Saturday, 18 July 2009

A Complete Sham?

"Is the democratic will of the people a complete sham?"

That's the question put by Bristol Civic Society and Redcliffe futures Group following Bristol City Council's decision to grant planning permission for a development in Redcliffe that ignores many of the principles agreed over many years of elaborate consultation over the redevelopment of the historic area to the south of Bristol Bridge.

You can probably guess my answer, especially after the way the Greenbank Railway Path land sale consultations have been ignored. But hope springs eternal and many people continue to invest countless hours in ultimately futile 'consultations' with bodies like Bristol City Council and all the quangos/partnerships/forums which it has spawned. It seems we all have to learn the hard way.

Here's the BCS/RFG letter as published recently in the Evening Post. It's worth reading carefully since it's a carefully constructed record of the way in which the council lead us up the garden path with time consuming consultations which involve them getting paid for sitting around in endless meetings but to finally capitulate to the demands of the developers.

The recent planning permission granted by the City Council to Carlyle Group, a "premier" American Private Equity Company, for their huge development site between Redcliffe Street and St Thomas Street has made a mockery of eight years' intensive community involvement by the citizens of Bristol, set up in 2001 by the Council as a formal partnership with the city Redcliffe Futures Group (RFG).

RFG has included representatives of professions and businesses, public authorities, residents' committees and other bodies including the Civic Society and Redcliffe Community and Environment associations as well as Business West, the local schools and the four Ward Councillors who represent the Redcliffe area. In all – and with key city council officers from various departments – about 30 of these representatives have been directly involved in the group over the period since 2001.

Out of this lengthy and detailed process, the group set out a clear vision of what they wanted for the area, culminating in SPD3 The Future of Redcliffe, adopted by the Council in July 2006 to provide a clear strategy for the future planning of Redcliffe over its 200-or-so acres of central Bristol.

SPD3 was a remarkable piece of democracy; a huge investment of energy, ideas and commitment by the citizens of Redcliffe and wider Bristol, together with their partner, Bristol City Council.

The planning permission given by this same city council three weeks ago ignores almost everything set out in SPD3, making a complete nonsense of the partnership between Council and citizens.

The community is wondering how meaningful is this partnership with the Council, which has cost them eight years of huge commitment in time and perseverance – all to produce very little for the citizens but high rewards to the developer? Even the council hasn't benefited, it would seem.

What went so badly wrong?

While the Carlyle Group may congratulate themselves over their success in raising the value of their ownership, the community may recall that this land site has changed hands five times in the past nine years and the promise of regeneration, employment opportunities and revival of the local economy have simply resulted in well-known business such as Pattersons, Pilkingtons Glass, Bristol Blue Glass and others being ousted from the area with the promises (and premises) remaining empty.

The soullessness of the Business Park characterises an area where no child or young adult is welcome and where underground car parking underpins most of the site. Such is the new promise for Redcliffe Village.

The people of Bristol do not want their city centre littered with what Global Private Equity Company developers choose to parachute in.

When will our elected representatives and the officers they employ heed what their constituents – the electorate – crave?

When will the City's high-minded ideals of exemplary involvement of its citizens in guiding the future of our beloved Bristol be matched by the Council¹s actions?

Or is the democratic will of the people a complete sham?

The Carlyle example isn't by any means unique; the truly democratic process of community involvement has been given little consideration elsewhere in our city. Bristol Civic Society has expressed its increasing concern over this almost farcical process of inviting and encouraging community involvement, then dismissing it out of hand.

Can the new Liberal Democrat Council offer a remedy? Is there a chance that our new political leaders can pay heed to the electorate?

Over to you, Lib Dems; we expect big changes from you in attitude to citizen involvement. You can start by reviewing this tragic permission given by the planning committee – based on a recommendation that, you will discover, ignored most of the key principles set out in SPD3.

Redcliffe Futures Group,

Bristol Civic Society

St Thomas Street in 1906, before the car.


Anonymous said...

The first I knew about this was the letter in the Post (when it was all over).

It's a shame they didn't let people know earlier what was happening.

Perhaps more could have been done?

Chris Hutt said...

Redcliffe Futures Group have been in a formal partnership with the council on this for eight years and they obviously believed they had an understanding with the planners about the future development. So the betrayal probably came out of the blue.

The Civic Society are a well respected body with a long history of constructiive engagement with the council and others over planning and environmental matters. They are not the awkward squad.

If they are now using words like 'mockery', 'complete nonsense', 'farcical' and 'complete sham' then things are seriously awry. I've been a member for maybe 25 years and I've never known them use language like that in a public letter before.

Anonymous said...

The Civic Society's best years are behind them though.

Recent years has seen them heavily defeated (not sure that word's particularly fair actually) over Canon's Marsh and the Industrial Museum among others and now this.

Perhaps they need to to regroup and rethink?

Maybe less 'partnership' with BCC and a little more 'engagement'?

Chris Hutt said...

I agree but it's really down to the personalities of the leading members.

If they are natural conciliators or consensus seekers they will try to work with the council however many times they get shafted.

What they need are natural belligerents like us.

Tim said...

When googling for 'redcliffe futures group', one of the top results is "Redcliffe - a community betrayed - Bristol Indymedia (February 2007)" which doesn't really make it look like they couldn't have seen this coming...

I do hope they've got more luck with the rest of the The Future of Redcliffe plan though, there are many good things in there.

Not sure what to think of the Redcliffe Village development, hard to tell from the plans/renders. The only thing I strongly dislike is that pastel green(!) corner bit of the "Centro East" development, which is just outrageously ugly, esp. in contrast to that old brick frontage next to it. Other than that, it looks like a bog standard mediocre mixed-use office/retail/flats development. Not sure how much more one can possibly hope for in Bristol tbh. It's not like we need more boring red brick buildings..

Re. the Civic Society - they seem a good bunch of people and I've seen a lot of good suggestions/comments/objections from them on many planning applications, but (unrelated to redcliffe village) their policies on 'tall structures' (in Bristol that would probably be anything more than 3 stories high) are just borderline ridiculous and, IMHO, contra-productive, favouring monolithic bulky buildings in many places. I'm particularly sore about that 'The Eye' residential tower in the temple area that now looks completely out of proportion, like a building from 'Honey I shrunk the kids', because *clearly* it would have detracted from Temple Meads railway station if it had been 2 stories higher. I wish they'd put the same energy in turning Temple Meads station into a building where you don't feel like you need a shower as soon as you step out of it. (I'll stop now, since I'm clearly rambling..)

Chris Hutt said...

Excellent comments Tim, do ramble more. I for one value input from people with interesting views on planning and architectural matters.

Good point about the Redcliffe debacle being flagged up over two years ago by that Indymedia piece (, although it gives the impression that it was mainly the developer who was out of line. Red Cliff's (like it) last paragraph is a neat summary -

"The council appears to have used "The Future of Redcliffe" exactly the way many feared: as a fig-leaf of consultation to keep the community quiet while big business continues as usual: saying one thing to the residents to obtain planning, then building whatever, whenever and wherever the hell they like."

Interesting point about the Civic Society's apparent obsession with building heights, although it must be said that a line has to drawn somewhere and by drawing that line quite low they may more successfully resist the inevitable upward pressures. There is something to be said for being able to make out the interesting topography of Bristol and for church spires and towers not being lost in a sea of tower blocks.

I feel that the most important aspect of new developemnt is how it's experienced at street level by pedestrians. The BCS/RFG letter refers to "underground car parking underpining most of the site" which generally means a pedestrian hostile environment with ventillation grills at eye level instead of say shops.

Now I'm rambling. It would be good to hear more of your thoughts on these matters Tim. In fact if ever feel moved to write a short piece I'd be happy to post it up here as a new blog post.