Councillor Bev Knott threw doubts on the Localism Bill at the Bishopston Society Open Meeting on 4 April 4 2011 but spoke up for the Neighbourhood Partnerships, in which we are actively involved.

The meeting opened with Bishopston Society Chair, Elinor Edwards, giving a brief resumé of some of the recent developments in planning applications with which the Society has been involved. Two of these, which we strongly support and had hoped would by now be going ahead, are still at a standstill.

The Gloucester Road Swimming baths scheme is the subject of a hearing on the 6th April re the Orange telephone masts, and the Housing Association development on Pigsty Hill. This latter project to replace derelict shops with affordable housing has ground to a halt because part of the original funding for this is no longer available. We also welcomed the significant scaling down of the Gloucester Cricket Ground development. However, despite our strong objections, the decision went ahead to demolish 25, Seymour Road, originally a farmhouse and the oldest surviving building in Bishopston. We further objected to its replacement with a totally unsuitable cramped plan for 5 town houses and the planners accepted our reasons and have now asked for a revised plan.

Elinor made reference to the Localism Bill going through parliament at the moment which will change the way some planning decisions are made in the future. In particular it will provide an opportunity for neighbourhoods to create their own Neighbourhood Plans, which then can bypass the normal planning rules and regulations. This could be an opportunity for local people to make a difference in their localities – but it could also be a backdoor way for developers and businesses to bring in developments unwanted by local residents or the Council. The Bishopston Society is concerned about this, alongside many others in Bristol, and feels it is something significant which needs to be monitored. She asked whether there was anyone interested in making links with the voluntary sector networks in Bristol who are also working on this issue.

Derek Wilding of the Bishopston, Horfield & Ashley Down Local History Association briefly told the meeting of the coming 150th anniversary of the designation of Bishopston as a legally recognised neighbourhood. This will be on July 19th 2012. He suggested that members might want to arrange an event to celebrate this. He said his society would help with historical information and that The Bishopston Society would help with publicity. He also reminded us of the recent publication by the Society of ‘The Early History of Bishopston’ by Denis Wright, available from his Society (Contact us for details).

Elinor went on to describe the Society’s disappointment and indeed disillusionment with the way decisions have recently been made at hearings of the Licensing Committee. In agreeing to applications for extended or new alcohol licences, the criteria for the recently designated Gloucester Road Cumulative Impact Area appear to be being ignored. She pointed out that the latest application to be passed was for a child friendly place which now had a license to sell alcohol to parents or guardians. We had viewed the CIA as a valuable and much needed instrument to effect a restriction on the ever increasing number of  premises selling alcohol. Ross Barber, the Society’s representative who keeps an eye on applications and who attends hearings with our Chairman to present our objections to the applications, confirmed our disappointment at the outcomes of these meetings. These observations initiated some discussion and councillor Bev Knott, our main speaker, seemed perturbed that this was our interpretation of what was happening and promised to look further into this serious concern of the Society.

Elinor then introduced Bev Knott formally and he went on to talk on Neighbourhood Partnerships (NPs). This was in his capacity as a member of the group of councillors within Bristol City Council tasked  with the administration of Local Government and which had to consider, from scratch, the way that NPs in Bristol should be structured and operate. These first started to operate in Feb/March 2010 and have already been through one evolutionary change. However, the aim and ideal underlying their structure and the way they work remains unchanged, namely to bring decision making as far as possible to as local a level as possible.

The limitations imposed on the ability of local neighbourhoods to make policy and take action on local issues are in part influenced by the size of a NP.  Different local authorities around the country operate different models. Some, like Bristol have decided to structure the NP unit using two or three wards, covering a population of around 30 – 40,000 people, while others have employed both larger and smaller numbers of wards as the basis of a NP. An advantage of larger units is they can look at wider issues that are common to larger areas. This could allow the possibility of reviewing some aspects of strategic policy that usually apply across a whole authority, such as public transport routes. Smaller NPs on the other hand can focus more on the minutiae of immediate neighbourhood concerns. Bev wondered if the Bristol NPs were large enough and thought collapsing the present number from 14 to 10 or even 7 might improve their overall functioning.

Equally important in deciding what can be achieved by a NP is the size of the budget devolved to it. The total for all Bristol NPs for this year is £18 million which is about 4.5% of the total Council budget. In addition, a proportion of Section 106 money, levied from new developments, has now been agreed to be fed into the NP budget.

At present, the NPs are organised in Bristol as a two ‘tier’ arrangement. There is the ward level ‘Forums’ where issues concerning local people are raised and discussed. These are then put forward to the quarterly meetings of the Neighbourhood Partnership at which 15 or so people, including councillors and our NP Representative, make decisions on which projects suggested from the Forums will be financed.  Bev’s view is that this process needs to improved by more frequent discussion and reviewing within this structure. There is also at present little collaboration between neighbouring NPs – although there was collaboration when it came to the Green Spaces Plan – three NPs cover the Horfield Common Green Space which is under discussion. Building such a relationship in order to join together successfully on dealing with common problems will be an important role of Area coordinators in the future.

Both in Bev’s talk and in questions after, concern about the possible effects of the impending Localism Bill on NPs was raised. Bev feels that Central Government has been and still is frightened of devolving financial power to Local Government, always prescribing how government grant money can be spent. Thus NPs are a means of ameliorating this situation to some extent and they will continue to be valuable in this way in the future. It was felt unlikely that the Localism Bill will do much if anything to help local governance for local communities.

The meeting closed with refreshments and a chance for people to speak on an individual basis to Bev or Bishopston Society committee members.

Simon Randolph  6/4/11