Wednesday, 3 September 2008

And now the truth is out

From time to time the curious blogger stumbles across some mysterious object buried in the shifting sands of bureaucratic verbiage. On poking and prodding a little the object slowly reveals itself, only to turn out to be a landmine that proceeds to blow up in the poor blogger's face.

At least that's how it feels today. This morning I decided that enough was known to register some formal objections about the land sell-off discussed in previous posts. So I sent this email to Bristol City Council.

Sale of Railway Path land, Greenbank

Further to enquiries made last week, I would like to register my concerns about the planned sale of Railway Path land at Greenbank, Bristol, in connection with the proposed development of the former chocolate factory. Having visited the site and discussed the matter with other concerned people, I feel that I must register an objection to the sale of this land to Squarepeg for the following reasons.

1. The land being sold forms an intrinsic part of the green corridor of the Railway Path. It is mainly the slope of the embankment on which the former railway was supported. Such structures are an integral part of the former railway and it now supports a continuous wall of mature vegetation, rising to over 5 metres above the Railway Path. The rural ambiance of the Railway Path, which is so highly valued by the majority of users and local residents, depends on such mature growth on the slopes of embankments and cuttings as well as that on the level margins of the Path

2. There does not appear to have been any consultation on whether the land should be sold. The City Council have apparently taken the view that they are not required to consult. This may be technically correct, but given the controversies that have arisen in relation to most previous attempts to develop elements of the Railway Path it would, I suggest, be prudent to consult before a final decision is taken.

3. Squarepeg, far from consulting on the planned sale, have stated in their Newsletter dated 1st July that the sale had already been completed (or words to that effect) when in fact the sale has not been concluded, so presenting the public with a fait accompli and preempting opportunities for objections to be made. I believe that this may be in breach of their responsibilities in this matter. Again in order to remedy this defect a period of consultation is required before the sale is finalised.

4. The proposed development of the sale land will include a substantial twin-tower block of, I believe, 7 or 8 storeys which will loom over the Railway Path. This proposal is likely to concern a great many path users who have not been involved with the local consultations carried out by Squarepeg and it may even prove to be extremely controversial. Although this matter will presumably be addressed by the consultations on the Planning Application, it would, I suggest, be more appropriate to address it initially as a separate matter along with consultations on the proposed land sale.

Chris Hutt.

Having then copied it to various interested parties, a crescendo of emails followed, including a call from the Evening Post, culminating in the following being copied to me. It is apparently a briefing from Council Officers sent to Councillors this afternoon
(my notes added in brackets and non-italics). It seems to be "cover your arses" time in the City Council.

Briefing Note - Land Adjacent to Former Elizabeth Shaw Chocolate Factory

Strip of land A (The embankment slope coloured blue - click on map to enlarge)

Squarepeg the owners of the Former Elizabeth Shaw Factory in Greenbank contacted the Council in December 2007 over the possible purchase of the land outlined in red on plan N5078b. This Council land is currently leased to the former owners of the Elizabeth Shaw Factory at a rent of £100 pa to be used for an access onto the cycle path and landscaping. Squarepeg's proposals are to incorporate the land within the redevelopment of the former chocolate factory site which is to be developed into a mixed use site of retail, business and residential units.

Several concerns were raised over the potential sale of the land by the Nature Conservation Officer and the Transport Development Control Manager. The initial response was that the Council would not wish to sell the land. Further discussions between chief officers in CLS (Culture and Leisure Services - Parks) and PTSD (Planning Transport and Sustainable Development) and George Ferguson from Squarepeg were held in May 2008. Instructions were subsequently given to Property Services to proceed with the possible sale of this land subject to the following conditions:

1. Squarepeg engage in dialogue with Council's Nature Conservation Officer to ensure the proposals provide necessary but reasonable compensating measures for the loss of vegetation and habitat.

2. The land sale will only be finalised if the developer receives planning permission and proceeds with the specific proposals.

3. Any structural changes to the bank will have to be agreed with the Council before works start. This is to protect BCC against works being carried out which undermine the cycle path.

4. The developer pay market value for the site.

The property was circulated as surplus in June 2008 with no department putting forward a operational requirement for the land within the four week circulation period. A formal offer from Squarepeg is awaited.

Strip of land b (The green verge of the Path along the boundary of the site, coloured green)

In July 2008 Squarepeg showed an interest in acquiring an easement or long lease of an additional strip of land outlined red on plan N5078c. This is required to access their development from the Bristol to Bath Cycle Path. They propose clearing land of vegetation and replacing with grass and landscaping. Squarepeg have confirmed that they would to maintain the site and continue to allow public access onto this land. Should the Council wish to proceed with a lease of the land it would need to advertise the proposal in the local newspaper and invite the public to comment. The matter may also need to be referred to the Parks & Green Spaces Board.

The Council is waiting for written proposals from Squarepeg as to the terms under which they will be looking to use this land.

David Bishop has indicated that he supports the grant of an easement (subject to certain conditions) as this development was referred to in the Cycle City bid application and is seen as a 'cycle friendly' development which will not compromise the future of the cycle path but could potentially improve it. David has indicated that he would be happy to discuss the development with any members should they have any issues with this proposal.

I've not had time to study this properly yet, but one section jumps out at me - "Several concerns were raised over the potential sale of the land by the Nature Conservation Officer and the Transport Development Control Manager. The initial response was that the Council would not wish to sell the land".

So it seems there was a real debate going on within the Council after all, as one would expect with such a contentious issue, but still they didn't see fit to put the matter out to consultation or even refer it to elected members of the Council, let alone inform the people of Bristol. Instead the matter appears to have been stitched up with a secret meeting between Merchant Venturer George Ferguson the Senior Officer David Bishop. That is how Bristol is run under our new £180k Chief Executive Jan Ormondroyd.

(for a follow up post click here)


Glenn Vowles said...

Certainly seems that secrecy is the order of the day Chris! Until now (or is there yet more to come out!!).

Anonymous said...

George Ferguson from Squarepeg

George Ferguson, of course, is not "from Squarepeg". He's from Acanthus Ferguson Mann, the architects retained by Squarepeg.

Is this a simple error? Or are councillors being misled here?

I wonder if David Bishop and his cronies know who Squarepeg are? Especially as no one else seems to really know and no one is telling us.

Anonymous said...

Chris- Your work has uncovered something quite seedy here. Thank you for being a gadfly. On the surface, it just appeared to be a minor matter of a strip along the railway path, but the backroom deals that led to it say something much deeper about how politics works in this city. If we don't put a stop to it, it will threaten everything good about Bristol, just for the sake of corporate profit. The public servants in this city need to remember they work for the public. Long live the green railway path! Also, why didn't squarepeg build a pub/cafe fronting onto the path- now THAT would be some good people watching! And...we need more eyes and ears on the path.

SteveL said...

That is a really good point: a bar overlooking the path is something we need.

Chris Hutt said...

Glenn V, there's always more to come out. We've only scratched the surface and chanced upon a single worm or two.

The problem is that we now have this culture where councils have to work in "partnership" with other "stakeholders", which means in effect doing deals behind closed doors with little chance for Joe public to see what's going on.

Our new Chief Exec Jan Ormondroyd seems to be particularly keen on this sort of thing, but of course it's incompatible with traditional democratic controls which make for slow and cumbersome decision making.

OTLblog and SteveL, I hate to say this but Squarepeg are proposing a cafe right next to the path with level access, and with a cycle shop below! The trouble is it's got 5 floors of flats above it, so forming an imposing tower far higher than the proposed "cycle" houses.

So do we sell our souls for a cappuccino and a puncture repair?

Spectator said...

Well, to use a sporting analogy, when George Ferguson and his cronies announced their having purchased the land as a fait accompli, they thought they were applying an arm bar, but, they didn't apply it properly, so now they're on the receiving end of some nasty ground and pound. I wonder what other dirty dealings will be uncovered before this no-holds-barred rumble is over?

The audience are baying for blood!

SteveL said...

> So do we sell our souls for a cappuccino and a puncture repair?

Only if the coffee Illy and the milk organic. I can fix my own punctures. It's suspension fork and hydraulic disk brake maintenance where I call in the professionals.

Anonymous said...

Hi everybody, some local residents have now set up a blog with the aim of promoting discussion on this issue.

Anonymous said...

Chris- I thought Squarepeg were planning the cafe on the interior of the development, while privatising the frontage onto the path as front gardens.....

Surely there's a way of keeping the entire pathway in public ownership, maintaining a wild feel to the place, while providing housing and a cafe that will bring life to the path at all hours...

What is truly ridiculous about the plan is that Squarepeg is insisting on one garage space for every home. I'm sorry but that's just not an "eco-home"

There's proven demand for car-free developments, and Bristol is the UK HQ for expertise on the subject- seems that the only reason the politicians and developers won't step aside and allow it is that they are addicted to cars themselves! Step out of your boxes people!

Chris Hutt said...

OTLblog, the latest plans shown on Squarepeg's site show the cafe on the first floor of the tower block up against the Path.

Earlier plans had this tower block much closer to the existing factory buildings where it would have been much less conspicuous, but the residents of Carlyle Road didn't want the tower block looming over their back gardens, so it got moved next to the Path where they hoped no one would be bothered.

To be honest I quite like the idea of the Path access to the central square and a cafe looking over the Path. I accept that some of the existing vegetation will be lost in any redevelopment, but taking out over 100 metres of mature hedgerow really is beyond the pale.

There's a huge amount of land devoted to car parking within the development. The loss of maybe 10% of the parking spaces would probably allow for the same number of homes and keeping the hedgerow and upper embankment. So it comes down to a choice between cars and trees. A tough call for a Cycling City.

Martyn Whitelock said...

I think a more socially inclusive development of the path is very much needed and have mentioned this elsewhere on previous blogs. Whilst I (and others) greatly value it for what it is at present (having been a user for over twelve years), we have to accept Bristol is a city undergoing serious rapid development (which I'm not keen on). I'm thinking in terms of creating mutually enjoyed spaces (like they do so well on the continent) rather than a 'cyclists only' culture.

A cafe is a great idea (especially given the decline of our pubs) but needs to be relevant and interesting (if possible). A top notch affordable organic cafe (like Maitreya) would be even better! In fact the Chocolate Factory 'development' could (and ultimately should) become the gateway into the local community.

There are plenty of interesting ways to use the space (e.g. art gallery, holistic therapy centre, farmers market) which would draw people out of the city in a sustainable and healthy fashion. From my perspective, there is far too much emphasis upon this environment being a commuter route into the city. We need to encourage people (and especially low cost leisure) out of the city and into the countryside between Bristol and Bath. It’s all there - beats getting into the car at the weekend!

Either way - let's keep it green :)

p.s. Regards the farmers market idea: I think Fresh & Wild are looking for a new outlet following the closure of their store at the triangle.