In September, plans to redevelop the derelict St Mary Le Port site in Castle Park were finally given the green light by the government.
This came after councillors narrowly approved the proposals for three office blocks in December 2021. Progress was halted in January when the Bristol Civic Society made a request to the government to ‘call in’ the application for a public inquiry, but this was turned down last month.
Despite concerns about the scheme, including its eight- and nine-storey blocks being criticised by Historic England as “large, monolithic entities, which would fail to respond to the fine grain of the Old City”, councillors approved the plans.
Ahead of the crucial vote, in a written statement to councillors by Russ Leith, who described himself as the “spokesperson for the Friends of Castle Park Facebook group”, an analysis of responses to posts about the development showed overwhelming 10:1 support.
It appears that this claimed support for the scheme swayed at least two councillors, Labour’s Marley Bennett and Chris Jackson, with the former saying he was “willing to defer” to the group despite his concerns about the scale and height of the development. The statement submitted by the developer MEPC also refers to support from the community group, who are top of the list of local stakeholders.
The ruined church at the historic heart of the city will be redeveloped. But now, some local residents are calling into question the claims of “immense” community support, and say the extent of community consultation involved was exaggerated.
Support called into question
Two attempts to redevelop the derelict site in Castle Park, in 2006 and 2013, met strong local opposition from community groups. At present, long-empty buildings surround the 15th-century tower of St Mary le Port church – all that remains of the structure after it was bombed in November 1940 during the Bristol Blitz, which wrecked the city’s main shopping area.
Russ Leith founded the Facebook group Friends of Castle Park (FoCP) in 2018, and has since been a vocal supporter of the development plans, being quoted extensively in local media coverage. The 72-year-old, who lives on the edge of the park, is also an active organiser of litter picking and other volunteering to improve and maintain the park.
He was recently quoted in a Bristol 24/7 article that paints him as the victim of unjustified attacks by “trolls’. The article only briefly mentions the accusation that he misrepresented the view of FoCP.
Responding on the Facebook group to a question about how the 10:1 support of members was calculated, Leith said negative and positive reactions were added up, as well as the number of words written in posts in favour and against. However, he said that not all negative emojis were counted as they could be interpreted in different ways, and that the number of words written in supportive posts was approximately twice as many as those in opposition.
“These people in a sense were voting,” he told Bristol 24/7. “They were voting with their reactions and they were voting with their comments. It was quite clear when I took that snapshot that there was massive support in favour of it and that’s what I used when I wrote a statement.”
But even a quick look at the public Facebook group with 1,400 members shows that posts slamming the development were also not uncommon.
As well as criticisms of Leith’s method of calculating support, there have also been questions raised about the community group not having any formal structure and opportunities for meaningful consultation with developers being limited.
‘Facebook alone is not a sufficient organising structure’
Joe Banks, a member of the Facebook group, has been vocally critical of the so-called community consultation. He told the Cable: “When I put up a post on the group raising concerns about the unrepresentative way the group was run and pointed out the fact that councillors voting on the planning committee had been given misleading statements about the level of support for the development among members, it was immediately removed by admins.
“With no formal structure outside the Facebook group for members to express themselves or shape the running of the community group, it was the clearest demonstration possible of a serious democratic deficit,” he added.
He added that the legitimacy of both the planning system and community groups relies on accountability and transparency, and that FoCP’s setup didn’t justify its status as a key local stakeholder in the community engagement process. He gave the example of the only meeting for members of the group to meet with the developer only being announced on the very day it took place.
“Though Russ Leith has clearly benefited the park and its users through his work on litter-picking and park improvements, if you’re acting as a community group leader to lobby for a major development in the local media and to the council, Facebook alone is not a sufficient organising structure for that group,” Banks said.
“For a development that will have a transformational impact on the historic heart of the city, with its roots in the origins of Bristol and with its tragic 20th century history, this process has fallen far short of the respect and integrity the city deserved.”
Another member of the group of two years, Kelly Shepherd, said Leith was pushing his support for the development in his role as admin of the Facebook group. She said she didn’t like how he interacted with dissenting voices, describing his behaviour as “appalling”.
“His opposition to people who opposed the development were often in a mocking tone, patronising, rude, aggressive and humiliating,” Shepherd said.
“He didn’t act as a chairperson should in a professional and neutral manner and with respect and consideration to the group’s members,” she added.
In a recent post about how volunteers had cleared rubbish, needles and urine-soaked cardboard from around St Mary le Port, Leith said: “Shame on Bristol Civic Society and Bristol Tree Forum delaying the development of this site. Bring on MEPC to transform this abomination into something less dangerous and more welcoming.”
The Cable gave Russ Leith multiple opportunities to comment for this article, but he declined to respond.
However, when he spoke to Bristol 24/7 over a coffee, he said: “The attacks are uncomfortable. It’s reached the point now where it actually feels like persecution. They just seem unfair.”
“As far as MEPC’s development goes, personally – and this is also the consensus of the people in the block that we live in – I feel that it will benefit the area,” Leith said.
“At the moment, the problems with Castle Park are rising crime and it’s partly because of the condition of that [the St Mary le Port] corner.
“The whole point of Friends of Castle Park is to benefit its users. At the moment, that isn’t happening with that site [St Mary le Port] as it is, so anything that improves that site is pretty much going to get my support.”
Note: Joe Banks has written articles for the Bristol Cable and was originally commissioned to write an article on this topic. Russ Leith made a complaint about Joe’s questioning of him, and while we found no evidence of any wrongdoing, in the interests of fairness the Cable team decided to finish the report ourselves, including giving Leith another chance to comment.