A barge that has stood in the way of a harbourside development for years is to be bought by Bristol City Council for a seven-figure sum.
The purchase of the 137ft-long Ebenhaezer for £1.4m will finally enable Cordwell Property Group to proceed with plans to turn two derelict sheds on Welsh Back into three new restaurants.
But Anthony Negus, the leader of the Lib Dem councillor group, has slammed the move, saying the council is paying a “ransom strip” to access buildings it already owns and has called for a review into procedures – warning this could set a precedent for similar situations across the city.
The decision, agreed by cabinet members on Tuesday, July 2, follows years of negotiations that failed to reach an agreement until the boat owner eventually offered to sell the vessel, enabling it to be relocated for work on the redevelopment to begin.
Deputy mayor Craig Cheney said it was a unique situation and that without the purchase, the Worcestershire-based developers would likely pull the plug on the O&M Shed project.
He said that would mean the council missed out on money from leasing the buildings to Cordwell, opened itself up to be sued by the firm and would have to foot the bill for the urgent repairs of the site, which the company had agreed to carry out.
Speaking at the meeting, Cotham councillor Negus said: “I am absolutely astonished that we are paying off a seven-digit sum in order to gain access to our own wall.
“We are having to buy people out for something which should have been allowed for previously,
“There are hundreds of vessels all around the harbour, many of which are probably subject to the same conditions or non-conditions of allowing us to do our duty in terms of maintaining our harbour and this navigable waterway.
“This is really, really serious.
“There has been a spate of legal mess-ups recently which go back some time, and in order to forestall any further loss of huge sums of money, which is what we’re talking about today, a general review needs to take place.”
He said the council was making the wrong choice by buying the boat for what was a “ransom strip for our own wall”.
“That means we are not being able to provide three affordable new homes.
“This is not political, this is pure common sense.”
Cheney, Labour’s cabinet member for finance, governance and performance, said the wholesale review of council procedures Negus requested was not required and would “scupper the delivery of any other service” it provided.
He said the issue of the boat dated back 12 years and that every option had been investigated.
“We have been round and round this discussion and have considered and explored all pragmatic options, including the sublime and ridiculous options too, and we still consider this to be the best outcome,” he said.
“This is the most pragmatic decision and will enable us to regenerate a derelict building that has been sat there for years.
“We cannot redevelop that site without the boat being moved.
“We can tow it away, we can repair the site at our own cost rather than the cost of the developer, but then the boat has to come back, at which point all the plans for that area fall away.
“I don’t believe there are lots of boats around the harbour that are in a similar position. I think it’s the only one.”
Cabinet member for housing Paul Smith said all previous administrations dating back to 2007 had failed to solve the issue.
“I would like to applaud Craig for the courage he has had in taking a really difficult decision that has not been grappled by any of the previous five or six administrations and actually getting this sorted so we get a solution that satisfies the boat owner, the developer and the financial situation of the council.”
Councillors rejected Cordwell Property Group’s plans for the sheds in February 2017, but a planning inspector overturned the decision in April last year.
Campaigners have called for the last remaining undeveloped building along Welsh Back to be turned into an Abolition Shed, that could act as a slave trade memorial, museum and visitor centre that documents Bristol’s history and involvement in the slave trade, while also celebrating those who worked to bring about its end.
Responding to the petition last year, the council said the future of the shed had already been agreed.
A report to cabinet said the council entered into an agreement with the firm in 2015 to grant a 150-year lease of the buildings to repair them and bring them back into use for the first time in decades.
It said the deal would give Cordwell vacant possession of the premises “including using all reasonable endeavours to relocate a vessel adjacent to the building and secure vacant possession of the mooring to allow the development to take place and comply with planning conditions”.
“The developers have indicated that if the situation is not resolved shortly, they may not proceed and there is a risk that compensation for loss will be claimed,” the report stated.
“The proposed development will provide over 100 temporary construction jobs and 95 permanent jobs.”
It added that the lease agreement would generate £700,000 for the council and that if the developers withdrew, the council would have to pay £752,000 for the repairs.
The council will be selling the boat to recover costs of the purchase.
Adam Postans is a local democracy reporter for Bristol