Your say / Western Harbour

‘Will we never learn from the planning disasters of the past?’

By george ferguson, Thursday Nov 21, 2019

Nearly all the worst planning disasters have been the result of chasing numbers at the expense of quality of place and community.

This is currently the curse of Bristol planning, which is being driven by arbitrary targets combined with a simplistic desire to build high.

Will we never learn?


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This extraordinary ambition to be more like Birmingham than Bristol, a throwback to the 60s, is resulting in some appalling planning decisions, most recently the banal 20+ storey blocks of flats for students on Arena Island at Temple Meads, and now a 26-storey block towering over Castle Park.

Legal & General’s plans for the area formerly earmarked for Bristol Arena

The same attitude is now threatening what has been delightfully named Bedminster Green by voracious out of town developers intent on imposing a high rise nightmare on neighbouring Windmill Hill.

However, the latest and most serious threat to Bristol’s heritage and community is what has been christened Western Harbour by the mayor, a name taken from one of the best of contemporary European urban developments.

With its playable streets and community driven planning, Malmo’s Western Harbour at the southern tip of Sweden is an exemplary mixed use urban extension from which we can all learn.

Its only aberration is a 50-storey twisted tower that bust its developer and flies in the face of a great sustainable city vision.

The original Western Harbour – in Malmo, Sweden (photo courtesy of Visit Sweden)

The problem with Bristol’s own ‘Western Harbour’ vision is the precious historic and environmental sensitivity of the site (unlike Malmo’s redundant industrial docklands) and a mayor with no apparent feeling or understanding of Bristol’s natural and built heritage.

Marvin Rees’ pre-determined housing numbers will either force masterplanners into deeply uncomfortable solutions or, preferably, with a fraction of the number of dwellings on the site that he has led people to expect.

We have already seen the futile highway solutions, including crashing through the Riverside Garden Centre, that have been proposed for the apparent sole purpose of grabbing additional housing land to help meet his stated target of 2,500 new homes.

The A Bond warehouse behind houses on Ashton Avenue, which some local campaigners think could be threatened by the Western Harbour scheme

I have argued that before we spend hundreds of thousands on masterplanning, we should first look at how we reduce the traffic coming down the Portway and crossing Cumberland Basin, something we shall need to do in any case if we are to have even half a chance of meeting our clean air obligations and 2030 climate emergency target.

At the same time we need to address the flooding threat to Bristol by whatever means we can at a time when politicians are falling over each other to offer finance for flood defences.

This should include a flood barrier at Avonmouth which could provide both a rail and highway crossing between Avonmouth and Gordano with the added bonus of being able to make good use of the river for recreation and transport.

The proposed Western Harbour development covers areas of Hotwells, Spike Island and Bedminster

However, it has become clear that this has become a political virility test and that there will be no backing down, or at least not while the current mayor is in office.

To back up his case he has appointed a handpicked ‘advisory panel’ including one of his best friends, the author and architect of the original concept, his pastor from Hope Chapel at Hotwells, and others with an interest in pleasing the mayor.

There is only one genuine independent representative of the local community, Dennis Gornall from the Cumberland Basin Stakeholder Group.


Read more: Makeup of Western Harbour advisory group criticised for being too close to mayor


My guess is that the number of new homes will be artificially inflated by including nearby sites with no relationship to Cumberland Basin / Western Harbour, together with the conversion of the empty A Bond building which can easily be developed at any time.

I cannot see how we can achieve more than a few hundred new dwellings around Cumberland Basin without blocking iconic views or encroaching on precious recreational and ecologically sensitive land such as Ashton Meadows, or building up to ten storeys high, as I understand is now planned for the Ashton Railway Sidings site adjacent to Brunel Way (plans will be on view at the Create Centre on Thursday, November 21 from 3pm to 7pm).

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

Nor do I see any significant advantage in terms of dwelling numbers by moving or replacing either of the current swing bridges, at what would be huge environmental loss.

With only the occasional breakdown, both the existing bridges have worked well in tandem for more than 50 years and simply need some replacement parts and good maintenance at a cost far less than the inflated £40m figure that has been suggested, and a mere fraction of the hundreds of millions required to build new highways and bridges.


Read more: Rees: ‘The bridge, Gorge and balloons are not central to my city’s identity’


So let’s look sensibly at solutions that assume less traffic, not more, that keep both existing swing bridges and accept sensible numbers that are driven by a desire to achieve a well-planned, civilized, carbon zero community.

I do believe that with the possible removal of some link roads there is a good opportunity for some excellent development but nothing like on the scale called for by the mayor.

Let’s reserve those numbers for less sensitive sites but let’s also stop the current obsession for high-rise which is not conducive to good health, community life or to sustainable low energy development.

Marvin and I both have some experience of life in American and Far East cities – which to me generally serve as lousy examples for the development of complex historic European cities – but to the mayor it seems they have become his model for building high, as he claims a ‘city with aspiration’ should do!

George Ferguson was mayor of Bristol from 2012 to 2016

Read more: Controversial Western Harbour plans branded ‘insane’

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