Is Planning Consultation worth the paper it is written on?

By the end of this week, on Friday 22nd April, we are invited to respond to the ‘Vision for Western Harbour’, the result of a long and expensive exercise commissioned by Bristol City Council from London consultants. This follows the disastrous pre-covid attempt at introducing a highway scheme, including a new 4-lane bridge over the Avon, that would have wrecked one of the most iconic city views in the UK, that of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge hanging across the Avon Gorge. 

The outrage that followed this proposal left the planners little choice but to retreat and regroup and start afresh – or at least to appear to do so! I have just completed the questionnaire following the latest consultant’s report that is so bland that it is impossible to disagree with any single one of the 25 propositions. How would anyone disagree with such proposals as: ‘welcome visitors’, ‘celebrate heritage’, ‘reduce local traffic’, ‘have character’, ‘create connections’ & ‘encourage culture’ etc etc.. ?

Don’t get me wrong – I am a great fan of genuine consultation, and particularly of local participation, but am deeply suspicious of the agendas of politicians and/or developers who increasingly see consultation as a public relations exercise to help justify their pre-determined aims rather than a genuine participatory exercise. As an architect I have watched relatively genuine consultation that followed the disastrous planning of the 60’s and 70’s increasingly replaced by box ticking public relations exercises some of which has resulted in dire consequences. 

For instance in the latest Western Harbour consultation we are asked if we need to reduce local traffic. Does anyone really think that a tick box will suffice? Of course we need to radically reduce the number of cars and lorries pouring into the centre of the city from all directions. Highways England insist on using the Portway which runs through one of the UK’s most important SSI’s (Site of Scientific Interest) as the main route from the M5 to Bristol Airport. 

It does seem that an alternative route/s should be the first consideration rather than a blind acceptance of this national highway requirement. 

One of the greatest existential threats to Bristol, shared by the majority of the world’s cities, is flooding. Part of the solution is to build a barrage near Avonmouth, down river of the M5 bridge. This could result in great leisure and water transport benefits and be constructed to carry relief rail and road over it. A new road could link up to the Easton in Gordano M5 services roundabout near Portishead. Whether this is an answer or not it is this level of strategic thinking that has been totally absent from recent studies.

I take hope from the tighter boundary of the latest consultation process that there is no intention of returning to the completely unacceptable proposal of a new bridge closer to the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I also hope that no mention of housing numbers this time removes a specific target, which may be a laudable aim but creates the danger of the tail wagging the dog. Housing numbers should be determined by planned place making, not by arbitrary political promises leading to unacceptable high buildings adjacent to historic areas.

I hope that the absence of a box to tick about the future of the popular Riverside Garden Centre indicates that this is not now a site to be exploited for development, but I remain suspicious. Of course it is good to have the opportunity to comment on the preliminary ‘vision’, but is it a vision when there is nothing to see? We only have words – bland words that can be interpreted differently and can too easily be exploited by those determined to do what they were going to do anyway! 

Let’s hope we can see a proper preliminary vision, or choice of visions, and be able to comment on those, or we are in danger of being lulled into something that conforms with box ticking but we shall live to regret. 

Please do take a few minutes to respond to the consultation, however imperfect it may be, while making it clear that you reserve the right to disagree with the resulting proposals if it results in yet more highway infrastructure and 60’s style blocks!

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