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A celebration of success after 25 years of campaigning

On 15 July our general secretary Kate Ashbrook and case officer Hugh Craddock joined group member, Downs for People[1] (DfP), for a celebration of the success in its recent court case challenging the secret grant of a twenty-year licence for zoo parking.  As well as putting an end to parking on the Downs for activities not taking place there, the court action has prompted the Downs Committee[2] to undertake a wide-ranging review of Downs strategy and governance.  The Committee has also commissioned a report into the handling of the court challenge[3].

Richard Harris and Kate Ashbrook cutting the celebratory cake

Richard Harris and Kate Ashbrook cutting the celebratory cake

Kate Ashbrook said ‘The Open Spaces Society has been very pleased to support Downs for People and previous campaigners over the last quarter of a century. We are delighted that all the hard work has paid off and we can celebrate this victory today’.

Thanking the group’s supporters on the site on Ladies Mile that Bristol Zoo has used for parking since the 1960s, Susan Carter said:

‘With your help we have made sure that – once the Zoo leaves its Clifton site – the Downs will never again be used for parking for activities that are not on the Downs. This wonderful open space will remain as the Downs Act of 1861 decreed:  “A place for the public resort and recreation of the citizens and inhabitants of Bristol”.

It has been a long battle. The first campaign against zoo parking was in 1996, against a proposal for 102 days parking a year. Campaigners fought to bring parking under planning control and have objected to seven planning applications since.

We set up Downs for People in 2013 to co-ordinate campaigns. We have enjoyed support from many organisations. I would like to make a special mention of the groups which have supported our court case: we have had generous donations[4] from the Open Spaces Society and Bristol Civic Society. The Friends of the Downs and Avon Gorge, the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society, Respect the Downs, Cycle Sunday, the Bristol Walking Alliance and the Redland and Cotham Amenity Society have all contributed public statements.’

Susan Carter also thanked earlier campaigners, particularly Richard Bland, a well-known environmentalist and a founder member of Downs for People. She acknowledged that the group would not have made it through the court action without guidance from the Open Spaces Society and their barrister, Philip Petchey, who joined the celebration with two of the staff of the Open Spaces Society.

Attendees at the event on 15 July

Attendees at the event on 15 July

She praised the press coverage and explained that Downs for People was not anti-zoo , saying: ‘We are grateful for the interest the press has taken in our story, a complicated one. We are glad they have understood that our campaign was against parking on the Downs, not against the Zoo . We were working with the Zoo on its transport plans when COVID forced closure last year. We told the Zoo at once that we would not campaign against parking if they were able to re-open then.

We are sad that COVID means the Clifton site will close permanently.   As part of our court settlement, we were happy to agree to the Zoo’s proposals to make use of both this site and its main North car park – which was also taken from the Downs –  until it moves.’

Looking to the future, Susan Carter said, ‘Court action is an expensive way of resolving disputes and should not have been necessary.  The Downs Committee refused to listen to our objections. We were pleased that at its meeting last week the Committee said it would be receiving a report on the handling of our case, probably next month. As much as possible will be made public.

Better still, the Downs Committee is going to review the strategy and governance of the Downs over the next year. We look forward to playing a part in that.’

[1]Downs for People

  • A group of concerned individuals set upDowns for People (DfP) in 2013 to co-ordinate action against zoo parking on the Downs off Ladies Mile.  There have been campaigns against the parking since at least 1996.

[2]Downs Committee

  •   The Downs Committee was established under the Clifton and Durdham Downs (Bristol) Act 1861. It consists of the Lord Mayor (who chairs), six other councillors, the Master of the Merchant Venturers, and six other Merchant Venturers.  Under the Act the Downs must be managed so that they ‘shall for ever hereafter remain open and unenclosed, and as a place for the public resort and recreation of the citizens and inhabitants of Bristol’.

[3]The High Court challenge

  • On 20 May, Downs for People ( DfP)  announced success in its High Court challenge  to the secret grant of a twenty- year licence for zoo parking on the Downs.  In a settlement out of court, approved by a judge on 12 May, the defendants – the Downs Committee and Bristol City Council – gave a legally binding undertaking that they will never again set aside land on the Downs for parking for activities taking place elsewhere.
  •  The defendants agreed to pay up to £72,000 towards DfP’s legal costs, twice as much as the maximum award if the case had gone to court.  Legal action would not have been necessary if the Downs Committee (half Bristol City Councillors and half Merchant Venturers) had listened to DfP’s warnings that zoo parking on the Downs was unlawful.  DfP called upon the Society of Merchant Venturers to pay at least half the costs of the action.
  •  As part of the out-of-court settlement,  DfP agreed that Bristol Zoo might continue to use the land off Ladies Mile for parking until 1 October 2022 and the North car park outside the Zoo’s main entrance until the end of 2023.  The North car park is on land that is part of the Downs.  The defendants have  undertaken not to make arrangements to allow people to park there for non-Downs activities after the end of 2023.

[4]Financial support

  • An order by the Court in November set a limit on the legal costs that could be recovered by the parties in this case: £35,000 byDowns for People if it won and £10,000 by Bristol City Council and the Downs Committee if they won.
  • Downs for People faced total costs of about £75,000 even if it won.  (Its costs should now be less as the case has not gone to court).  It sought funding from organisations and individuals personally, and crowdfunding through the CrowdJustice site at–for-people/
  • The group raised about £14,500 in total, about half from organisations and half from individuals.

Defendants’ costs

  • Without intervention by others, the defendants’ costs will be shared by Bristol City Council and the Downs Committee.  The Committee has set aside a significant sum from its reserves. These have been built up with income from events on the Downs and contributions by Bristol City Council.   Council tax payers would therefore bear most of the costs.

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