Western Habour: Bristol councillors hoping to examine ambitious plans left to scrutinise ‘kids’ drawings’

One councilor feared he’d found himself in ‘another box ticking exercise’

Frustrated councillors expecting to examine fresh proposals to revamp the Cumberland Basin were presented with “nothing to scrutinise” but “kids’ drawings”.

They had hoped to hear detailed results from early engagement with the public, along with new plans for the area that Bristol City Council now calls Western Harbour, at a council meeting on Monday (February 28).

But despite the imminent launch of a six-week consultation on Thursday, March 10, growth and regeneration scrutiny commission members were given a short report and shown 15 slides mostly of photographs from the series of “visioning days” held in the autumn when the local authority went back to the drawing board after losing residents’ trust over its intentions.

“We’re seeing photographs of kids’ drawings which is lovely but we can’t really scrutinise kids’ drawings,” said Green Councillor Emma Edwards.

The slideshow also included a “vision” for the future Western Harbour comprising four guiding “principles” but no detail and a few sentences “distilled” from the feedback at the events called listening labs and creative workshops, which involved actors and activities including plasticine modelling.

Baffled councillors criticised the lack of information to get their teeth into about the vision, which proclaims that “as a gateway and connection point, the area will be both edge and centre”.

They expressed fear that the consultation would be a meaningless “tick-box exercise”.

They also pointed out the four principles going back out to consultation – ‘Be a distinctive gateway to Bristol’, ‘Support a thriving community’, ‘Build on its tradition of innovation’, and ‘Embrace freedom and nature’ – could apply to anywhere in the city, so everyone would agree with them anyway.

Officers pleaded with members to “bear with” them and said the timing was unfortunate because while there would be some more detail published by March 10, it wasn’t ready in time to present at the meeting.

New plans for Bristol’s Cumberland Basin have been named the Western Harbour Project by Bristol City Council.

They said the four “emerging themes” were only very high level principles at this stage and that a masterplanning phase lasting 12 to 18 months would begin in the summer to come up with details like how many new houses and changes to the ageing network of roads and flyovers.

Green Cllr Emma Edwards said: “No one is criticising the public engagement or the way that was done through arts. That was great.

“But from a position of scrutiny we haven’t got anything to scrutinise.

“We haven’t seen what people have said. We’re seeing photographs of kids’ drawings which is lovely but we can’t really scrutinise kids’ drawings.

“It’s the lack of data that we can’t really do much with at this stage.”

Conservative group leader Cllr Mark Weston said: “You’re definitely consulting on incredibly high principles, and I get it. However, I’m not sure how you can consult on four points, like ‘Are you for or against a gateway to Bristol?’

“There are no details to consult on. ‘Are you for or against embracing freedom and nature?’ I’m an ‘evil Tory’ and even I’m in favour of those things.

“I just don’t know how you can consult on that without there being more detail.”

Labour Cllr Tim Rippington said: “I feel your pain, Mark, because I’ve seen so many consultations in this city where the questions are things like ‘Do you think we should have a greener, cleaner city? Yes or no?’.

“I do fear this will be another of those and wonder whether it’s going to be a meaningful consultation or just a tick-box exercise. This is a failure in general of the way we consult in this city.”

Executive director of growth and regeneration Stephen Peacock told members: “This is the delivery of exactly what we said we were going to do which was the vision piece, not the masterplan.

“So it’s not spectacular, it’s not some lightning-and-thunder moment, because what we tried to do was draw on a broad base of all Bristolians to come up with what they thought this place could be.

“This isn’t the council giving a view, it’s the people giving a view which we are amplifying and sharing with Bristolians.

“It is a modest but useful starting point to the next bit which is where we fill in those four headings, such as what does a ‘gateway’ really mean.

“A masterplan where these things are discussed is the next stage, which people will be really excited by.” Cabinet is expected to consider the results of the upcoming consultation in June and agree a procurement and funding strategy.”