anyone up for the challenge?

For an update on my views see an article I wrote for Bristol 24-7 about inequality of opportunity and the lack of any attention to this issue in the plan

South Bristol Link – Last Act or Final Curtain?

And so, momentum is once more building on the South Bristol Link. And the same old arguments are coming out from the same old sources, when to most of us it is an old solution to the wrong problem.

It is very clear that this a solution borne more from the existence and availability of a government funding stream than any real consideration of what South Bristol really needs or indeed wants. Politicians are warned constantly that they need to support this, and the other BRT schemes, otherwise we’ll lose the funding – so we end up with imperfect schemes and so called ‘solutions’  that don’t even begin to address the real problems, all because we are too scared to admit we got it wrong and because people don’t want to be accused of losing us government money.

I despair, I really do – how can our politicians, councils, LEP and businesses be that short sighted. Do they really believe that building a road with no beginning and end will sort out the problems we face in some areas of South Bristol, a road that essentially goes nowhere. At best it will help a small proportion of residents in South Bristol to move around the area better (by car) and at worst it will destroy communities and cut neighbourhoods off from one another. Remember, we are not talking about a residential road here, we are talking about 4 lanes of motorised traffic, 2 bus lanes and 2 car/lorry/van lanes being ploughed through what was once a residential street – see diagram below borrowed from the TravelWest website and compare it with the one below that, King George’s Road as it is now (from the Evening Post). How can anyone see that as an improvement and a benefit to local residents?


This scheme has been voted out on many occasions in the past, indeed I remember voting against it at least twice when I was a councillor, because the harm it will do to South Bristol and its communities is far greater than any perceived benefit.

The road will bring thousands of jobs, it’ll help open up South Bristol and better connect people to where they work, least that’s what its supporters say. But quite how does a road do that?

Thousands of new jobs will, we are told, be created by unlocking South Bristol. So a road that goes from the Long Ashton Park & Ride to Hengrove Park, across greenbelt land and through residential roads and green space will somehow bring jobs, and thousands of them at that! Quite where or what these jobs will be is unclear. Do the plans for the road include plans for new development – NO. Do the plans for the road include new business or office parks – NO. So how will this bring thousands of jobs to South Bristol and where will they go?

It’ll open up South Bristol? Well it might provide a better ‘rat-run’ for commuters from the Chew Valley and from Keynsham/Bath area to race through South Bristol to get to where they work and yes, ok, it might just help some residents get to the city centre or North/West of Bristol. But the benefits to South Bristol residents and communities are at best marginal. What would help far more to address the problems of access to South Bristol would be a complete redesign and reconfiguration of the major bottleneck that is the Parson Street Interchange and Winterstoke Road traffic chaos. That’s the main access point to South Bristol and that’s where the problem is. Why not focus on that, or is it just too difficult?

There will of course be one area that benefits from the road, not the bit that goes through South Bristol, but the bit that provides a link between the A370 and the A38 and that is where most of the support for this whole road comes from – the residents of Barrow Gurney, who at long last will get their by-pass. Not something to be dismissed lightly, a solution to relieving the pressure on Barrow is certainly needed, but why make the residents of South Bristol suffer by building the rest of the road? I’d support a Barrow by-pass but not as part of the South Bristol Link.

North Somerset Planning Committee are considering this today (7th November) and Bristol Council will consider the planning application later this month. I for one hope they turn it down again. I hope this is the final curtain for this scheme, but sadly, I think the pressure not to lose funding will prevail and the wrong decision will be taken for all the wrong reasons with this being the final act that sees us lumbered with a road to nowhere!


Update – North Somerset Planning Committee approve the application by 10 votes to 5.

Next up Bristol S&E Area Planning Committee on Nov 27th.

A Focus on South Bristol – Let’s Redraw the Economic Map of the Bristol City Region

South Bristol has many advantages – it is close to the city centre, surrounded by beautiful countryside and well located in relation to Bristol Airport. It has some lovely houses, in garden suburb layouts, with large gardens and green open spaces close by. But to many it is perceived as inaccessible, with a poor quality environment, unskilled workforce and high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Look at any table of statistics for the Bristol City region – on house prices, crime, educational attainment, skills or employment levels and one thing will quickly become obvious. The central area and the northern fringe are making great strides but South Bristol is lagging behind:

  • The worst 2 areas nationally for lack of attainment amongst children/young people are in Knowle West
  • 6 areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 100 nationally
  • More than a third of people in South Bristol live in areas which fall in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of education, skills and training deprivation
  • Of the most deprived 20 areas in Bristol in terms of education, skills and training, 18 are in South Bristol
  • 35% of people aged 16-74 in South Bristol have no qualifications
  • Four areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of health deprivation and disability
  • Of the worst 10 areas in Bristol in terms of crime, eight are in South Bristol
  • 3 areas in South Bristol are in the worst 50 areas in England in terms of crime.

That’s a sad reflection on Bristol itself and all those who have been, or are, in a position to do something about it. But with vision, leadership and ambition all that can change. So why hasn’t it? We have been talking about South Bristol as an area of multiple deprivation and disadvantage for decades, but how much has actually changed? Yes there have been some improvements in recent years; new schools, the redevelopment of Symes Avenue, new housing at Lakeshore, a new community hospital, skills centre and a leisure centre. But is this the best we can do?

Just what are our aspirations for South Bristol?  From so many points of view it seems once more to be left behind. Do the Local Enterprise Partnership have plans to bring jobs, regeneration, housing and skills to the area or has it been forgotten in their plans or maybe just placed in the too difficult to handle box? Have the Mayor and Bristol City Council got plans and will they work with the local community to see what they want?

From the outside looking in, South Bristol just seems to keep missing out and will continue to lag behind other areas of the city until it features high enough in political aspirations and action.

Rather than allocate South Bristol as an Enterprise Zone or major growth area, like other areas of the city region, the Local Enterprise Partnership instead decided to focus entirely on transport links – the North Fringe to Hengrove BRT route and the South Bristol Link Road. Will this really deliver what is needed for South Bristol or is it just the tip of the iceberg?

South Bristol could be so different but what do we need to do to make it happen and whose job is it?

Is this something the local communities themselves can take control of and outline what they would like different areas of South Bristol to be like, or is it up to the Local Enterprise Partnership to remember to include it in their plans and focus funding on the area, or is it down to the Mayor?

I suspect it should be a combination of all of these but so far there is little evidence to suggest that much is actually happening?

The economic map of the Bristol City region could be redrawn to embrace South Bristol and make it the focus of everyone’s attention but will it ever happen? I’ve been waiting 20 years to see real change and all I can see at the moment is piecemeal, ad hoc, low quality developments that look like no one in authority really cares about the people or the area!

The South Bristol Link – A Road to Nowhere?

The idea of a completing the Bristol ring road by providing the missing links in South & East Bristol has been around a long time. The route across South Bristol has been protected for decades but somehow to date it has never been delivered. Every time it has reared its ugly head environmental campaigners, politicians and local communities have opposed it and the final decision has never been made to implement.

And so it seems we are going round that very same loop all over again. The ring road, or the South Bristol Link as it is now called, is back on the agenda and planning applications have been submitted to Bristol and North Somerset Councils. The environmental lobby and local people are rachetting up their opposition and the LEP and business groups are pulling together their supporters ready for yet another battle. Continue reading