Bristol in the Dock

Whatever your thoughts about the toppling of the Colston statue, and sadly it has polarized opinion locally and nationally, we can all agree he made a hell of a splash when thrown into the city docks. The ripples have taken the name and spirit of Bristol around the world, like nothing else has been able to do since Cabot discovered Newfoundland over 500 years ago. It also, in a matter of minutes, dealt with a contentious issue that had become increasingly embarrassing to the city over the past 50 years.

I have to say, surprisingly in retrospect, that I never came under pressure to remove the statue during my 3.5 years as mayor. However I was, with the Bristol Music Trust, owners of the Colston Hall, addressing the re-naming of the hall, which was an ongoing issue, and I very much regret it took the strong reaction to the killing of George Floyd over 4 years after I departed, to get the name change to ‘Bristol Beacon’ over the line. 

So the Colston Four ended up in the dock too! Whatever side you might have been on, the Bristol jury, after hearing all the facts and the historical and cultural context in great depth, surprisingly found them not guilty of criminal damage. We are fortunate to have defended and fought for a jury system in this country as it enables every aspect of a particular case to be taken into account by 12 good citizens without any single jury decision creating a precedent for some other such act, however similar.

So where do we go next? 

During the 90’s I proposed a ‘Bristol Centre of Slavery and Civil Liberties’ to inhabit what is now the city museum at M-Shed. It was squashed by the Bristol establishment at the time on the basis that the planned Museum of Commonwealth and Empire would include a slavery exhibit. I didn’t buy that proposition, as how was an exhibit within a museum of Empire going to belong to the minorities whose ancestors had been the victims of the brutality of slavery or to the other minorities and more recent arrivals to the city who are themselves challenged by issues of Civil Liberties and Human Rights?

We now have a wonderful opportunity, as England’s first UNESCO City of Learning – awarded towards the end of my time as mayor – to make amends and to learn from the mistakes of the past and look to a more humane and cohesive future. It was a good decision to display the vandalised (or should I say ‘repurposed’) statue lying on its back at the M-Shed with a narrative about the horrendous history that had resulted in Colston’s immense wealth. It’s worth a lot more to the city in that humiliated state than it ever was in the pompous pristine state on its plinth – not that the jury were allowed by the judge to take that obvious fact into account in their verdict. 

Following discussion with African and Caribbean friends and others, and the coming together of previous Lord Mayor Cleo Lake and Deputy Mayor Asher Craig to call on the government for reparations it is clear the time is now right to revive the idea of a Centre of Slavery and Civil Liberties, or whatever name and plan should be chosen, and to build it in celebration of the diversity of this city, on the quayside close to where Colston was dunked. 

As well as being a major local resource for the rich diaspora that has settled here from all continents, it has the real opportunity to become one of Bristol’s greatest magnets for visitors across the world, post-covid, and what is more the perfect site exists. That site has been designated for a cultural building for the past 25 years, belongs to us the citizens of Bristol, and was planned to be for the Centre for Performing Arts that failed to achieve the Arts Council funding that was at first promised by the then Arts Minister Lord Gowrie. 

So what has happened to that site? 

I had subsequently proposed a temporary sweeping tensile covered events space after the Arts Council’s promised funds had been withdrawn in 1998, in favour of the Gateshead Sage. We were told that it would be kept available for another cultural use, yet to be defined. It seems that nearly 25 years on we have at long last found that other cultural use, and the city is perfectly placed to deliver the best and most educational slavery exhibit in the world, with the added opportunity to moor an appropriate ship alongside. We have, with the recent plans for ‘OurWorld’ at Bristol Zoo Gardens, alongside the ‘My World’ project at the University of Bristol, developed the concepts that would be perfectly suited for a deeply immersive educational experience. 

Model of the Bristol Venice scheme by Ferguson Mann Architects including ‘tented’ events space (top right hand corner) adjacent to Lloyds HQ building.

The rub is that the site in question has, scandalously, been the subject of a secret tender and competition between developers and their agents, and we are in grave danger of having yet another inappropriate oversized office block dumped upon us against our collective will. This clumsily sited building, condemned by Historic England and others, is planned to be over twice the height of the neighbouring buildings on Bordeaux Quay and considerably higher than the Lloyds HQ building which is about to be vacated. It is almost as if we have a death wish. 

Proposed new ‘Waterfront Place’ office building – images AHMM Architects.

The city should rise up again in noisy protest at this outrageous misuse of a precious location – or are we now to see the city docks as land to be plundered for office development at a time we have offices and famous central department stores emptying? What promises have been made to these voracious London based developers, backed by rail workers pension funds, behind our backs? 

Whatever has been promised without our knowledge, let’s get heads together, use the great talent that lies within the city, seek out the best designers of minority origin, and show the world that we have the imagination and the will to deliver something extraordinary for the benefit of future generations. Or are we going to allow our masters to flog one of our crown jewel sites to another out of town developer to build a clumsily sited office block, more suited to a business park, that does not in any way belong to Bristol? 

9th January 2022

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