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The Bristol Cable

From Western Harbour controversy to flammable cladding: how the Hotwells and Harbourside by-election campaign has played out

Labour or the Greens could secure a majority in the council chamber with a victory here, as voters prepare to head to the polls on 2 February.

Reports

The seat’s been held by the Lib Dems since its creation in 2016, but a win for either the Labour or the Green candidate in the Hotwells and Harbourside by-election will mean their party takes a majority in the council chamber. 

This, coupled with the fact that the ward is also the site of a huge regeneration project – Cumberland Basin’s transformation into the Western Harbour – means the poll on Thursday 2 February will be closely watched.

The vote was triggered after Lib Dem councillor Alex Hartley, who spearheaded the campaign to scrap the city’s mayoral model in favour of a committee system last year, stepped down due to health concerns. 

The controversial Western Harbour development, the issue of flammable cladding, plans for Hotwells Road, the SS Great Britain caravan park and the Jacob’s Wells Baths building were among the big topics debated by those vying for the seat.

And it’s been a contest that’s had no shortage of controversy: from accusations of a smear campaign, to Independent candidate Martin Booth dropping out of the race over what he called a “perceived conflict of interests” with his role as Bristol 24/7 editor.

So how has it all played out, what are the remaining four candidates’ key pledges, and what do voters need to know before they head to the polls?

Western Harbour – a ‘Manhattan-on-Avon’?

“The proposals for the Cumberland Basin are a real danger to this community and to the whole city as well,” warned the ward’s Lib Dem candidate Stephen Williams, speaking at the hustings on 17 January, at Hotwells Primary school. 

“It’ll be Manhattan-on-Avon if that plan goes ahead… It would be an environmental and architectural disaster.”

He refers to the regeneration plans to transform the Cumberland Basin into the Western Harbour, which would see some 3,000 housing units built as well as an improved road network.

The plans have sparked controversy from the outset. 

A map published in 2018 included plans for Avon Quay Island, between the Pump House and the Nova Scotia pub, which local businesses and the Hotwells Community Association successfully fought to remove. 

Controversial plans for the Western Harbour were among the key talking points for the by-election candidates.

Next came public engagement in 2019: the council’s preferred three options all involved demolishing existing roads – and all received a torrent of negative comments.

Among the criticisms is the opaque community consultation. During the hustings Green Party candidate Patrick McAllister criticised “botched community consultations”, with both he and Williams warning against building so many apartments on land that’s at risk of flooding.

In October 2022, the council announced it would need an extra £81 million for flood defences along the river Avon. According to the council’s flood risk strategy, the areas most at risk of tidal flooding by 2079 are the Western Harbour area and Canon’s Marsh. 

However, Aileen Means, Labour’s by-election candidate, said the party had done public consultations about the redevelopment to regain local trust and backing for the plans, and committed to holding the local authority to their promise of engaging the community in any further development plans.

Means said she was satisfied with the development committee’s findings that there was no flood risk, adding that money was needed for the redevelopment. She said many of the bridges in the area, including the Swing Bridge on Prince Street, were “close to the end of their lives”.

Conservative candidate Eliana Barbosa, who was absent from the hustings, has not commented on the proposals. 

‘Cladiator’ of the Harbourside

Fire safety issues in tower blocks is the “big platform” Labour’s Means is running on, she said. And it’s an issue that’s troubled Bristol City Council, after it emerged in November that 37 of the city’s tower blocks are fitted with flammable expanded polystyrene cladding (EPS).

“I am a cladiator,” Means told the hustings. “Many of the blocks have got cladding and other fire problems. There’s a lot of issues in the ward but the reason I’m standing is falling asleep when you’re worrying about somebody leaving a candle on, it’s a bit scary.”

She pointed out that many residents have been hit with huge increases in service charges to pay for repairs as well as insurance costs, saying building insurance in her own block on the Harbourside has risen to over £2,500 per year, per apartment.

Green candidate McAllister pledged to campaign for residents “caught up in the cladding nightmare through no fault of their own”. 

He accused his rival, former Bristol West MP and Lib Dem candidate Williams, of “hypocrisy” for standing on the same pledge, saying he failed to act on fire regulations while a junior minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, ahead of the Grenfell tragedy in 2017.

“Stephen Williams was warned by the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety to update fire regulations five years before the Grenfell House tragedy,” McAllister said. “Now he’s trying to claim he’s a voice for residents on the cladding scandal – it smacks of hypocrisy. If he’d acted when he had the chance nearly nine years ago, we might not be in this mess.”

Williams hit back at allegations, saying this was a “desperate smear campaign”. 

He said: “It is despicable for the Green Party to play politics with a dreadful tragedy in which 72 people died. Smearing me might give them some personal satisfaction but I think most fair-minded people will be appalled by their desperate tactics.”

Floating voters

Notably absent from the campaign pledges is mention of controversial mooring fee hikes, which are set to almost double for boat dwellers in the Hotwells and Harbourside ward.

New fees announced in January would see £100 for electric supply, and an annual mooring fee of £325 per metre (the length of the vessel). A 20p charge for ferry passengers will be introduced, and ferry operators will see their annual operating charges per boat double, from £503 to £1,000.

Harbour master Tony Nichols claimed the increases were needed to upgrade facilities. But the fact that many of the increases are well above inflation, with several at least doubling – has sparked outrage among harbour dwellers, with more than 1,800 people signing a petition urging the council to “save” Bristol harbour. 

Petitioners are also calling on the council to properly consult with people who live and work on the harbour about the changes, claiming that so far they have been “shut out of the democratic process”.

Speaking to the Cable, one boat dweller said many of the residents are not allowed to have a registered address on the harbour and so are unable to vote. 

Williams tweeted: “The Labour-controlled council is about to slap exorbitant new charges on [ferries], smashing their businesses. Madness, which I will resist.”

Battle for council chamber majority

The battle for Hotwells and Harbourside is being closely watched because the result – if it’s won by Labour or the Greens – would mean either party would have the highest number of elected representatives in the council chamber. Both currently have 24 seats each.

This is a point that was seized on by the Green candidate McAllister, who said: “Voting for a Green councillor is just not voting for me, but for 25 experienced and expert Green councillors across our city. Regardless of what happens in this by-election, they [Lib Dems] do not have the numbers to make effective change in our city.”

Among the other issues raised by candidates have been the controversial developments at the SS Great Britain and Baltic Wharf, and bringing more shops to Hotwells Road. At the hustings, Williams said these developments needed to be carried out at a “human and relatable scale”, with McAllister emphasising the need for green spaces and effective public transport links.

The dilapidated Jacob’s Wells Baths building, just outside the ward, was also discussed. After plans to redevelop the council-owned building fell through, its future is uncertain. 

McAllister said the best option would be as a new community centre for the Hotwells and Harbourside area, while Williams warned the building would cost millions to repair. Means said Labour was talking with the Trinity Centre about fixing up the building.

Polling stations in Hotwells and Harbourside will open at 7am and close at 10pm on Thursday 2 February.

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