The Downs: People in Bristol to have a say on future decisions after accusations of secrecy
A public consultation on the future of the Downs will start in ‘a few weeks’
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The consultation, which follows a review of the governance of the Downs which began last September, will start in “a few weeks”, Steve Smith told a meeting held in public on Monday (January 24).
The news comes after controversy erupted over the decision-making power held by the Society of Merchant Venturers, whose members have sat on the statutory body which governs the Downs since 1861.
Under the Downs Act 1861, the Downs Committee must have seven members from the society, which owns Clifton Down, and seven from Bristol City Council, which owns Durdham Down.
At its latest meeting, the committee heard from critics who called time on the ancient trading organisation’s involvement in the ownership and management of the Downs, and from the Merchants who defended their unpaid work to protect the public common.
Cllr Smith said: “Of course we recognise that the governance of the Downs can be improved – that’s why we’re doing a review and that’s why we want to hear from people.
“I think we all understand that if we were designing a governance structure today we wouldn’t design it the way they did in 1861.”
A number of committee members formed a working group in September 2021 to review the strategy and governance of the Downs Committee.
That work will form the basis of a public consultation which will be held in several weeks’ time after the committee approved the move during a closed session of the meeting.
Campaign group Downs for People, who have accused the committee of becoming increasingly “secretive” and won a legal challenge against it over zoo parking on the Downs, are pressing for a legislative change 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.
Before the meeting moved behind closed doors, Cllr Smith said the review had focused on what could be done without changing the act, because revising or repealing it would involve the committee bringing a private bill before Parliament.
That would take “a number of years” and cost the committee “something like £400,000 to £500,000” unless the Government decided to change the law instead.
But committee member, Green councillor Paula O’Rourke, said the committee would remain “dysfunctional” without legislative change, so the consultation should ask citizens whether they wanted to pursue it.
Cllr Smith said he thought that would be “perfectly reasonable”.
After the meeting, he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service the consultation would probably ask “quite open questions” rather than specific questions about whether the Merchant Venturers should remain on the committee.
“We’re going to work with the city council’s consultation experts to design something that’s meaningful, but broadly what we want to do is put some context, provide some information so that people can make some informed choices and that’s both about what the Downs Act currently does, what might be possible to change within the Downs Act and then what the costs and benefits would be of changing it,” Cllr Smith said.