Bristol taxpayers to foot bill for £200k Downs shortfall last year after Zoo row legal costs

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The Downs committee had a deficit last year of £207,295

Bristol taxpayers will fund a shortfall of more than £200,000 in the Downs committee’s budget due to legal costs of the Zoo parking row.

The Downs, one of the largest green spaces in Bristol, are run by a committee made up of Bristol councillors and the Society of Merchant Venturers.

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Clifton Down is owned by the Merchant Venturers and Durdham Down is owned by the council, who both run them jointly.

Events held on the Downs are meant to generate enough income to pay the maintenance and upkeep of the area.

But last year huge legal costs meant the Downs committe’s budget was deep in the red, having overspent by £207,295.

That overspend, driven mainly from the Zoo parking row, will now fall on Bristol City Council to pay for from its general fund.

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The parking row saw part of Clifton Down used for overflow parking from the nearby Bristol Zoo, which was then opposed by campaigners in court.

Now the Downs committee has published its finances for the last financial year, from April 2021 to March 2022, showing exactly how much it spent that year on legal fees, and how the committee spent almost double their forecasted budget.

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. 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.
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. | JPI

During a Downs committee meeting on June 28, one council officer said: “Whatever we end up turning out, it will come through the council.

“The council is in a sticky situation with its finances just as the Downs committee is, so we have to either do what we can to generate further funding or reduce our costs.”

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The accounts show the committee received £307,020 income but spent £611,996.

After withdrawing £97,680 from reserves, the committee had a deficit last year of £207,295. The reserves are now exhausted with no money left.

Aside from legal fees, other costs adding to the deficit include Covid-19 spending, like additional cleaning and maintenance.

Most of the income comes from hosting events on the Downs, like the Forwards music festival or the Funderworld theme park.

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More than half of the spending goes on employees. Last year £160,294 was spent on legal fees and the court settlement, according to the accounts, although this doesn’t include further legal costs from previous years.

By the end of the current financial year next March, the committee’s deficit is expected to be £66,234.

In the past it has been less clear how much the committee spends and receives each year.

Welcoming the increased transparency, Councillor Paula O’Rourke, lord mayor and chair of the Downs committee, said: “It’s gratifying to have a lot more detail in the report than there has been in previous years.

“It’s important that people understand the costs, expenditures, incomes and outgoings.”

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