In recent years local people, the media and the rest of the world it seems, have taken an interest in the Gloucester Road. It is increasingly regarded as an asset to be cherished and supported.This appreciation partly comes from witnessing the decline of local high streets elsewhere together with their loss of identity and dominance of national chains. As well as receiving awards and accolades, the Gloucester Road is now firmly on the map as a place you have to experience (and hopefully spend at) when visiting Bristol! It seems to have a sufficient number of shops ("a critical mass" in the jargon) to have established a "niche" in the Bristol inner city retail market.
There are certain characteristics that help give the Gloucester Road its appeal and a "buzz" (certainly on Saturdays with large numbers of visitors). The lower end of the road is narrow with some attractive architectural features which help to create an intimacy and familiarity (you can call to somebody across the road!). It has a high proportion of independent shops, many specialised or unusual including some charity shops. (And let's not forget the Amnesty Bookshop which is a big draw). It also has some good pubs, bars and cafes including on the Promenade where people can sit outside in all seasons. Doubtless the "gentrification" of the surrounding area with an influx of professional families (traditionally public sector) over several decades is beginning to rub off on the Gloucester Road. New developments like the affordable housing project now being built on Pigsty Hill and the refurbishment and development of the old North Bristol Baths (into a health centre, a library and some apartments) will only increase the activity and attraction of the lower section of the Gloucester Road.
However to use an old cliché, it is possible to "kill the golden goose". The very success of the Gloucester Road could be its downfall as Costa and the like (including bars), estate agents and others move in to capitalise on its popularity. The powers of local people (and planners) to resist unwelcome change and threats are limited. The arrival of smaller local convenience branches of supermarkets has had mixed benefits. It very likely that damage to the health of the Gloucester Road has been done over time by larger supermarkets elsewhere, particularly to the upper end of the road as a result of Tesco at Golden Hill. A medium size Sainsburys ("Storegap") proposal near Ashley Down Road might have had local regenerative effect but this was refused planning permission partly on traffic and access grounds. We now are faced with the possibility of a much larger Sainsburys beyond the Gloucester Road at the Memorial Ground. The Bishopston Society Spring Public Meeting on the 26th March (see elsewhere for details) is addressing the implications for the Gloucester Road of the Sainsbury's proposals.
A continuing commitment is required from the local community if the character of the Gloucester Road is to be maintained. Clearly local independent shops need our financial support particularly on weekdays during these recessionary times. As well as ourselves, community based support comes from many quarters including
the local media (e.g. Bishopston Matters), Sustainable Bishopston and the efforts of individuals working as part of the Gloucester Road Task Group, often linked with the local Neighbourhood Partnership.
Much of the Bishopston Society's day to day efforts go into monitoring and responding to planning and licensing applications. We are trying to have a measured and realistic approach in seeking to resist the endless growth of cafes (which otherwise can rapidly replace shops). We are certainly trying to curb the growth in the number of bars and restaurants (which can take the place of cafes and shops) and we oppose opening hours and licensing hours being repeatedly extended. This can be a lucrative side of the trade which can eventually increase rents and in many ways change the character of the area. Do we really want the Gloucester Road to become another Whiteladies Road catering for a "24 hour economy"?
A recent short piece by Brian Leith, in the Redland and Westbury Park Directory, looks at signs of deterioration on the Whiteladies Road (WLR). He laments the fact that WLR has somehow got tatty, unlike the present Gloucester Road. He counts 17 empty shops, bars and restaurants with a number of once lively places in "the strip" now boarded up. This is in contrast to the Gloucester Road, which he sees as a lively "happening" spot full of thriving local shops and cafes e.g. Licata, Olive Shed, Breadstore and Tart. He theorises that WLR rents are more expensive so only large companies with big budgets can comfortably run a business there. With a falling economy, with fewer of these 'big boys' spending less money, the shops and bars on WLR can no longer pay their way, so they cut their losses and close up shop. A number of 'big boys' that opened on WLR, such as McDonalds, KFC and Borders(further south), have closed within a few years when profits did not match expectations. The real sadness here, he notes, is that the invasion of big boys precipitated the demise of small local businesses.
Brian Leith thinks that Gloucester Road by contrast is thriving on home-grown businesses that cater for the locals. The local community uses and values its local shops. Witness the protests that accompanied the opening of Tesco on Stokes Croft and more recently the new Costa on the Promenade. He observes that when he visited Costa, Tart next door was buzzing with about four times the number of customers. He argues that it's local people who are responsible for ensuring the survival of the independents and therefore maybe have to be prepared to pay a little extra to keep local places alive.
From an outside perspective the traders and local people are doing some things
right but there is no room for complacency....