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Making the pointThe bitterly cold weather did not deter around 90 people from attending the Bishopston Society Open meeting on the eveing of 25 March 2013. The reason for this exceptionally large attendance for one of our open meetings was that the guest speaker was the Bristol Mayor, George Ferguson.

The Society had briefed him by asking him to talk on ‘The Future strategy for Bristol and how this might impact on the Gloucester Road and the Bishopston Area’. We added that “we would be interested to hear your views and vision for the future of Bristol, exploring the tensions between large-scale developments and local communities, especially our own here in Bishopston - particularly in the light of the decision over the recent Sainsbury’s planning application.”

Over the course of nearly an hour, the Mayor set out his views of how Bristol could succeed in becoming the country’s second city. He began by stressing that although he is an architect by training, he does not want to achieve his goal through a major priority programme involving the construction of eye catching, high status architecture.  More important is the need to concentrate on the ways and means of creating a city in which all its citizens can operate within a social structure that is based on high employment involving local resources, skills and expertise linked to an economy that is also, where possible, locally organised and maintained and not one dependent on and influenced by the finances of large multi-national businesses.

However, having laid out this view of a vibrant city-wide community that is free from youth unemployment and the blighting aspects of social deprivation, George did then slightly contradict himself by revealing how his architectural mind was very much to the fore in the way he wanted to bring change to the physical structure of Bristol. In particular his vision was focused on the need to transform the string of historical mistakes that have become incorporated into the incoherent, messy, environmentally degraded developments in the area between Temple Meads, St Mary Radcliffe and the City Docks.

Our architect Mayor is clearly drawn to finding a solution to this run down and somewhat segregated part of the city. He wants to slightly shift the ‘centre of gravity’ of the city so that visitors arriving at Temple Meads are immediately impressed with the area they find themselves in and continue to be visually inspired by the quality of the buildings and public spaces that they pass through, in what George terms the ‘Brunel Mile’. This aspect of his vision also encompasses a view of how Temple Meads could logically become an important coordinating centre for intra-city transport, using a reasonably priced public transport system and acting as a hub which would be able to link this part of Bristol with other areas of the city quickly and efficiently, rescuing the area from its present somewhat off centre marooned island situation.

If readers want to learn more of this facet of George Ferguson’s vision, then I recommend the link (at the end of this article) where the full account of his inaugural Canynges Society lecture at St Mary Redcliffe church in January of this year can be found.

Moving on, the Mayor explained how he wanted to experiment with small interventions (‘but not wilfully’), trying out ideas to see how successful they were before perhaps deciding to adopt them on a larger scale.  He touched on how he wants to establish residents’ parking zones across the city in areas where commuters are using parking that has been traditionally for residents, a policy that should encourage more drivers to use public transport to get to work.  On Sundays he wants to close certain areas to traffic, such as the ‘historic heart of the city’. He had been particularly impressed by what the cities of Bordeaux and Bogota had achieved in rescuing their historic centres from traffic. This would then allow and encourage the use of streets for community activities such as markets, street ‘circus’ and street basketball. He believed in an ‘incremental approach to making things happen’ but with the option of subsequently adopting and applying successful small scale changes on a larger scale.

Bristol also had to be ‘extremely bold’ in tackling bigger issues such as global warming. The Mayor had proudly announced the news at the beginning of his talk, that Bristol had just been shortlisted as one of four finalists for the European Green Capital Award 2015 alongside Brussels, Glasgow and Ljubljana. The European Green Capital Award is given to a city which can act as a role model to inspire other cities and share best practice. This is the second successive year that Bristol has been shortlisted for the award, having lost out to Copenhagen last year. If successful, the award would help to reinforce Bristol’s reputation as the UK’s most sustainable city and help make the case to government for using Bristol as a test bed for new ideas.

Finally, George talked about the future of the Gloucester Road.  He said he would try to make supermarkets less influential in local communities. However, he warned that the Gloucester Road will be damaged by the new Sainsburys superstore unless some serious measures are taken to counteract its likely effects. In the present economic climate, the percentage of Gloucester Road shops that have closed is noticeably less than other areas of Bristol. He urged the Gloucester Road traders to make full use of S106 money; more importantly, they needed to push hard and apply for Business Improvement District status, though this needs the support of the majority of local businesses and maybe ‘£40 – 50,000’ would need to be spent on making such a bid. This would offer the potential for ‘building up a war chest to strengthen and develop the Gloucester Road’.

While this strategy recommended by the Mayor might well be beneficial to the independent traders of the Gloucester Road, it should be pointed out that Business Improvement Districts are not seen by all as a solution to threatened high streets. See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_improvement_district#Criticism.

For George, while he accepts it is not possible to completely stop the march of the big multi-nationals, people will choose to shop and trade with each other locally if this is made a more attractive alternative than the local superstore. ‘We need’ said George, ‘to create inspiring places, not just pragmatic places’.

The Mayor concluded that he sees a Bristol in 7 year’s time that would  be ‘transformed in its mood; a cleaner air city with its people converted to walking and cycling and with the provision of affordable public transport, a city developing environmental and creative industries which will in turn create interesting jobs’.He dreams of a Bristol where people turn their backs on supermarkets and opt for attractive alternatives. Bristol has to become a place where its citizens are proud to support its local businesses and want to spend their money on what benefits Bristol.

The first question put to George was from a local campaigner who had been involved in fighting the two major planning applications that were seen to be detrimental to the Bishopston area - the County Cricket Ground and the Memorial Ground Sainsbury’s developments. She said that despite these vigorous campaigns, that had employed important skill sets not always so readily to hand in other local communities, it had felt, in the end, as if they were knocking their heads against the brick wall of the Bristol planning department who seemed to make decisions against the wish of the local residents. Did the Mayor have any advice that could be of benefit in any future battles?

George pointed out that the local community was split in its views about the worth of these developments, but he clearly sympathised with the questioner.  He felt that the role of the Neighbourhood Partnership needed to be strengthened so that it could have a really significant input into the planning process, in a similar way to the effective function that parish councils can have in influencing local planning applications. He was well aware that planning decisions in the city are often coloured by the offerings from development companies in the form of additional financial inducements that have little to do with the original application.

Another questioner wanted to know what, if anything, was happening about the monstrosity of Westmoreland House in the Cheltenham Road. In George’s view, parts of this area of Bristol are as unsightly and offputting to visitors to the city as some of the Temple area. The Council have been messed about by the owners of Westmoreland House for years and it should now be bold and go for a compulsory purchase order. Unlike the attractive adjacent Carriageworks, it has no value as it is, and should be knocked down and the site so created should be planned and developed from scratch. His hope was that this could happen within the next two years.

A concerned Gloucester Road trader, Michael Khan, felt that while 500+ parking spaces would be available up the road on the completion of the new Superstore, parking restrictions and dedicated bus lanes on the Gloucester Road meant serious difficulties for car driving shoppers wanting to use the local independents. These put traders at a clear disadvantage. He argued for parking restrictions to be lifted for traffic going out of town in the morning and the same for traffic into town in the evening, i.e. a tidal scheme. George accepted the sense of this proposal and said he would look into rationalising and restricting the use of bus lanes to help ease shoppers’ parking problems.  

Concluding his talk, George said there was a serious requirement for more housing in Bristol and one way of achieving this was to encourage self-build projects. In countries like Germany, this method provides a significant proportion of new housing, but planning laws in England made such schemes difficult to set up. To try and overcome this problem, a ‘Bristol Property Board’ has been set up, of which the Mayor is the Chair. It’s part of the City Deal (see link below) and aims to get all the public sector land-owners in Bristol together, so that they can make use of their land holdings in a more coherent fashion, making it easier to achieve the planning of large scale developments and urban housing. Individuals would have to work with the Bristol Property Board who would ensure that investment in such housing projects was kept at a local level. The Board, by aiming to identify all available public land suitable for development and facilitating the finance of self-build schemes, would thereby help increase the rate of house building in the city.



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