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‘A Pandora’s box’? What impact will Fishponds’ big new developments have, and who stands to profit?

Plans to redevelop three factory sites could see thousands of new homes along the Bristol and Bath Railway Path. Residents want to raise awareness about the potential impact of the schemes, which promise their owners lucrative returns.

Landmark chimneys at the Filwood Verona site in Fishponds, part of a huge proposed redevelopment scheme.

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“There’s a real nervous worry this could be a Pandora’s box,” says Emma, the co-chair of Fishponds Community Planning Group over a mid-morning brew at the Coffee #1 on the high street.

She’s referring to a planned new development linking three brownfield sites, which could see thousands of new homes being built along the Bristol and Bath Railway Path.

From the limited work the planning group – set up by residents in response to the schemes, collectively known as Atlas Place – has done so far, there’s little indication at present of serious local opposition.

The group’s concern is that there is too little awareness in the wider local community about Atlas Place and its potential impact on the area. Questions include whether tall buildings will overshadow homes, how the narrow streets surrounding the sites will cope with more traffic, and what measures will be taken to help schools and health services cope with an influx of residents.

“We’re not a campaign group,” Emma says, emphasising that members would prefer to work with rather than against developers. “We are a conduit for information to get out to the residents to make sure they know what’s happening.”

A council consultation closed in September on an outline planning application for 255 homes of four storeys or less on the first of the three sites, occupied by manufacturing firm Graphic Packaging International (GPI), which is moving to Yate. Approval of the site for housing will considerably increase its value, paving the way for GPI to sell it off to an as-yet-unknown developer.

Who will ultimately reap profit from Atlas Place is an open question. But new Cable research highlights the colourful offshore ownership background of another of the three sites, and demonstrates the lucrative opportunities that Bristol’s housing crisis continues to present.

Who owns the sites?

Across the road from GPI is the Filwood Verona site – home to the landmark chimneys visible from the cycle path, which are used as hunting perches by birds of prey.

The land was purchased for £3.7million in May 2020 by Central Fishponds Ltd (previously Frontdoor Properties Ltd). Proposals for the site published earlier this year envisage up to 900 homes – including in high-rise blocks – being built there. The average property price in the BS16 postcode, which includes Fishponds, stood at just over £360,000 in August 2023.

A map of the three sites making up Atlas Place (credit: Atlas Place Fishponds Future)

While Central Fishponds Ltd is registered to a detached house on a quiet country lane in Kent, its owner is a major Lebanese businessman formerly based in Saudi Arabia. The Cable has found that El Mouhtaz El Sawaf has amassed a multimillion-pound property portfolio in the UK, largely through offshore companies, according to Land Registry records.

A well-placed source in Lebanon said El Sawaf had fled Saudi Arabia in mysterious circumstances, as speculated by regional news outlets, and is now understood to be based out of Lebanon’s capital Beirut. Before reportedly taking off from Saudi Arabia, El Sawaf was an executive board member at the Saudi BinLaden Group, a multinational construction conglomerate headquartered in Jeddah. A longtime figure in Beirut high society, he has business interests ranging from food to textiles, and mobile network infrastructure in the Middle East and Africa.

Closer to home, El Sawaf also had a hand in Syria’s construction sector alongside a powerful Syrian businessman. In 2010, before the start of the country’s civil war, he oversaw the sponsoring of the Al-Karamah football club in Homs, a city which would later be devastated by a brutal government siege. Separately, US authorities suspected that Mohammed Mortada Al-Dandashi, the football club’s then president, was a frontman for the cousin of president Bashar al-Assad, Rami Makhlouf, helping to “manage “parallel” financial activities in Syria,” according to leaked US diplomatic cables from 2009.

Initial proposals for the Filwood Verona site include blocks up to 13 storeys high (credit: Central Fishponds)

The pair’s relationship didn’t stop on the pitch. In 2011 Syrian media reported on the launch of a joint real estate venture between Dandashi and the Construction Products Holding Company while El Sawaf was its Chairman, and the company’s logo was emblazoned on Al-Karamah FC’s kit. Dandashi also controlled a stake in a Bahraini company, while El Sawaf was Chairman, up until its liquidation in 2018.

Back in the West Country, Central Fishponds Ltd is ultimately controlled by Luxembourg-domiciled Tapok Holdings SA, which is owned by the same Lebanese businessman. On paper at least, El Sawaf has amassed a multimillion-pound UK property portfolio using offshore companies. He has appeared as a shareholder in at least 13 expensive properties across the UK – including a stretch of land on Bristol’s Stokes Croft, and student accommodation complexes in Nottingham and Leicester.

The Cable makes no suggestion of any wrongdoing by either Dandashi or El Sawaf. Neither Central Fishponds Ltd nor Mohammed Mortada Al-Dandashi responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Besides Filwood Verona, the third Atlas Place site – an industrial estate and large patch of mostly cleared land across the cycle path from the Morrisons supermarket car park – are owned by Castel Ltd and L’Ancresse Ltd. Both companies are registered in tax-haven Guernsey, with development proposals for the site still to be consulted on.

The Goodneston Road entrance to the Castel Ltd site, which sits mostly derelict (credit: Alex Turner)

“Bristol Labour is committed to using any powers at the council’s disposal to clamp down on tax avoidance,” says Ellie King, a Labour councillor for the Hillfields ward in which the Atlas Place sites sit, when asked for her perspective on offshore ownership. “But we do not have powers to regulate overseas private investment into UK land and companies – this is a matter for the UK government.” 

What are the fears about building heights?

While ownership details of the Filwood Verona site have not been made public before, the proposed development there is already the most controversial among locals. The proposals published by Central Fishponds in the spring include block heights of up to 13 storeys at the northern end of the site next to the cycle path, potentially overshadowing existing homes and gardens.

“Everyone wants development but not that high – Fishponds is not a high-rise area,” said one resident at an initial planning group meeting back in May.

The higher we go, the denser we go, the more pressure on infrastructure

While Central Fishponds is in the process of revising its plans in response to feedback ahead of a full planning application, the broader fear is that approval for high-rise blocks at Filwood Verona could affect what gets built on the other two Atlas Place sites.

Emma explains that the planning group’s concern is that the GPI site gets outline permission for housing, is then sold to a developer, and then the Filwood Verona plot gains permission for a taller development, setting a new precedent.

Outline plans for the GPI site present a low-rise housing scheme (credit: GPI Fishponds)

“Whoever buys Graphic Packaging [could] then say, well, actually let’s reapply [with revised plans to build higher], go through the process again,” she says. “Obviously, the higher we go, the denser we go, the more pressure on infrastructure.”

Concerns were also voiced at the May meeting – based on conversations at a consultation event in March – about how much decontamination the site will require. One resident said a member of the developer’s team had said this could limit the amount available to spend on “nice stuff” such as environmental work and affordable housing.

As with any new development in Bristol, the latter point is a big concern.

“To be clear, these are brownfield sites that are absolutely some of the best locations for new affordable housing development in the city – and that’s an absolute priority,” says King.

The obvious ideal would be for 30% of the new housing to be ‘affordable’ as per targets set by the council – which it has often been criticised for waiving in favour of getting a greater volume of homes built.

“But we also need to look at what needs are in the area and what’s being asked for,” adds King. Besides affordable housing, developers can be asked to contribute to other local services via the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), a charge councils can place on them. “A lot of concerns have come back from people I’ve been talking to around health infrastructure in east Bristol, and there’s a need for green space, leisure and commercial facilities as well,” King says.

Pressure on infrastructure and services

How well services and infrastructure around Fishponds can cope with thousands of extra people is another crucial question the local planning group wants to raise awareness of. This mirrors concerns flagged by people living in BS3 around the impact of developments south of the Avon on GP surgeries, dentists and schools.

Pressure on secondary school places in east Bristol has been well documented. Bristol Brunel Academy (BBA), in Speedwell within the Hillfields ward, saw 600 applications for admission this September, with only 232 places actually available.

Neither BBA nor Bristol Metropolitan Academy on the other side of Fishponds Road – which saw 473 applications for 180 places this year – replied to requests for comment on the likely effect of many new residents. The Fishponds Family Practice health centre, which residents have claimed is also under considerable pressure, also did not respond to a similar request.

But arguably residents’ number one concern is around transport – and especially the volume of extra cars the new development could bring. While developers’ communications have emphasised the Atlas Place sites’ closeness to the cycle path and bus networks, Bristol’s public transport network is creaking and not everyone will want to ride a bike.

“They can all get really clogged up already,” says Emma of the roads surrounding Atlas Place on either side of Lodge Causeway, adding that she finds the lack of local awareness about how much worse things could get “worrying”.

Emma says she has raised the issue with representatives of all the developers, who are due to collaborate on a detailed overall transport plan that will be published once plans are in for all the sites. But, she adds, “it’s very hard for the community to respond to an [individual] application without being able to see that overall plan”.

What happens next?

With public consultation on the outline application for the GPI site having closed in September, that process will move to other parties – for example the Environment Agency – who must by law feed in. Any sale will take place as and when the application is approved.

Regarding Filwood Verona, a spokesperson for Central Fishponds Ltd said the Middle East-backed firm was “continuing to review plans for the development following feedback from the community and others” and “understands” local concerns.

“We’ve made a commitment to consult the local community on our updated plans before we submit a planning application [which we expect] to be later this year,” the spokesperson said, adding that this timescale could not be guaranteed. “We’ve already spoken to hundreds of people and want as many as possible to get involved.”

A spokesperson for representatives of the Castel site said that “detailed technical work” was underway to ensure development plans can be successfully delivered.

“We aim to present a scheme for public consultation in autumn 2023 [and] before that will share details with the Neighbourhood Planning Group and local councillors, seeking their views,” the spokesperson added. “While our plans are still being refined, we are considering a mix of uses for the site, including the possibility of new homes, community and commercial uses, and green spaces. Our target is to submit a planning application to Bristol City Council in early 2024.”

Emma says she’s “hopeful” the local planning group will be able to set up a community event bringing together local people “in October, November, before the Christmas madness sets in”.

“That’s really important,” she says. “We don’t want this to be drowned out by Christmas – we want to make sure people are focused on it.”

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  • Judging by the lack of control over the current use of these sites as temporary business and impact of the environment by the companies using the site and allowed by BCC then a residence group stands little change of changing these plans.
    BCC has no overall plan for the future development of this City and it will be carved up by businesses with money to make profits and sod the infrastructure needed to support such big changes in these areas. As for the CIL charged it will be used by BCC in other areas and not Fishponds.

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