Campaigners are calling for the Merchant Venturers to hand over Clifton Down to the city of Bristol and for them to be booted off the statutory body that manages it.
Clifton Down is equivalent in size to just over 130 football pitches and makes up half of The Downs, a huge public common in north Bristol.
It is owned by the Society of Merchant Venturers, an ancient trading organisation in Bristol, which – along with Bristol City Council which owns the other half – sits on the statutory committee that manages The Downs.
Now, more than a century and a half after the Downs Committee was established by a Victorian act of Parliament, pressure group Downs for People has said it is time for the Merchant Venturers to give Clifton Down to the city of Bristol and for their removal from the committee.
Susan Carter from Downs for People said: “When the Colston statue toppled, the Society of Merchant Venturers promised to review their role in the city.
“It has made no obvious changes. The Downs would be a good place to start.”
Downs for People have long accused the Downs Committee of “secrecy” and are fighting it for information about how much public money was spent unsuccessfully defending a legal challenge the campaigners brought over zoo parking on The Downs.
The group won £72,000 in an out-of-court settlement last year and estimate about £360,000 of public money was spent on the unsuccessful defence by the committee and the council.
Southville councillor Christine Townsend, who is backing the campaigners’ demands, claims the Merchant Venturers “led on the decisions” that a High Court judge ruled were contrary to the Downs Act 1861.
“The Society of Merchant Venturers need to hand over the Downs and remove themselves from our governance structures, getting out of Bristol’s democracy – removed if necessary,” she said in a written statement to the next meeting of the committee on Monday (January 24).
“The committee’s secrecy, incompetence and extravagance have cost the Bristolian taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds and must now be dealt with,” Cllr Townsend said.
In their public statement to the meeting, Downs for People write: “The Downs Committee is unfit for purpose and major changes are needed urgently.
“We can see no reason for the Merchant Venturers’ continuing involvement.
“They have been exercising power without responsibility for too long.
“We are calling on them to give Clifton Down to the city, with a significant financial dowry.”
The dowry would reflect a “lack of past financial contributions”, the group says, and would cover future maintenance of Clifton Down, possibly including the rock faces which are currently the responsibility of the Merchant Venturers’ alone.
The campaigners are pressing for a legislative change to the Clifton and Durdham Downs (Bristol) Act 1861 to remove the Merchant Venturers from the Downs Committee.
Failing that, it has called on the society to fill its places on the committee by open competition.
Master of the Merchant Venturers David Freed chose not to comment directly on either of the public statements.
But he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that Downs for People were among “eleven stakeholder groups” who made “several innovative and thought-provoking suggestions” for protecting and preserving the long-term future of the Downs at a public consultation meeting in October last year.
“The Downs Committee is now exploring these ideas, alongside various different strategies and scenarios to ensure that this important piece of open green space remains freely accessible for everyone, forever,” he said.
Mr Freed is expected to attend next week’s Downs Committee meeting along with six other members of the society.
Committee debt of £360,400 forecast after failed legal defence
The committee makes the money it needs to manage The Downs by renting out space on the land for events, but the council underwrites any debt.
It has lost income from events that have had to be cancelled because of Covid-19 restrictions and spent an unknown amount fighting the judicial review brought by Downs for People over licences granted to Bristol Zoo to use part of Clifton Down for overflow parking.
The committee used up all of its reserves, nearly £98,000, to plug a hole in the budget this financial year, but the latest finance report still shows a deficit of £164,354 forecast for 2021/22, and an expected debt of £360,400 by the end of next year.
“The forecast for 2021-22 is a deficit mainly driven from final legal costs associated with the defence of a Judicial Review and some ongoing Covid-19 related expenditure, such as additional cleaning and maintenance,” according to the explanation provided in the report.
“Prior year underspends can assist the deficit to some degree; however, they are limited.
“The budget for 2022-23 has been set against anticipated income, including a full scheduled programme of events.
As the events and hospitality industry continues to recover, it will need to be closely monitored to ensure costs and income levels achieve a breakeven position for next year.”