Campaigners threaten council with second court battle over Bristol Zoo car park plans

Heritage campaigners say they will launch a judicial review

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Heritage campaigners have threatened the city council with a second battle in court, claiming its decision to approve 62 homes on a former Bristol Zoo car park was “unlawful”.

Lawyers representing Clifton & Hotwells Improvement Society (CHIS) have told the authority they will launch a judicial review unless it reverses the planning permission granted in November for 55 apartments and seven houses in the local conservation area.

The letter by solicitors firm Leigh Day, which has been leaked to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, alleges flaws in the planning process.

It attempts to pull apart the planning officer’s report to the development control committee, made up of cross-party councillors who followed its advice to give the go-ahead despite hundreds of objections.

CHIS claims the report failed to consider crucial information and expert opinion, assessed it wrongly or “misled” the committee by omitting it altogether.

The decision two months ago was the second time that members had approved the scheme for West Car Park in College Road, formerly for zoo staff and an overspill for visitors, having done so previously in September 2021.

That first decision was quashed by a high court judge and sent back to the committee to determine again after being declared unlawful following legal action by CHIS amid concerns from local people about how the development could affect architectural heritage.

A judicial review concluded that Bristol City Council had not taken Historic England’s advice into account, so the decision to accept the zoo’s plans was not legal.

The local authority accepted permission for the brownfield site had been granted unlawfully and agreed to overturn it by consenting to judgement, confirmed by a court order last June.

This ruled that the committee’s decision was taken on the basis of recommendations in an officer’s report which failed properly to consider the level of heritage harm, failed properly to weigh up harm and public benefit and had not set out a clear and convincing justification for the heritage harm under national planning policy.

Architects made some changes and councillors again voted in favour in November despite residents’ concerns about the impact on the historic nature of the surrounding area, warning the new homes would leave a “permanent scar”.

A CGI of the proposed Bristol Zoo car park developmentA CGI of the proposed Bristol Zoo car park development
A CGI of the proposed Bristol Zoo car park development

The latest judicial review pre-action protocol letter from Leigh Day to the council’s chief executive and planning bosses said: “The Council is invited to agree the Decision is unlawful and consent to judgment in the form of a consent order providing for: a declaration of unlawfulness; quashing of the Decision; and payment of the Claimant’s costs to date.

“Should a response not be made… we will prepare and issue a claim in the High Court without further notice to you.

“We are aware that judicial review is a remedy of last resort and write in the hope that this matter can be resolved without recourse to legal proceedings.”

It lays out four grounds for the claim that the decision was illegal, including “unlawfulness in consideration of heritage assets”.

It said: “The Council has failed to identify and assess the particular significance of the settings of the 16 Grade II listed buildings that may be affected by the proposal.

“Consequently, it has entirely failed to engage with its statutory duty to have special regard to the desirability of preserving the setting of those buildings.

“This is a significant omission, because it meant that the Council was incapable of complying with its statutory duty in relation to the conservation of heritage assets. For this reason, the Decision is clearly unlawful.

“Further, or alternatively, the Council completely failed to provide any (or any adequate) reasoning for its conclusion that the development would not negatively impact on the settings of the Grade II listed buildings in question.”

It said the authority also failed to take into account the fact that harm to heritage assets had not been minimised or justified and that officers agreed with Historic England’s assessment that the plans would “cause a degree of harm to the character and appearance of the conservation area” while inconsistently advising councillors that development would not adversely impact heritage assets.

CHIS claimed the report “materially misled the committee” by failing to state the “significant concerns” of the council’s own conservation experts.

The other three alleged grounds are “failure to apply national policy and guidance in relation to sustainable design”, “failure to apply the core strategy in relation to environmental impact” and “unlawfulness in consideration of the proposed affordable housing”.

A spokesperson for Bristol City Council said: “We can confirm that the council has received a pre-action letter and it is taking legal advice on its response.”