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The Bristol Cable

Gloucester Road Wetherspoons: a chain changing Bristol’s fiercely independent high street

After seven planning applications, a derelict building in Bishopston will become a Wetherspoons. Opponents say it will damage the independent ethos of the old-fashioned high street; others say that utopia has already gone.

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The building on Gloucester Road that will become a Wetherspoons was built as a supermarket in the 1960s. Empty for 15 years, the windows are milky and the panelling is peeling. Advertising hoarding that once showed the pub’s imagined interior has been painted over with cartoonish castles, floating in the sky. Below them in blocky script is the word ‘heterotopia’. It translates as ‘other place’ or ‘wrong place’.

Wetherspoons’ first planning application was submitted way back in 2014. After a further six applications, hundreds of objections, and two refusals from the planning committee, Bristol City Council granted the scheme permission in June 2021. 

Building work will begin next year, and the new pub will create 50 jobs. But debate has raged about whether Wetherspoons – a chain that owns some 900 pubs – should ever have been allowed a space on Gloucester Road – lauded for its independent businesses. For some, the planners’ decision represents the ultimate ‘wrong place’.

The building is currently an eyesore on busy Gloucester Road. Credit: Jess Connett

Killing the high street

Four of Wetherspoons’ planning applications were withdrawn before they were considered. The first one that planning officers debated, in 2015, was refused on two grounds: noise and cooking odours affecting residents of Gloucester Road, Oak Road, Thornleigh Road, and Brynland Avenue, which runs behind the site. A large roof terrace was of particular concern to planners and locals.

“This establishment will be right at the back of our garden!” one Brynland Avenue resident commented at the time. “I do not want the noise or cooking pollution right on my doorstep. I have a stressful job and my only relaxation is sitting in my back garden for peace and quiet. This will not be the case much longer if this establishment goes ahead.” Another neighbour spoke of already being disturbed by The Royal Oak and The Anchor’s beer gardens; a third said Wetherspoons would “destroy our quality of life”.

The approved plans include a roof terrace seating up to 130.

Rose Boswell, Secretary of the Bishopston Society – a local campaign group which ran from 2002-2019 – submitted letters of objection to the first two planning applications on behalf of the Society. She wrote: “Bishopston is a neighbourhood of largely family housing and the ever-increasing noise, nuisance and antisocial behaviour which goes hand in hand with late-night drinking is changing the character of the area.

“The arrival of a national chain alcohol outlet on the Gloucester Road will inevitably have a detrimental impact on the small, local pubs in the area and will again undermine the special local character of the area.”

She echoed a 2012 Independent article, which declared Gloucester Road “the last great British high street”. In it, Peter Browne of Bishopston Traders Association said it was the middle-class residents who kept the local shops going: “They provide a constant feed of people who would be critical of supermarket shopping and who don’t want to travel miles for things.”

Garvan Hickey says he welcomes the competition from the Wetherspoons. Credit: Jess Connett

Garvan Hickey lives off Gloucester Road and has run The Drapers Arms micropub since 2015. He told the Cable the right place for a new Wetherspoons would be the city centre: “If we’ve learned anything over the pandemic, your local is an essential part of a different night out than one you can enjoy downtown. Local pubs are a lot more intimate than city centre pubs, clubs or bars. They offer a different and unique experience where you can get to know staff and other customers.

“To me, Wetherspoons have taken everything that’s good and great about pubs and tried to distil down to meet the lowest common denominator. I would compare their offering, versus a normal pub, to a high street competing with a massive out-of-town shopping centre.”

Match day concerns

Wetherspoons’ fifth application, in 2017, was refused on multiple grounds. Avon and Somerset Police provided crime statistics for the area during the planning process: though these did not suggest crime levels would rise if the pub opened, Crime Prevention Design Adviser Clare Hawkins raised concerns about proximity to the Memorial Stadium, where Bristol Rovers play, and Gloucestershire Cricket Club.

“It is highly likely that significant numbers of people will gather here prior to football and cricket matches,” Hawkins wrote. Narrow pavements would “inevitably lead to ‘flash points’” among supporters “who seek to behave in an aggressive and antisocial manner”. The result would be “unacceptable demand” on police officers, as well as disruption to residents.

Prior to closure in 2017, The Queen Vic was Rovers fans’ occasionally rowdy watering hole: a buzzing atmosphere on match days, the bar and street outside crowded. Several nearby pubs, including The Sportsman and The Annexe, The Forester’s Arms and The Anchor now host the fans. The Queen Vic is one of two Bishopston pubs lost in the past decade, along with The Old Fox. 

William* lives on Dongola Avenue, near the future Wetherspoons site, and believes the objections to sports fans drinking in the Wetherspoons, along with students and ‘people from Southmead’ are “distasteful and elitist stereotyping”. 

“It strikes me that a major and consistent objection stems from individuals who claim that a Wetherspoons outlet would somehow pollute the perceived purity of the Gloucester Road,” he said.

Oft-repeated claims that Gloucester Road is either Europe or the UK’s longest road of independent shops may stem from a 2016 Barratt Homes brochure. But as early as 2008, years before 2,500 people objected to Stokes Croft’s Tesco, Bishopston had a Somerfield, Sainsbury’s Local, Tileflair, Betfred, Cashconverters and Domino’s pizza.

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While Gloucester Road still shirks the homogeneity of other high streets, it has changed. Many shops have closed; replaced not necessarily by chains but upmarket cafes and restaurants. In April, Pinkmans bakery opened a pop-up directly opposite the Wetherspoons site, selling the likes of focaccia and sourdough donuts.

“Other than from chain outlets, one may no longer buy clothing, shoes, furniture and so on: items that any genuine high street would offer,” said William, a Bishopston resident for 30 years.

“I cannot see how one can reconcile the views that Gloucester Road is both a vibrant high street and a residential area. If one elects to live above shops on a high street, then one can hardly retrospectively complain about people using it.”

Local spirit

Wetherspoons’ final application was submitted in March 2020 and finally approved last month. There were 59 comments in support, one neutral, and 241 objections, which concerned not only the plans but also founder Tim Martin’s refusal to pay staff during the pandemic and stance on Brexit. But planning officers were reassured that tweaks – including a smaller roof terrace that closes at 9pm, and shorter opening hours at weekends – would mitigate noise problems. CCTV, bouncers and a ‘home fans only’ rule will also be implemented.

Green councillor Emma Edwards attended the planning meeting to represent residents “who feel their views have not been listened to”. She told the Cable: “Sadly, feelings about a company does not affect a planning decision, and it seems a foregone conclusion. There’s still concern that this will encourage other chains to Gloucester Road, a place many are fiercely proud of. However, the area is friendly and if the pub respects the locals and the spirit of the area, there’s a chance it will settle in fine.”

Green councillor Emma Edwards says residents don’t feel listened to. Photo supplied by Emma Edwards.

Long before the Wetherspoons opens, The Royal Oak down the road will be bought out by Stonegate, which already owns The Anchor, The Cider Press and the Prince of Wales.

Both Wetherspoons and the micropub movement were influenced by George Orwell’s 1946 essay about his favourite – fictional – pub the Moon Under Water. It is “always quiet enough to talk”, serves food, has friendly staff, and a garden for children. Supporters of the Gloucester Road Wetherspoons echo these sentiments: Bishopston needs affordable food and drink, and somewhere that welcomes young families.

“I could, legitimately, be accused of sour grapes or of being frightened of losing custom,” says Garvan Hickey. “That’s not the case. I could be accused of being a luddite – but I don’t hark back to some nostalgic view of jolly old England where Orwell’s vision of ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ exists.

“I didn’t raise any objections to their plans at any time and if it’s a success, then good luck to them. I welcome competition and in fact, micropubs near Wetherspoons around the country tend to do pretty well. Once they visit, many customers will appreciate the local alternatives. The more footfall on Gloucester Road, the better we’ll do.”

*Name has been changed

Comments

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  • There are furniture, shoe and clothes shops on Glos. Rd. or just off it – maybe do a Google search if you’re not sure where…

    Reply

  • current tory planning permisssion stratgey puts massive weight behind business & profits, waaaay ahead of the interests of residents and careful, cautious regulation – they just don’t care so long as much wonga is being made by one of their chums…

    Reply

  • If we’re using the extended version of ‘Gloucester rd’ that tends to cover the parts actually called Cheltenham rd and stokes croft then this is more the return of wetherspoons? Just at the other end.

    They used to run a pub called ‘the magic box’ in what is now the mosque near the Tesco that caused the fuss up to about 2005 or so.

    Reply

  • Some questions… Why was nothing else proposed for the site in 15 years? If its a choice between a weatherspoons pub and a derelict building, maybe the pub is not so bad. Was there more comments in favour and less against than in previous years, and if so why? Could it be the demographics of the area is changing, maybe less families and more individuals renting from landlords? Those renting for a few years are probably less likely to be as concerned or interested in the changes to the area as people with a permanent home, or may have different priorities. Could the council have purchased the building and added a space to benefit the community (unlike the selling off of the old bus station to build a Lidl right next to an already existing Aldi)? If they say they can’t afford such endeavours, then what about the cost of the failed Bristol Energy project? Could they have co-developed it to share costs? I think the Council should be acting to create and maintain thriving communities as a top priority and Gloucester road is one they very much should be maintaining. Their lack of intervention with the previously inspirational community hub that was Hamilton house is an example of not doing enough in my view. Also do the planners really think that Weatherspoons won’t extend the open times once they are established there? Is there something contractual backed up in law that can hold them to account or are the planners naively just taking their word for it? Ultimately I think it is a slow creep, although the bigger buildings are always more likely to be taken over by bigger companies and if it stopped at that then maybe the changes could be acceptable. The big chains and organisations with the money behind them will get footholds eventually, this will encourage others to submit application after application knowing that persistence can pay off. Only resident opposition in tandem with a sympathetic council that understands the importance of supporting local communities as well as the rarity of places like Gloucester road in our modern look-alike cities will slow this process down.

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