Planning row Scheme attracted opposition from across the country
With the ongoing controversy over the Mayor’s plans to transform the Cumberland Basin area into ‘Western Harbour’, Maurice Fells looks at another planning row that took place not far from the same neighbourhood exactly 50 years ago.
FIFTY years ago this month the eyes of the nation were focused on a planning application that had been submitted to Bristol City Council. This was for a development that led to the most controversial planning battle that the city had ever seen.
If the application was allowed the face of one of the country’s best-known tourist attractions would be changed for ever.
Not only were there objections from people living in the Bristol area but also from across the country. National organisations, too, made their views known. And one of the nation’s favourite poets, John Betjeman, voiced his outspoken views on the plans.
The scheme that caused a public furore was for an eight-storey high extension of the Grand Spa Hotel in Clifton - now the Avon Gorge Hotel, and under different ownership. Plans for the scheme included 126 double bedrooms, plus some single ones, along with banqueting facilities for 250 people.
The development, costing £1.5 million, would be more than 240 feet long, nearly 100 feet high and stand on top of a car park for more than 200 vehicles. It would be built on the rock face of the Avon Gorge below Princes Lane - less than 200 yards from the Clifton pier of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s worldfamous suspension bridge.
The plans were registered with the city council on January 6 1971 and three weeks later councillors on the planning committee agreed with their Planning Officer’s recommendation that outline approval should be granted. Such speed in coming to a decision on a major scheme such as this had hitherto been unknown in local planning circles.
The Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society which had been set up only two years previously in order to stop “extensive demolition and bad construction on the Bristol side of the Avon Gorge” had discovered the existence of the hotel plan. A public meeting was held and an action group called ‘STAG’ (Save the Avon Gorge’) was set up. By the time that outline planning approval had been granted 174 protest letters had been sent to the council.
Letters objecting to the scheme were also sent to the Department of Environment in London. Between January and March there was a seven-week-long national postal strike but that did not deter protestors. Every other day ‘STAG’ arranged for couriers to take letters to Whitehall. On some journeys the courier carried 200 letters.
Meanwhile amenity groups were holding public meetings across Bristol. The city’s morning and evening newspapers were devoting front pages to news stories about the public outrage and background features about the plan on inside pages. National daily papers and the Sunday broadsheets soon followed suit. Questions were asked in the House of Commons by local MP’s.
Rumours were circulating that the planners would give full permission for the scheme at a meeting in the middle of March. Hours before this meeting, the Minister for the Environment called in the plans and later announced that a Public Inquiry would be held
This started on May 17 with some 200 people - both for and against the scheme –filling the seats in the public gallery of the Conference Hall in the Council House (now City Hall) on each day of the hearing. The dais in this large hall, on which the Queen officially opened the Council House in 1956, was covered with plans, architectural books and a large model of the proposed hotel. The scene was set for an inquiry which lasted nine days.
Evidence was taken from Lords and Knights of the realm, actors, architects, artists, botanists, geologists, hoteliers and planners. One geologist argued that construction of the hotel could cause landslips of the rock face causing damage to properties in Clifton and Hotwells. A botanist claimed that dust from
building work would harm rare plants like autumn squirrel and the round-headed leek which grow in the Avon Gorge. If they survived that, the hotel’s gas central heating would kill them.
Lord Antrim, chairman of the National Trust wrote to the Inquiry Inspector saying: “The Avon Gorge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge form a unique landscape composition of which nothing should be allowed to intrude – least of all a building of the size and character proposed. Its bulk alone would inevitably destroy the special quality of the Avon Gorge”.
Ernest Pascoe, chairman of the Royal West of England Academy in
Queen’s Road said that his organisation protested “most strongly”. The Avon Gorge was a “unique combination of landscape architecture and engineering”.
The ‘star’ witness for the objectors was poet, writer, broadcaster and lover of traditional architecture and churches, Sir John Betjeman. He had been called to give evidence by Bristol barrister Paul Chadd QC. Mr. Chadd, better known for his questioning of murders and rapists on trial at the law courts, was representing groups such as Bristol Civic Society, Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society and Save the Avon Gorge group.
Sir John left no one in any doubt
about his views. The hotel would be a “monster” he said “completely unsuitable for such a beautiful city”. The whole city, he said, would suffer if the hotel got the green light. It was “out of sympathy with the suspension bridge and would dwarf the nearby Georgian terraces”.
He went on to say that it was more important to preserve the assets of the Avon Gorge and the bridge than to “support a scheme which would benefit the few people to stay at such a monster as the proposed hotel”.
Sir John said he couldn’t believe people would allow one commercial company to make such enormous profits when the whole city was going to suffer. He was adamant that there should not be any building on the Avon Gorge.
Another local barrister, Mr. William Huntley, representing the hotel company, suggested to Sir John that he preferred ancient buildings and this prejudiced his attitude to the hotel. Betjeman strenuously denied this and said that the horizontal lines of the building was “fashionable twenty to thirty years ago”.
After completing his evidence he happily agreed to pose for newspaper photographs on the terrace of the Grand Spa Hotel. While he did this he asked me to hold his trilby hat and said: “You’re a very lucky young man. You live in the most beautiful city in the country”.
Besides all the evidence given at the hearing the Inquiry Inspector had to consider hundreds of letters and separate petitions including one signed by 57 actors, another with the signatures of nearly 800 students and a third signed by 175 artists.
After he had considered his Inspector’s report the Environment Minister, Peter Walker, rejected the hotel scheme.
» Journalist Maurice Fells is the author of several books on Bristol’s past. His latest, The Little History of Bristol is published by The History Press and is available in hardback and e-book formats. See www.thehistorypress.co.uk.