Wednesday, 14 January 2009

the Incredible Shrinking Land

Time to return once again to the perennial subject of the incompetence of Bristol City Council. Having had their dodgy deal to sell a section of the Railway Path embankment at Greenbank exposed to public scrutiny, they have been forced to undertake a Public Consultation on whether the land sale should go ahead. As reported here and on Bristol Greengage, the consultation appears to have been heavily biased in favour of the sale by linking it strongly to the question of whether the Chocolate Factory development as a whole should take place (which should of course be considered as a separate issue).

The land in question is shown in the plan above (click to enlarge), provided by the Council's Property Services dept and first made public here back in September. The most contentious element is the blue coloured land which is the embankment slope which supports the mature hedgerow that gives the Railway Path its rural aspect. The developer, Squarepeg, intend to cut this away to accommodate a 7 story tower and other buildings. The green coloured land is a strip along the top of the embankment which Squarepeg want to 'reprofile' and build stepped accesses over.

Now look at plan (above) which is included in the public consultation documents issued by Bristol City Council, showing what purports to be the same land as Plot 1. Notice anything different? Yes, it's only about half the size of that shown in the original plans. Even Plot 2 (land proposed to be leased for 'reprofiling') is misrepresented, not quite extending to the eastern end of the site as shown in the original plan.

Now we all make mistakes, which is why everything should be double checked, especially if it's for use in a quasi judicial process like a Public Consultation, but such elementary checks seem to be too much trouble for Bristol City Council. So how does this affect the validity of the Public Consultation? On the face of it the public have been grossly misled about the extent of the land involved, but the Council seem to think that the error doesn't affect the underlying principles.

The misleading plan wasn't the only fault exposed by bloggers. The on-line questionnaire was sending out error messages when submitted, causing almost as much frustration as the biased formulation of the questions. It seems that the problem arose because no one in the Council thought to check the function of the questionnaire from a computer outside the protection of the Council's firewall. Any IT competent person would understand the importance of extensive testing of such interactive sites and systems exist precisely for this purpose. As it is it took the Council a month to remedy the defect despite many complaints being submitted and even posted on publicly viewable websites.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Who's "Completely Pointless"?

First published on Green Bristol Blog Thursday, 20 November 2008

George Ferguson has responded in a typically bullish fashion to the belated reporting in the Evening Post of the questions to Cabinet tabled by Tory councillor Ashley Fox referring to the city council's sale of Railway Path land to Squarepeg. Ferguson dismissed the land as "a completely pointless bit of scrub land".

As can be seen from the picture below the embankment slope earmarked for development by Squarepeg supports 150 metres of mature hawthorn hedge which dates back to the days of steam railway operations. This type of hedgerow is very characteristic of former railways and provides a prominent landscape feature and valuable wildlife corridor, as evidenced by the designation of the Railway path as a Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI).

Prior to Ferguson's involvement, the hedgerow and embankment slope had been cited as worthy of preservation by Bristol City Council itself in 2002 in connection with the housing development along Greenbank Road affecting an eastward extension of the same land. The council's Nature Conservation Officer then said "the hedge adjacent to the cycleway should be retained......The area of more mature trees at the Famous Names end of the site should be retained for wildlife purposes".

In the same report the council's Landscape Officer said "the mature hedge is of merit in landscape terms and also forms a valuable part of the Citywide Site of Nature Conservation Interest covered by NE5, represented by this section of the cyclepath. It is imperative that it be retained. Its root zone should be protected. The 'garden area' at the Famous Names end of the site which had scrub and small trees on it ... should be fenced off completely during the development period to protect the existing flora and fauna".

More recently in the case of the previous planning application for the Chocolate Factory site by Persimmon (which did not include any railway path land) the council were keen to stress that measures should be taken "to ensure that vegetation along the cycle track be protected during construction", the same vegetation that they are now happy to see condemned as "completely pointless". As for the "garden area" of "more mature trees" referred to by both officers in the 2002 report (pictured below), that is now to be largely destroyed for a 4 storey block of flats just 4 metres from the tarmac path.

Ferguson goes on to claim that "the sale of (the "completely pointless" land) enables what will be one of the most interesting, mixed-use regeneration schemes in the country". Not true, since the development would have been more or less as viable without the extra land. indeed Squarepeg went ahead and bought the Chocolate Factory land for £5 million in January 2008, at a time when the City Council were indicating quite clearly that the Railway Path land was not for sale.

Bristol City Council, not to be outdone even by the greenwash meister in the disinformation stakes, waded in with "(the council) is finalising an in-principle agreement to sell a small strip of land so that some houses could be accessed by bikes from the cycle track". Again not true. The land being sold is to accommodate a 7 storey tower and several houses. The Council spokesperson appears to be 'confusing' the land sale with a separate arrangement to allow 'easements' across a long strip of the grass verge of the Path for access purposes.

So Ferguson's "completely pointless" jibe may not find favour in many quarters, but such is his unassailable self-belief that he chooses to confront the concerns of ecologists and environmentalists head-on. It seems that every scrap of green space left in the city is only of value as a blank canvass for the works of our great architect.

You're being framed

First published on Green Bristol Blog Sunday, 14 December 2008

In the politics and PR fields there is a technique known as 'framing', which seeks to influence public opinion by describing issues in a manner that predisposes the public towards a particular opinion. In the field of Public Consultation it might take the form of choosing a set of questions to lead towards the desired response on the key question. Each question may be fair in isolation, but with each response the subject becomes more disposed towards the desired response on the subsequent questions. Here's an amateurish example that I've just made up.
Question 1. Should punishment fit the crime?

Question 2. Should punishment act as a clear deterrent to others?

Question 3. Should the death penalty be an option in the worst cases of serial murder?
Many might answer 'yes' to questions 1 and 2 (it's hard to say 'no') but in so doing they would find it much more difficult to say 'no' to question 3 than if asked that question in isolation. The results of such a public consultation on the reintroduction of the death penalty would clearly be of dubious value, especially if the answers to question 3 were presented out of the context of the previous questions.

In fact it's such an obvious perversion of the consultative process that one wouldn't expect any self-respecting organisation to have anything to do with it. But Bristol City Council appear to have no such qualms when it comes trying to justify their illegal decision to sell off a strip of the Bristol & Bath Railway Path to developers Squarepeg to expand on their Chocolate Factory development at Greenbank.

As covered extensively here and on other blogs over recent months, the sale of the Council owned land was agreed in a private meeting between 'Strategic Director of City Development' David Bishop and local entrepreneur, architect and general grandstander George Ferguson, acting for Squarepeg, despite the previous carefully considered decision by council officers not to sell the land.

For months the council insisted that everything was kosher but the release of emails following an FoI request blew that claim out of the water. At long last they have been forced to concede that the decision was improper (but absolutely no apologies of course) and are belatedly trying to legitimise it by hiring a national lobbying and PR company, PPS, to do the dirty. To give you some idea of how outfits like PPS operate, here's a little extract from their website under the 'What We Do' tab:-
  • Grass-Roots Campaigning

    Vocal minorities can be very effective in influencing politicians, but do not represent the wider community. Mobilising the ‘silent’ majority can be extremely difficult. Since 1990, PPS has been securing demonstrable support for planning applications from those that might not normally bother to express their views.

So we bloggers and local activists are to be dismissed as a 'vocal minority' who do not represent the wider community (and just who does then?) while they bamboozle the 'silent majority' (and why have they been so silent despite all the efforts of Squarepeg's pisspoor PR performers Interface?) into supporting the land sale. And how will they bamboozle the silent majority? How about this for a classic piece of framing?
Question 1. Do you believe the area should remain as it is, or receive further investment?

Question 2. Is regeneration important for Easton?

Question 3. Do you believe a balance can be struck between regeneration and green spaces?

Question 4. What would you like to see happen to the two plots of land?
Subtle or what? First imply that the future regeneration of the 'whole area' hangs on the sale of a relatively small pocket of land (the left bank below - about 25 car parking spaces worth according to Squarepeg), then elicit a yes to the question for which there is only one answer and finally challenge the respondent to come up with an alternative development proposal if they don't agree to that put forward! No mention of just leaving the land as it is, which is of course what we are asking for. The detailed questionnaire, while more complicated, uses the same tricks of the trade and some.

But the most serious deceit is that the land sale is conflated with the redevelopment of the Chocolate Factory, yet Squarepeg bought the main Chocolate Factory site in January at a time (before Ferguson nobbled Bishop) when the council were indicating that the Railway Path land would not be available. So at that time Squarepeg were quite happy to hand over £5 million and proceed with the development on the basis of it being confined to the factory site. If the profitability of the development has since gone down the toilet that's just tough and is no justification for going around grabbing neighbouring land to try to compensate.

(I must give credit to bristol greengage for getting in first on this, and for expressing his/her contempt more eloquently and succinctly. All I can hope is that I have added something to the public's awareness of the CONsultation travesties conducted by Bristol City Council in our name.)

STOP PRESS - Red Trousergate

First published on Green Bristol Blog Friday, 14 November 2008

Fellow blogger ames Barlow has just broken the news that Councillor Ashley Fox will be asking questions at the next full council meeting on December 2nd about the so-called Red Trousergate affair involving Squarepeg architect George Ferguson and Strategic Director of City Development David Bishop. Please check Jame's blog for more details - those key questions copied below.

Questions from Councillor Ashley Fox to Councillor Rosalie Walker, Cabinet Member for Culture and Healthy Communities.

Q1. Does the Cabinet Member agree with me that the Council should always consult with local residents before agreeing to the sale or lease of precious green space?

Q2 Does the Cabinet Member agree with me that the Council's recent sale of parts of the embankment of the Bristol-Bath Railway Path threatens to damage the character of one of the country's finest cycling routes in an Authority now designated a "Cycling City"?

Q3 Does the Cabinet Member agree with me that the apparent informal and unrecorded manner in which this property sale was transacted could leave the Council open to accusations of impropriety or favouritism?

Questions from Councillor Ashley Fox to Councillor John Bees, Cabinet Member for Transformation & Resources at the next meeting of Full Council, Tuesday, 2nd December 2008

Q1. Does the Cabinet Member agree with me that all decisions and meetings relating to the sale or disposal of land held by the Council should be open, properly recorded and fully transparent?

Q2 Does the Cabinet Member agree with me that the apparent manner in which the recent sale of parts of the embankment of the Bristol-Bath Railway Path was transacted warrants further investigation?

Q3. Does the Cabinet Member agree with me that it is important to ascertain the reason for conducting aspects of this transaction without a formal record or minutes taken at key meetings held?

Q4. Will the Cabinet Member undertake to remind all Officers engaged in the disposal of Council-owned assets of the importance of the principle of Integrity (within the Code of Conduct for Employees) that "holders of public office must not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties"?

Up to now the so-called local media were refusing to publish this story, although we know for a fact that there was interest in it. That didn't surprise anyone because the two individuals involved have very high public profiles, are well connected and wield considerable influence.

But thankfully one Conservative councillor, Ashley Fox, has recognised that there are issues of fundamental importance here which must be addressed. It is difficult to see how the media can continue to keep the lid on this story when a respected local councillor has tabled questions to the Full Council meeting due in two and a half weeks time.

Not green: grey

First published on Green Bristol Blog Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Back in March thousands of Bristolians were out making a public show of how much they loved the Bristol & Bath Railway Path. The most popular railway-to-path conversion in Britain, this path is said to attract 2.4 million trips a year on foot and on bike; walking to school, cycling to work, running for fitness, walking the dog, enjoying the greenery. The proposals to run Bus Rapid Transit down the path shocked everyone who used the path, who couldn't believe that their path, their park, was going to be taken away. Yes, a cycle lane would remain down the side of the path, but there would be little greenery, just concrete and buses.

We stopped it. Together, those thousands of people created the single largest on-line petition in Bristol's history, while the walk down the Path and College Green rally was one of the largest demonstrations the city has seen in the past decade -a friendly and peaceful day out for everyone involved. When the council leaders announced their change of heart, we all breathed a sigh of relief.

We breathed too soon. Because while the councillors were agreeing with us -the Railway Path is a special part of East Bristol- the council officers were talking to George Ferguson's architects and developer Squarepeg about building houses on the green margins of the Path up at the old Chocolate Factory site in Easton. This is a development where the community successfully prevented the previous developers from creating a featureless cul-de-sac of suburban houses, and we were all looking forward to the development. Imagine then, our surprise and disappointment when the proposal included building on the green margins of the path, with stairs to provide "bicycle access" to the path. Because as everyone knows: bikes and stairs are such a perfect combination.

Imagine our even greater surprise when the freedom of information requests gave us the email discussions going on behind the scenes, where we discovered that:
  1. Negotiations over use of the park land has been ongoing since March.
  2. Both the BRT planners and the Parks department said they needed the land
  3. One council officer, David Bishop, managed to fix things by overriding the other officers and the local Green Space strategy
Given that most of these 'cycle houses' will have steps to the path, they are more accessible by bicycle from the other side, from their garages. Why then has George Ferguson's team chosen to push anti-cycling houses onto the Bristol-Bath path? One email shows the reason: to add 25 more parking spaces.

For more information see:
Stop press....1.30 pm

Seeing red. George arriving late at the Watershed this morning for the 'this green and pleasant land' conference, only to be confronted by our leafletteer, publicising the Chocolate Factory controversy. His comment? "Go do something useful".

From Parkland to Parking

First published on Green Bristol Blog Sunday, 2 November 2008

The mass of Bristol City Council emails released last week following a Freedom of Information request includes many insights into how a section of the Bristol & Bath Railway Path came to be promised to Squarepeg against the initial advice of officers following the personal intervention of George Ferguson.

An internal email to the Strategic Director of City Development, David Bishop, dated 26th June, reveals that at the time Squarepeg had two development plans, one including the city council owned land that they coveted and another excluding it, in case they didn't get their way. A Portfolio Management Officer in the Valuation Practice of the Council emailed as follows-

I'm dealing with the possible disposal of land along the Bristol to Bath Cycle Path to Squarepeg. I am aware that you wanted to go over the proposals that Squarepeg had for the strip of BCC land within their developments prior to making any final decision on the disposal.

The attached plans show their proposals both with and without the BCC land, you'll see that without the land they will lose 25 parking spaces, part of the block of flats marked B, and a large access directly onto the cycle path.

It seems that the main difference that having the Railway Path land made at the time of the decision was that they could accommodate 25 more parking places (accounting for perhaps 250 square metres)! By comparison the land take for part of the block of flats would have been very small (20 square metres?) and the access steps from the Railway Path must be considered of dubious value for access from a path mainly used by cyclists (but more on that later).

So in essence the decision to sell part of the Railway Path green corridor appears to have been made to accommodate extra car parking! I wonder how those who support the Squarepeg plans feel about that?

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.

Politics puzzles Pegasus

First published on Green Bristol Blog Friday, 19 September 2008

It seems that Pegasus Planning Group, who represent many of the countries most rapacious developers, including Tesco, Starbucks, Persimmon, Crest Nicholson and of course our old friends Squarepeg, are having some difficulty understanding the intricacies of our parliamentary system.

PPG are acting for Squarepeg to progress the redevelopment of the Chocolate Factory in Greenbank - yes, that can of worms. In order to smooth the planning process still further, PPG have negotiated a Planning Performance Agreement (about which much more later!) with Bristol City Council. This places particular responsibilities on Squarepeg to commit to high standards of consultation (yes, that's right!) which of course must include recognised "stakeholders" and in particular local councillors and MPs.

So PPG have produced a list (section 3.1) of those "key stakeholders" which naturally includes the councillors for Easton ward and the MP for Bristol East, Kerry McCarthy (above, who also happens to be one of Bristol's more entertaining bloggers). But Easton is due to become part of the Bristol West constituency come the next election and so it is appropriate to include the MP for Bristol West in the list too.

And so the list includes "Standing Labour MP for Bristol West - Paul Smith". Er, just a moment, isn't the MP for Bristol West a Liberal Democrat, one Stephen Williams, and isn't Paul Smith merely the Labour PPC for Bristol West? What's more there is no sign of Stephen William's name anywhere on the list of "key stakeholders". Nor the names any of the other PPCs - Green, Conservative or whatever. So why do Labour get such favoured status?

A minor error you might think (unless you happen to be Stephen Williams MP (above, on the Railway Path) or one of the 22,000 voters who chose him to represent them) and one easily made even by such a politically savvy bunch as Pegasus Planning Group, with offices in, er, Whiteladies Road, in the heart of Bristol West constituency. Meanwhile we await news as to whether Stephen Williams was ever consulted in the end. If not this blogger for one will not be too surprised.

Egregious Greenwash

First published on Green Bristol Blog Thursday, 18 September 2008

It can be a solitary business being a blogger. You dig here and there on the internet, extracting little nuggets of information to bolster your cynical observations on the ways of the world, but you rarely talk things through with real people. So when you finally click on the publish post tab extreme emotions are experienced for a few seconds. Are you making a valued contribution to human understanding - or a complete arse of yourself?

So it's very gratifying to get some positive feedback from time to time (hint), especially from such a respected source as Venue's Severn Bore column (well I'm a fan anyway). For those of you who have already read it and who have arrived here to find out more, I suggest you follow this link to run through the emerging story of "cycle" houses, clandestine land sales, deception and greenwash surrounding the proposed redevelopment of the Chocolate Factory site in Greenbank.

For the benefit of those who have not yet read the Venue piece, here it is -

If you're one of the 20 or so Bristolians who lurks in the local ishoos blogosphere, occasionally breaking cover to post comments ("Too right, m8, them counsellers are takin the piss"), you'll know that we've been pretty taken with an egregious bit of greenwash lately.

Briefly, Bristol (a Cycling City, don'tcha know) hopes to sell off penny packets of landholdings here and there to make ends meet. Meanwhile, a property development firm called Squarepeg, which proposes turning the former Greenbank chocs factory into flats, also unveiled plans for 'cycle houses' next to our famous and much-loved Railway Path. These would be on a thin strip of council-owned land between the chocolate factory and the path.

All this was uncovered by Chris Hutt in his Green Bristol Blog ( Not just the potential intrusion on to the path and the attendant grubbing up of a hedgerow, but he also took a close look at the designs of these trendy cycle houses put forward by Acanthus Ferguson Mann, whose ranks include the famously red-trousered George Ferguson, Bristol's patron saint of sustainable urban design.

Seems each cycle house would access the railway path via a set of steps - very handy if you've gotten home with a load of shopping. Not only that, but on the other side, they have garages as well. For cars!

As we go to press, nothing has yet had planning permission, a petition's been gotten up opposing the sale of the land by the path to developers, and there are now sketches of the proposed cycle houses, this time with ramps. Score one to some careful digging by an amateur, score no to greenwash.

Second bite of the Cherry Trees

First published on Green Bristol Blog Saturday, 13 September 2008

Poking into the background of Squarepeg's plans for the Chocolate Factory at Greenbank keeps throwing up new discoveries. Having highlighted the clandestine sale of part of the Railway Path land on the part of the Council, Squarepeg's dishonesty in declaring the status of the land purchase in their newsletter and the vacuity of George Ferguson's claims for his cycle houses, I now have more to reveal.

Back around the year 2000 there was a planning application for the construction of a row of what George Ferguson would have us call cycle houses, namely bog standard rabbit hutches, along the embankment slope of the Railway Path just to the east of the Chocolate Factory site facing onto Greenbank Road. The application was made on behalf of Greenbank Developments who had bought the land from British Rail Property Board (the City Council having declined to purchase the former railway land when it was originally offered to them for a peppercorn).

The land (the pale green and pale yellow sections of the embankment on the map above - click to expand) owned by Greenbank Developments included the Railway Path embankment slope as far southwest as the land now being sold by the Council to Squarepeg. The land included a mature hedgerow (an extension of the very same hedgerow now threatened by Squarepeg) which the Council's Nature Conservation and Landscape Officers were anxious to preserve. Concerns were also registered over the impact on slow worms and badgers, both protected species, which were both known to be present on the land.

In the event Greenbank Developments were only permitted to construct on the section of the embankment slope which ran directly alongside Greenbank Road, on condition that the hedgerow was preserved, and the remaining embankment slope land that continued alongside the Chocolate Factory car park was left undeveloped. This residual land included an area near the car park entrance which was specifically identified in the Planning Permission as to be preserved as a wildlife area (below) on account of its collection of mature trees.

All the residual land, including the designated wildlife reserve, has recently been purchased from Greenbank Developments by Squarepeg and now forms part of their development proposals. As with the land being sold to Squarepeg by the Council, the intensive development proposed will totally destroy the hedgerow and the designated wildlife area will be largely obliterated and replaced by two 4 storey blocks of flats!

Now it is inconceivable that Squarepeg did not already know about the planning history affecting their proposals. They will have had preliminary discussions with a variety of Council Officers, some of whom must have been aware of such recent planning decisions. Besides which the documents recording the planning decisions are easily found on the web (so much for my investigative prowess). Yet I can find nothing referring to this issue on the Chocolate Factory web site.

Perhaps Squarepeg thought the destruction of over 150 metres of mature hedgerow (above) and a designated wildlife site were obscure details that would not interest local residents. Or perhaps they deliberately kept quiet about this, as they have about the details of land purchases, in the now forlorn hope that nobody would notice until it was too late.

Step forward the Cycle Houses

First published on Green Bristol Blog Saturday, 6 September 2008

All this Chocolate Factory fracas with George Ferguson started back in May when I dared to question his pet project by asking "what are cycle houses?". Well, it seems that at last we have an answer.

The developer, Squarepeg, have suddenly realised that some naive souls might have taken the previously published sketches (e.g. below) as indicative of the design of the cycle houses. Oh dear, how simple minded the common people are.

So "to put the record straight" they have produced some new sketches, with a lot more green on them. Now, don't be foolish and think these are "definitive designs" or anything like that, will you. They are just to "illustrate the idea" of the cycle houses, and can be changed willy-nilly any time Squarepeg feel like it. That's how public consultation works these days, apparently.

The first of the new sketches (above) shows a section through the 4 storey cycle house showing the ground floor garage (although they have somehow neglected to name this) and access from the 2nd floor cycle store to the Path, based on the 4 metres of clearance that will exist between the majority of the houses and tarmac path edge. One can see that the 2nd storey floor is about 2 metres above the Path level, so a "bridge" linking the two would have a slope of at least 1 in 2, or 50%.

Now a 50% slope is way too steep for a ramp (as shown in all their previous sketches and as described in their publicity as "a seam-free sloping pathway" ), so they've had to settle for steps, about 10 of them to conform to the building regulations. So our intrepid cyclist, returning from the supermarket with panniers (or even a trailer) filled with groceries, is expected to manoeuvre her heavily laden bicycle up a flight of 10 steps to reach the bicycle store.

Or she might just nip round via the parallel street to the other side of the house and have a level access into the integral garage.

So there we have it, a cycle house is a standard 3 bed family house with vehicular and bicycle access from the street where the generously proportioned garage will provide ample car and cycle storage, but with the option of nipping out the back door directly to the local path if you're walking somewhere. Undoubtedly a "groundbreaking" concept and "a world first" as George Ferguson so modestly proclaimed back in May.

And now the truth is out

First published on Green Bristol Blog Wednesday, 3 September 2008

From time to time the curious blogger stumbles across some mysterious object buried in the shifting sands of bureaucratic verbiage. On poking and prodding a little the object slowly reveals itself, only to turn out to be a landmine that proceeds to blow up in the poor blogger's face.

At least that's how it feels today. This morning I decided that enough was known to register some formal objections about the land sell-off discussed in previous posts. So I sent this email to Bristol City Council.

Sale of Railway Path land, Greenbank
Further to enquiries made last week, I would like to register my concerns about the planned sale of Railway Path land at Greenbank, Bristol, in connection with the proposed development of the former chocolate factory. Having visited the site and discussed the matter with other concerned people, I feel that I must register an objection to the sale of this land to Squarepeg for the following reasons.

1. The land being sold forms an intrinsic part of the green corridor of the Railway Path. It is mainly the slope of the embankment on which the former railway was supported. Such structures are an integral part of the former railway and it now supports a continuous wall of mature vegetation, rising to over 5 metres above the Railway Path. The rural ambiance of the Railway Path, which is so highly valued by the majority of users and local residents, depends on such mature growth on the slopes of embankments and cuttings as well as that on the level margins of the Path

2. There does not appear to have been any consultation on whether the land should be sold. The City Council have apparently taken the view that they are not required to consult. This may be technically correct, but given the controversies that have arisen in relation to most previous attempts to develop elements of the Railway Path it would, I suggest, be prudent to consult before a final decision is taken.

3. Squarepeg, far from consulting on the planned sale, have stated in their Newsletter dated 1st July that the sale had already been completed (or words to that effect) when in fact the sale has not been concluded, so presenting the public with a fait accompli and preempting opportunities for objections to be made. I believe that this may be in breach of their responsibilities in this matter. Again in order to remedy this defect a period of consultation is required before the sale is finalised.

4. The proposed development of the sale land will include a substantial twin-tower block of, I believe, 7 or 8 storeys which will loom over the Railway Path. This proposal is likely to concern a great many path users who have not been involved with the local consultations carried out by Squarepeg and it may even prove to be extremely controversial. Although this matter will presumably be addressed by the consultations on the Planning Application, it would, I suggest, be more appropriate to address it initially as a separate matter along with consultations on the proposed land sale.

Chris Hutt.

Having then copied it to various interested parties, a crescendo of emails followed, including a call from the Evening Post, culminating in the following being copied to me. It is apparently a briefing from Council Officers sent to Councillors this afternoon (my notes added in brackets and non-italics). It seems to be "cover your arses" time in the City Council.

Briefing Note - Land Adjacent to Former Elizabeth Shaw Chocolate Factory

Strip of land A (The embankment slope coloured blue - click on map to enlarge)

Squarepeg the owners of the Former Elizabeth Shaw Factory in Greenbank contacted the Council in December 2007 over the possible purchase of the land outlined in red on plan N5078b. This Council land is currently leased to the former owners of the Elizabeth Shaw Factory at a rent of £100 pa to be used for an access onto the cycle path and landscaping. Squarepeg's proposals are to incorporate the land within the redevelopment of the former chocolate factory site which is to be developed into a mixed use site of retail, business and residential units.

Several concerns were raised over the potential sale of the land by the Nature Conservation Officer and the Transport Development Control Manager. The initial response was that the Council would not wish to sell the land. Further discussions between chief officers in CLS (Culture and Leisure Services - Parks) and PTSD (Planning Transport and Sustainable Development) and George Ferguson from Squarepeg were held in May 2008. Instructions were subsequently given to Property Services to proceed with the possible sale of this land subject to the following conditions:

1. Squarepeg engage in dialogue with Council's Nature Conservation Officer to ensure the proposals provide necessary but reasonable compensating measures for the loss of vegetation and habitat.

2. The land sale will only be finalised if the developer receives planning permission and proceeds with the specific proposals.

3. Any structural changes to the bank will have to be agreed with the Council before works start. This is to protect BCC against works being carried out which undermine the cycle path.

4. The developer pay market value for the site.

The property was circulated as surplus in June 2008 with no department putting forward a operational requirement for the land within the four week circulation period. A formal offer from Squarepeg is awaited.

Strip of land b (The green verge of the Path along the boundary of the site, coloured green)

In July 2008 Squarepeg showed an interest in acquiring an easement or long lease of an additional strip of land outlined red on plan N5078c. This is required to access their development from the Bristol to Bath Cycle Path. They propose clearing land of vegetation and replacing with grass and landscaping. Squarepeg have confirmed that they would to maintain the site and continue to allow public access onto this land. Should the Council wish to proceed with a lease of the land it would need to advertise the proposal in the local newspaper and invite the public to comment. The matter may also need to be referred to the Parks & Green Spaces Board.

The Council is waiting for written proposals from Squarepeg as to the terms under which they will be looking to use this land.

David Bishop has indicated that he supports the grant of an easement (subject to certain conditions) as this development was referred to in the Cycle City bid application and is seen as a 'cycle friendly' development which will not compromise the future of the cycle path but could potentially improve it. David has indicated that he would be happy to discuss the development with any members should they have any issues with this proposal.

I've not had time to study this properly yet, but one section jumps out at me - "Several concerns were raised over the potential sale of the land by the Nature Conservation Officer and the Transport Development Control Manager. The initial response was that the Council would not wish to sell the land".

So it seems there was a real debate going on within the Council after all, as one would expect with such a contentious issue, but still they didn't see fit to put the matter out to consultation or even refer it to elected members of the Council, let alone inform the people of Bristol. Instead the matter appears to have been stitched up with a secret meeting between Merchant Venturer George Ferguson the Senior Officer David Bishop. That is how Bristol is run under our new £180k Chief Executive Jan Ormondroyd.

Square Pegs and Round Holes

First published on Green Bristol Blog Wednesday 3 September 2008

Since my previous post more details have emerged about the clandestine deal whereby one of the embankment slopes (pictured below) of the Railway Path is being sold off by Bristol City Council to a property developer, Squarepeg, to allow the construction of housing including a twin tower block which will loom over this section of the Path.

Contrary to the claim made by Squarepeg in their newsletter dated 1st July, the sale has not yet been completed (although now at an advanced stage), even two months later. So anyone concerned about the loss of parts of the Railway Path green corridor would have been under the impression that the sale was a done deal, a fait accompli, and would have concluded that it was too late to make objections to the sale.

And people are concerned. The land in question is an integral part of the former railway land and supports mature vegetation and bushes rising to at least 5 metres above Path, so providing a green wall (screening off the derelict car park beyond) and of course a valuable wildlife corridor. Despite the sale appearing to have gone through concerns are being expressed by those anxious to preserve the rural ambiance of the Path (running along the left edge of the sketch below).

The Squarepeg newsletter states "... the development area could be significantly improved with the inclusion of two small pockets of undeveloped land immediately adjacent to the site. .... negotiations to purchase both plots of land have been successful and the application now includes ... a strip of land that runs along the cycle path."

Now anyone reading "negotiations to purchase....have been successful" can only conclude that the deal has been done, yet we now know at that stage negotiations were far from complete. To compound this, er, economy with the actuality on the part of Squarepeg the other party to the deal, Bristol City Council, took the view that they had no obligation to consult with anyone whatsoever. That may conceivably be correct on a technicality, but, as noted elsewhere, it hardly sits well with the spirit of their policies relating to the sell-off of our parks and green spaces.

But returning to Squarepeg, they have made much of their willingness to consult in depth with local people and appear to have gone to some trouble to do so. No doubt the Planning Application due to be submitted any day now will make much of these consultations and the extent to which their proposals enjoy local support.

But in view of what appears to be a significant misrepresentation we must now look again at the legitimacy of those consultations and in the meantime the sale of the embankment slope should be put on hold until proper consultation has been carried out.

Cycling City Secret Sell-Off?

First published on Green Bristol Blog Friday, 29 August 2008

It seems that Bristol City Council have let the excitement of being declared the UK's first Cycling City rather go to their heads. Barely months after massive public opposition forced them to backtrack on plans to convert the Bristol & Bath Railway Path to a high speed bus route, they now appear to be selling off strips of that same precious green corridor to property developers for speculative housing developments.

The case that has emerged concerns the Chocolate Factory development at Greenbank. As reported here way back in May a property developer, Squarepeg, plan to build terraced housing along what we first assumed to be the boundary of the Railway Path, but closer inspection of the plans suggested that the planned housing might intrude onto the Railway Path land. We now discover that the City Council are going ahead with the sale of a substantial strip of the former railway land to Squarepeg to accommodate this housing.

Such hubris on the part of the City Council is not so surprising. If the reward for planning to virtually destroy the nation's preeminent cycle path was to be awarded over £11 million of Cycling City funding, what should they fear from a clandestine sell-off of the green margins? Of course the usual suspects are in on the deal - Bradshaw*, Sustrans, George Ferguson and other latterday luminaries who now promote themselves as patrons of green transport.

But what of the thousands of ordinary Path users who campaigned so heroically to save the Path from the Council's misguided transport plans this spring? Have they been consulted? Did they even know anything of the planned sell-off? It seems not, at least not until after the event, when a small print announcement appeared in Squarepeg's newsletter tucked away under the attention grabbing heading "coherent approach creates combined application" (zzzzz) reporting that "negotiations to purchase ... have been successful and the application now includes.....a strip of land that runs along the cycle path".

There are mixed views on this high profile development, as might be expected, and many people are expressing concern at the loss of the green corridor which is as vital a component of the Railway Path as the tarmac path. For all we know, it may even be that the tarmac path itself may be moved over from its existing alignment to maximise the land available for the housing, so the green margins may be degraded on both sides.

There are also concerns about conflict between Path users and residents of the houses, particularly small children and pets, who might emerge suddenly from the concealment of the access ramps into the path of a cyclist. The last thing Path users want is to be put into a position where they are endangering others, especially children. Yet it's clear enough (except apparently to Sustrans) from the sketches supplied that that is exactly what will happen.

But fear not, the City Council always know best and will in due course give their approval to the Planning Application, expected to be submitted next week. They have, according to Squarepeg, already preempted the decision by selling off the land.

What are Cycle Houses?

First published on Green Bristol Blog Sunday, 25 May 2008

Bristol based architect George Ferguson has proposed the construction of a number of "cycle houses" alongside the Bristol & Bath Railway Path in Easton as part of the redevelopment of the Chocolate Factory. George, never one to understate things, describes this as a "world first" and a "groundbreaking proposal". So what exactly are "cycle houses" and what makes them so different to common or garden houses?

Looking at the plans, we see that these are basically 3 bedroom houses with ground level car parking, but with a bicycle store at 1st floor level, which in turn is linked directly to the Railway Path by a small bridge. Planting will create a green screen between the houses and the Path for privacy, but at the third floor level the living room and sun terrace will overlook the Path. Previous housing developments along the Path (e.g.
Clay Bottom, Brixton Road) have tended to turn their backs on the Path so this more Path oriented aspect is welcome.

But is this sufficient to justify calling these "cycle houses", let alone "groundbreaking" or "a world first"? It's not as if these houses forgo having their integral car parking spaces, nor is the development as a whole anything other than car oriented. And this at a time when the option of genuinely car-free housing is at last being discussed. What better location for car-free housing, alongside what is probably the best example of a high quality urban cycle/walkway in the country, giving easy, rapid access to the city centre and both local and main railway stations?

There is another reason for concern about this proposal. It appears from the plans that the cycle houses will encroach onto the Railway Path land, cutting into the lower section of the embankment. Could it be that the hype around these "cycle" houses is designed to persuade the public to accept this publicly owned land being taken for private development? Were the houses presented as nothing more than 3 bed houses with integral car parking (which is what they appear to be) public reaction to encroachment onto the Railway Path might be rather different.