The council has gone back to the drawing board on its controversial plans for the Cumberland Basin area of Bristol in an attempt to win back public trust.
The local authority has promised to “go back to basics” with its ‘Western Harbour’ proposals and produce a new vision in Autumn based on a fresh and “meaningful” public consultation.
But it will struggle to regain public trust after it found itself at loggerheads with residents over earlier options to redesign the aging road network and open up land for new development to create a new residential area.
Bristol City Council sought public feedback on three options in August 2019, but kept seven others under wraps initially, sparking controversy and a petition for them to be revealed.
It published all the options drawn up by consultants Arup in a report to the ruling Labour cabinet in November of that year.
But the report only provoked further public concern as it concluded the so-called ‘Eastern approach’ was the “strongest choice” and should be taken forward.
Now the council has said it plans to appoint a specialist organisation to get feedback from residents, businesses, stakeholders and the wider city on the future of Western Harbour and produce a “place shaping vision” setting out the type of place it could become.
“Our proposal now is to kind of take a step back… go back to basics and use the time that we have this year to solely focus on the engagement for the next phase of the project,” an officer told councillors last week.
“Our approach is to try and take an inclusive, collaborative and creative approach to make sure we can listen and hear the voices of both residents and businesses and stakeholders, but also the wider city, in the future of Western Harbour.
“The aim is… to produce a co-created city-wide vision for Western Harbour, which would set out the type of place Western Harbour could become in the future, and what will make it special and different and what will be important about the place.”
Lingering mistrust among residents and councillors
Mayor Marvin Rees promised in January last year that no final decisions on the area had been made, but there is lingering mistrust over the council’s intentions for ‘Western Harbour’ among both local residents and councillors, who feel excluded from the project.
Senior officers and cabinet member for planning, Cllr Nicola Beech, felt the sharp end of that mistrust at a meeting on January 28 where the council’s new approach to the proposed redevelopment of Cumberland Basin was set out.
The meeting of the growth and regeneration scrutiny commission heard accusations implying the ‘Western Harbour’ housing scheme was a foregone conclusion as soon as the mayor first mooted the idea in his annual State of the City Address in 2017.
Resident Stephen Wickham said the council deliberately “rubbed out” protections for green spaces in the area in its proposed new local plan in 2019, while opposition councillor and Green mayoral candidate Jerome Thomas accused Mr Rees of “selling his proposals for high rise luxury flats” to investors in the Far East as far back as 2017.
Bristol Live reported in September 2018 that Mr Rees had been seeking private investment for the scheme in China and during an international conference in Cannes, France.
Director for city growth, Nuala Gallagher, said green open spaces would be “paramount” in the redevelopment and that decisions on changes to the road network would only happen once the vision for the area was completed.
All the options for the road system are back on the table, although a tunnel under the Cumberland Basin is still seen as “unviable”, she said.
“We haven’t got another option or anything that we’re working on under the table on this,” Ms Gallagher said.
“We want to have a really transparent process and to build trust with people and to have people along with us on the journey.”
Calls to drop the name ‘Western Harbour’ and scrap ‘Eastern’ option
But residents and councillors called for the council to demonstrate its genuine commitment to a new approach by making various changes, such as renaming the project, dropping the unpopular Eastern option from consideration, and reviewing the membership of the Western Harbour advisory group (WHAG) to include councillors.
Commission member Tim Rippington said: “We’re going to have to do quite a lot to regain trust from people based on what’s happened.”
The council could start by not adopting the “alienating” name ‘Western Harbour’ that “nobody associates with the area”, the Labour councillor said.
Resident Valerie Steel called for the Eastern approach option to be scrapped altogether, describing it as “appalling” because it “completely severs” the Cumberland Basin from the rest of the Harbourside area and would mean putting a dual carriageway near or right past important heritage assets such as the Underfall Yard, Avon Crescent and the bonded warehouse.
Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Wright called for the earlier stated preference for the Eastern option to be “rescinded”.
Commission chair Paula O’Rourke, from the Green group, called for a review of the membership of the advisory body as it was “counter intuitive” and a “democratic deficit” to exclude elected councillors.
Labour member Mark Bradshaw said councillors were “really left out and marginalised in the first phase”.
Officers said they had been instructed to include all the road network options, so could not drop any, but could review the name if there was “strong and consistent” feedback from the public that that’s what they wanted.
They did not respond to the call for a change in the membership of the advisory group, but said it would continue “to advise us and steer us to make sure we’re on track”.
‘No conclusions on a road network have been made’.
In its formal written response to many of the concerns raised by members of the public, the council said: “No conclusions on a road network have been made.
“All options for road changes will be considered as the project progresses and more local and citywide engagement takes place.
“The intention of the highway’s engagement in 2019 was to capture early views on approaches to changing the road network. It was not about selecting a final option.
“Highway solutions will be considered within a wider place making context in the next phase of the project once a place shaping vision for the area has been developed.”