Your say / Cumberland Basin

‘The battle for the future of the Cumberland Basin’

By maurice fells, Tuesday Aug 13, 2019

I believe that the biggest planning battle Bristol has witnessed for 50 years is about to hit us.

It will be all about plans that bear the hallmark of many local authorities, including Bristol City Council, stamped all over them. Secrecy. So secret in fact that one councillor who attended a presentation said he had to take his own notes.

No glossy brochure for him to take away or printed statements about the scheme that he could study at his leisure.

A leaflet from Bristol City Council delivered to homes on Monday promised that the Western Harbour will “unlock land for new homes, shops and green space”

It’s hard to believe that a local authority conducts its affairs in this way in the 21st century. It’s something I would expect in a country run by a tin-pot dictator.

Bristol City Council wants to demolish the existing Cumberland Basin flyover and replace it with another bridge as part of a mixed development including tower blocks of flats. It all comes under a banner grandiosely called Western Harbour.

People whose homes are more than likely to fall into the mouth of the bulldozer to make way for it – although they stand in a conservation area – say they haven’t been told about it either.

I confess to having a vested interest; I live in a block of flats very close to the so-called Western Harbour. I have not officially been told anything: queries to the council are met with meaningless replies.

Plimsoll Bridge could be removed as part of the Western Harbour plans

This is all so reminiscent of a scheme in 1971 to build an eight-storey hotel on the rock face of the Avon Gorge, yards from Brunel’s wonderful Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Initially the scheme had been covered in that now all-familiar cloak of secrecy. But that wasn’t going to deter the Bristolian full of civic pride from finding out more – and objecting.

The scheme had been put forward by the then owners of the Grand Spa Hotel, now known as the Avon Gorge Hotel and under different ownership.

Initially the plans were wrapped in the now all-familiar city council blanket of secrecy. But that didn’t deter Bristolians, proud of their city, from objecting.

Not only were the plans the subject of numerous public meetings, but discussion about them occupied many dozens of column inches in local and national newspapers and were well-aired on television and radio programmes. I can remember that anywhere you went the talk was about the ‘hotel on the rocks’.

The plans for an extension to the Avon Gorge Hotel were for an eight-storey high building – photo courtesy of Redcliffe Press

The city council planners gave outline permission to the scheme in January 1971 despite a flood of letters from objectors. Work quickly started on the hotel in order to meet a government deadline for a £126,000 grant under the Development of Tourism Act.

Many hundreds of letters of objection landed on the Minister for the Environment’s desk in Whitehall every day – despite a national postal strike.

The public forced a public inquiry which was held at the Council House and lasted nine days. Some 200 people packed the Conference Hall each day of the inquiry.

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Read more: Avon Gorge £1m hotel rejected (from The Daily Telegraph, October 15 1971)

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The inquiry saw a procession of Lords and Knights of the realm, actors and artists botanists, geologists and local people who all opposed the scheme, give evidence.

As a junior reporter, the ‘star turn’ for me was the appearance of one of the best-loved characters in the country. This was the poet, writer and broadcaster Sir John Betjeman, lover of traditional architecture and churches as well as of Bristol.

He told the inquiry: “The hotel would be a monster and utterly unsuitable for the site. The Avon Gorge is a natural piece of unique scenery.”

Many people would say his comments now apply to the proposed bridge across the River Avon as part of the Western Harbour scheme.

After considering the inspector’s report, the Environment Minister at the time, Peter Walker, chucked out the scheme.

The hotel planning fiasco had been a watershed – and a victory for common sense.

Maurice Fells is a journalist and author

A consultation on plans for the Western Harbour opens on August 19. For more information, visit www.bristol.citizenspace.com/growth-regeneration/western-harbour

Read more: ‘The way the council has handles the Cumberland Basin project is insulting’

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