Victory for fight against Bristol parks sell-off
PEOPLE who fought to stop open spaces near their homes being sold off have won a major victory.
A total of 38 sites threatened with sale under the city council's controversial parks and green spaces strategy have been given a reprieve, with residents being given a say on their future.
After more than a year of rows, an 11th-hour agreement between the council's four political parties was reached last night.
Campaigners will hope the deal ends their struggle to stop the authority selling the open spaces for housing development.
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At last night's council meeting, all 70 councillors finally agreed a way forward.
Councillor Fabian Breckels (Labour, St George East) said: "It's quite simple – we should let local people decide on the parks and green spaces where they live. Time and again the majority of people said they wanted to keep the sites near them the way they were but time and again officers were ignoring them.
"This is a chance to show residents we do listen."
But the councillors' agreement does not mean every site on the list is definitely safe.
The final decision on whether the remaining sites will be sold will not be made by residents but will instead be signed off by Neighbourhood Committees, which are made up of the ward councillors for each of Bristol's 14 neighbourhood partnerships.
That means individual sites will be debated at partnership meetings over the next few months, where residents can have their say – but the final decision for each site rests with two or three councillors.
The agreement at last night's full council meeting also includes an incentive for people to support a land sale, as any agreed after being recommended by council officers will result in 70 per cent of the money raised being pumped back into local park improvements. But currently if residents go against the original officer recommendations, they will receive less money.
Calls have already been made to review this policy in the light of last night's decision.
Councillor Ron Stone (Labour, St George West) said: "The final vote rests will rest with members of the Neighbourhood Committees. But with 16,000 signatures do you honestly believe that 70 of us will sit and ignore what people want? I don't believe that."
The compromise was agreed unanimously, with little debate. It was a long way from the explosive rows seen in the council chamber a year ago, when the cabinet was accused of ignoring public opinion in pushing ahead with the plan.
The battle began last June when residents were asked if they wanted to sell off up to 64 areas of land to fund £107 million of improvements to other parks across the city.
With more than 16,000 people signing petitions and thousands of submissions to a consultation exercise, the response was overwhelming and the largest in the council's history.
The message was quite clear: people did not want to sell off the "family silver". In every site where selling off land was an option, the majority of people who took part in the consultation said they wanted to keep their spaces as they were.
But the Liberal Democrat-run council pushed ahead, sparking a wave of protests and objections.
Investigations by residents and the Evening Post revealed a catalogue of flaws in the original scheme.
It turned out officers had made incorrect assumptions about the level of use on a number of sites and there were inconsistent decisions over which sites to save and which to sell.
And the finances did not appear to stack up, as they were based on out-of-date assumptions that did not take into account the fall in land values resulting from the recession.
Everything changed at the local elections, when the Lib Dems lost their controlling majority and the green spaces row was a main issue.
With no overall majority to push the plan through, the Lib Dems were forced to form an all-party working group to thrash out a compromise.
Even that was split after six months of talks.
While Labour and the Tories wanted residents to have the final say on all sites, the Lib Dems and Greens wanted 38 remaining sites to be earmarked for sale. This was one of two options the council was faced with last night, the other being that all 38 sites were given over to Neighbourhood Committees.
But just before the debate the revised proposal was put forward.
Councillor Tess Green (Southville, Green) said there were times when she had "despaired" of reaching an agreement.
A question remains over funding parks improvements, as the revised plan proposes raising £42 million from a number of sources, including planning obligations, a newly introduced levy on new housing, grants and the parks budget. But it also includes £10 million from potential land sales, which will not be raised if no green spaces are sold.
In that event the cabinet must either find an alternative source of cash or scale back the planned series of improvements.
One of the sell-off plan's loudest supporters, Councillor Gary Hopkins (Lib Dem, Knowle) said his party was willing to agree to the revised plan because funding parks improvements were still part of it.
Mr Hopkins said: "The key issue here is parks funding, that's what this has been all about. We have made progress over the last few years, we have improved a number of parks.
"We want to make sure we get clear decisions and can move on without ongoing agreements and difficulty."
But there was no apology from him or his party for making residents fight to protect the parks that belong to them, nor any acceptance that perhaps this is what they should have done in the first place.