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The issues bubbling beneath the Temple Quarter development


The land around Temple Meads is slated to be Bristol's biggest regeneration project, but how concerning are the development's flood risk warnings?

Illustration: Alex Dimond.

This week Bristol City Council’s cabinet waved through big plans to develop land around Temple Meads.

The cabinet approved a major development brief setting out how the Mead Street area could be redeveloped. The 5.6-hectare area between the Bath Bridge roundabout and the Banana Bridge could soon be transformed with 1,500 new homes and office space that could accommodate 500 jobs. This is despite complaints from residents that it would ruin the view of iconic colourful houses in Totterdown.

The cabinet also heard an update on the £95m worth of government levelling up funding which the council secured to redevelop the Bristol Temple Quarter, Bristol’s biggest regeneration project. 

“This huge investment unlocks the area around Temple Meads as a new residential quarter,” Bristol mayor Marvin Rees declared at the meeting, “with up to 22,000 new jobs and 10,000 new homes […] in a sustainable, active travel location.”

It sounds promising. But beneath the big numbers, regeneration in Bristol Temple Quarter has been mired in controversy – beginning with the Environment Agency (EA) objecting to development on Silverthorne Lane along the Feeder Canal due to flood risk.

It seems to me that exactly how the flood risk at this site will be managed has not yet been fully worked out

The Silverthorne Lane development in the Temple Quarter area received planning permission from Bristol City Council in August 2020. But the EA objected, saying the site posed a “very serious flood risk” and effectively blocking it. The government stepped in, reviewed the application and agreed with the council that the applicant had mitigated the flood risk.

Silverthorne Lane is not an isolated case. Much of Bristol Temple Quarter is located in medium to high flood risk zones and the EA has objected to other developments in the quarter. The area’s underused land presents opportunities to redevelop and is ideally placed near Temple Meads and the city centre, but will flood risk pour cold water on the grand vision?

Not yet fully worked out

Feeder Estates are proposing to build 367 new homes in the Silverthorne Lane development

The Silverthorne Lane development site covers the land between Silverthorne Lane and the Feeder Canal, stretching from Motion nightclub along the canal up to St. Phillips Causeway. 

The site contains several heritage assets, including St. Vincent Work’s and the old Aardman studio, which stand next to derelict industrial yards and red-brick warehouses which seem to teeter on the canal’s edge. The site is owned by Square Bay. In 2019, Feeder Estates, a partnership Square Bay manages, applied to build a university building, 369 homes (20% affordable), offices, a secondary school and purpose-built student accommodation.

Government maps show that some of the site is at a medium or high risk of tidal flooding, which means there’s anywhere between a one in 30 and one in 100 risk of flooding in any given year.

The Environment Agency says the site could see flood depths of 1.84 metres in 2080 and 2.5 metres in 2120 – they described these depths as a “danger to all”. Separate modelling by engineering consultants Edenvale Young for the council backed up the EA’s findings.

Paul Bates, professor of hydrology at the University of Bristol, believes the site will definitely flood over the next century. “Over the planned 100-year lifetime of the project you have to expect that once-in-a-century floods will occur. It is more a question of when and not if.” 

Feeder Estates acknowledged this hazard in its application and promised measures to make the site safe. For example, homes would be on the first floor of buildings or above, there would be escape routes, emergency vehicles would be able to access the site and buildings with ground floor level usage like the school would have plenty of warning of flooding so could be evacuated. Bristol City Council was eventually persuaded by this and approved the application in August 2020.

But the Environment Agency objected to the development because it would see “hazardous flood depths”, there was no “strategic flood risk management infrastructure”, safe 24/7 operational access from the development to the Feeder Canal wasn’t available, and Feeder Estates had apparently failed to demonstrate that flood risk wouldn’t be increased elsewhere.

The government ‘called in’ the application and ultimately agreed with Bristol City Council that the developer had mitigated the site’s flood risk – overruling the EA’s objection. 

The EA told the Cable that it would “abide” by the government’s decision “and remain committed to working closely with Bristol City Council to support the delivery of the Bristol Avon Flood Strategy”.

Feeder Canal. Credit: Christine Johnstone

But Professor Bates is concerned that detailed flood mitigation plans haven’t been forthcoming. “It seems to me that exactly how the flood risk at this site will be managed has not yet been fully worked out,” he told the Cable.

The debacle also shone light on what seems like a fraught relationship between the council and the EA. Two councillors told the Cable the objection had resulted from a lack of cooperation between the two public agencies. “Further discussions should have taken place to find out what was required to alleviate the EA’s concerns,” one source said.

Silverthorne Lane seems to have set a precedent which could have big ramifications for development in Bristol city centre. 

In 2019, Victoria Hall Management Limited applied to build student apartments and a new University of Bristol campus on Avon Street. Like Mead Street and Silverthorne Lane, the Avon Street site is in the Temple Quarter. Like Silverthorne Lane, the EA raised an objection due to flood risk. 

But the council’s planning department recommended approving it anyway. “Considering the appeal decisions at Silverthorne Lane and Feeder Road,” a planning officer said in recommending the development committee approve the application last month, the flood risk “would not be as significant to warrant a refusal”. The committee approved the application. 

‘Me and my friends have got hopes and dreams’

Oasis Academy Temple School was supposed to open in 2018 but now it’s expected to open in 2024 at the earliest – six years later than planned. The delay only exacerbated an acute need for school places in central east Bristol.

“Growing up in a neighbourhood like Lawrence Hill isn’t always easy,” a local primary school pupil told the government during its inquiry into the application last year. “At the moment there isn’t anywhere for us to go to secondary school.

“Me and my friends have got hopes and dreams and want to grow up to make the world a better place. We need a good education to do that.”

The 1,600-capacity Oasis Temple Quarter School will help meet the rising demand for secondary places in east central Bristol. Figures released by the council last year showed there were 291 more pupils in the city starting secondary school in September 2021 than places available, rising to 515 by 2024.

It means that school kids are being squeezed into existing schools. “Bristol Brunel Academy has had to take all the slack,” Amy Harrison, a local parent and member of the campaign group BS5 Secondary Education Forum, which campaigned for the new school, told the Cable. “This September it’s opening with ten forms.”

The BS5 Secondary Education Forum says it was assured the developer’s flood measures were adequate.

Old industrial buildings by the Feeder Canal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But why not build the school somewhere else? Green councillor for Southville ward Tony Dyer highlights the land’s strategic importance. “This part of the city is a good location for regeneration because there’s a lot of underused land, it’s central and near public transport networks.

“You have two options,” Dyer explains. “Either you decide you won’t build anywhere at risk of flooding. But that puts pressure on those parts of the city that are safer to build on and the council has increasingly limited land. Or you decide you could build on this land. You look at what we can do to remove the danger and you have to calculate whether the cost and return is worth it. Not just the financial return, but also in terms of creating new homes and jobs.”

What the city requires, Dyer argues, is for the authorities to come up with city-wide flood measures because large swathes of Bristol are at risk of flooding. 1,000 properties in the city centre are at risk of tidal flooding. The council expects the risk will only grow due to the climate crisis, saying more than 4,100 homes and businesses in the city would be at risk of flooding by 2125 if nothing is done.

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The council last year unveiled its Bristol Avon Flood Strategy and is seeking funding to implement the first phase of the strategy. A Bristol City Council spokesperson said the council was working with the Environment Agency on flood defences and that the Temple Quarter area, because of its central location and existing developments, “will need flood defences whether the area changes or stays the same.

“By implementing the approach set out by the Bristol Avon Flood Strategy we can unlock the development Bristol needs while futureproofing St Philip’s for a changing climate.

“Any future development proposals for St Philip’s will be brought forward with engagement with residents and businesses, including proposals for flood defence. First phase works are expected to begin from around 2025.”

Councillor Dyer has arranged an inquiry day later this year on development and flooding. “It will look to identify which land can be protected or how we can mediate the risk, and which land maybe we need to accept isn’t worth building on and, if that’s the case, maybe start looking at creating some wildlife habitats or wetlands instead, which can act as a channel for flooding,” he explains.

“We’re hoping to invite the Environment Agency to come along to that and also some of our neighbouring authorities and organisations that are dealing with flood risk as well.”

This article was amended to add comment from Bristol City Council.

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