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!
Firstly, 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?
My 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?