We call on Bristol’s Downs Committee to revoke zoo-parking licence

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Today (22 April) we shall to call on Bristol’s Downs Committee to revoke the licence it granted in January for the Downs to be used as zoo parking for a further five years. We have also called for the Committee’s role to be reviewed. Our local member Julie Boston will speak about this at the Downs Committee meeting during the public forum.

The society considers that the Downs Committee had no need to decide on a licence application in January: the Zoo’s current licence ran until November 2014. The committee was asked to defer a decision until it could consider the results of public consultation on the zoo’s imminent planning application. Only one member of the committee was prepared to do so. In the event, the zoo’s planning application last month was accompanied by more, and different, information from that available in January. There were changes in relation to damage to the grassland; the zoo’s travel plans; and the potential financial impact of loss of parking.

Says Julie Boston: ‘Protecting the Downs for people’s enjoyment is essential. Over 100 years ago the Downs were saved from speculators so that we can enjoy this space today. Once again we have to raise our voices in their defence, helped by the Open Spaces Society and local environmentalists.
To quote Gerrard Winstanley, the land is “a common treasury for all”.

The society considers that the committee’s decision was premature and ill-informed. We have asked it to revoke the extension to the zoo’s licence. Before granting a further licence, the committee should examine all the documents submitted with the planning application and the consultation responses.

This is not the first time that the Downs Committee has appeared to lose sight of its clear statutory remit, which is to manage Bristol’s glorious Downs as ‘a place of public resort and recreation for the people of Bristol’. It has no mandate actively to support Bristol Zoo, excellent institution though that may be. Yet it has licensed the zoo to use one of the best parts of the Downs as a car-park for over 40 years, with very little debate.

The committee may have lost sight too of just how magnificent and special the Downs are. One of its members has suggested that the zoo offers similar open-air recreational activities. Not only is there the cost of entry, crowds, and bans on ball games and dogs, but the zoo cannot offer anything comparable to the views from the Downs, the sense of space and wilderness, and the spectacular Avon Gorge.

Two of the councillors on the committee will be seeking re-election on 2 May. We urge electors in Bristol to ask them—and other candidates—to confirm that they are committed to protecting the Downs as a public open space for the people of Bristol to enjoy, and that they do not regard the zoo as a satisfactory substitute, however much appreciated as a zoo.

More generally, we question whether this committee, with its roots firmly in the nineteenth century, is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. If it were a national body, it is hard to imagine that it would have survived the regular government reviews of quangos; it would certainly have had to adopt different appointment and operational procedures.

The Committee has a proud and honourable history: now may be the time, when Bristol has its first elected mayor, to reflect on its future.

Bristol’s Downs Committee consists of the Lord Mayor, the Master of the Merchant Venturers, six City Councillors, and six Merchant Venturers. It was set up under the Clifton and Durdham Downs (Bristol) Act 1861, which established the Downs ‘as a place of public resort and recreation of the citizens and inhabitants of Bristol’.

Bristol Zoo has been using an area of the Downs for parking since 1969. The area can hold 600 cars at one time and in recent years the Zoo has been allowed to use it on up to 60 days a year. It needs both a licence from the Downs Committee and planning permission from the City Council. Parking on the Downs has always been opposed by the Open Spaces Society, the Council’s Conservation Advisory Panel, and amenity organisations such as the Bristol Civic Society, the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society, and the Ramblers.

At the Downs Committee meeting in January, only Cllr Barbara Janke supported a request that a decision on the Zoo’s licence application should be deferred. A Merchant Venturer member of the Committee, Francis Greenacre, has since written in support of the Zoo’s planning application, suggesting that: ‘The Zoo offers recreational activities not so very dissimilar to the Downs themselves’

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