Monday, 12 January 2009

By George, what an operator!

First published on Green Bristol Blog Saturday, 1 November 2008

Being one of the awkward squad gives an occasional insight into how deals are done amongst the Great and the Good. Back in the summer I started to publicly question the benefits of plans for 'Cycle Houses' alongside the Bristol & Bath Railway Path as part of Squarepeg's Chocolate Factory development at Greenbank.

It became apparent that the 'cycle houses' were to be built on former railway land that currently forms part of the green corridor of the Path. I sought clarification about the relevant land acquisitions from Squarepeg (via Jenny Gee of Interface) and received the following email from George Ferguson, the architect for the scheme and major league mover and shaker in Bristol and beyond, dated 1st September.
Hi Chris – you may be surprised to receive this from me but Jenny has asked that I respond.

1. The land you refer to does not form part of the green corridor of the cycle path but is in line with the land that formed the ownership of Elizabeth Shaw which is built right up to with brick and concrete walls. The land you refer to is in effect land that by chance ‘took a chunk out of the Chocolate Factory site.

2. The development boundary will be between 4m and 7m back from the cycle path – a good distance but close enough to give some natural surveillance.

3. There are no ‘front gardens’ to the cycle houses – but roof terraces. The houses will stand behind the wide verges but with ‘bridge access’ on to the edge of the path for occupants.

4. I am very aware of your opposition which has been noted and has been taken fully into account.

I have known you for long enough not to expect to change your entrenched views but your implication of ‘secrecy’ is total invention. I would just like to say that I have been so impressed with our clients’ attitude to this project which they rescued from the disaster that would have resulted from Persimmon’s plans. They are determined to produce an exemplary and viable development that has good green credentials and like me are not interested in ‘Greener than Thou’ competition but in real results. We have engaged with the community for months, have had an excellent working relationship and nothing has been hidden.

Maybe we should meet up for a drink - where do you live nowadays?

All the best – George

I responded on September 3rd, correcting some of his assertions like the bizarre suggestion that the railway "took a chunk out of the factory site" (the railway was constructed in the 1830s, half a century before the factory). But I ignored the invitation to "meet up for a drink". I guessed how personable and persuasive he might be in a social context so decided to stay at arms length. Others might have been well advised to do the same.

Anyway, having had his overtures to me rejected and following further embarrassing revelations, George fired off the following email (just released following a FoI request) to David Bishop, Strategic Director for City Development at Bristol City Council.

From: George Ferguson
To: David Bishop
Date: Tue Sept 9, 2008. 5.22 pm
Subject:Chocolate Factory

David – I gather there is a bit of stirring going on re the cycle houses. I think you probably realise that it is a load of nonsense and that we have all been extremely open throughout a very thorough consultation exercise, and have received overwhelming support from the community. It seems that Chris Hutt, who I know of old, and who even manages to wind up John Grimshaw and Sustrans, has been busy on the net and that a minority are now trying to make political mischief. It would be good to have the opportunity to talk before I disappear tomorrow afternoon for the Venice Architecture Biennale. I am so convinced of the merits of this scheme and have been impressed by the support we have had from your planning team.

All the best – George

George Ferguson PPRIBA
Acanthus Ferguson Mann Architects

And we all know how accommodating David Bishop is being in ensuring that the Squarepeg Planning Application passes smoothly through the system, complete with a Planning Performance Agreement (which Squarepeg have cheerfully driven a coach and horses through) but without having to bother with anything as tedious as an Environmental Impact Assessment despite the obvious concerns about the development's environmental impact.

I shall be emailing John Grimshaw and Sustrans to see if they will confirm that I do indeed "wind them up" as claimed by George Ferguson.

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