Where am I?

Browse By

The largest undeveloped open space in Bristol is almost unknown to the majority of the city and has been visited by far fewer. Although it is close to the centre of Bristol, tens of thousands drive past it every day and it is historically important and famous across the world, its sheer enormity and potential have not been subject to public debate. The core of the area covers 350 acres: almost as much as The Downs. Beside it is farmland and other open space that combines an area of green space many times bigger still – about twice the size of the Ashton Court Estate, stretching right across north Bristol.

The area we refer to is, of course, Filton Airfield, sold two years ago to a Malaysian property development company and which now has planning permission for housing, schools and hotels. As I’m sure you will be quick to point out, the site is not technically in Bristol at all – it is in South Gloucestershire and so under the jurisdiction of a different political group with an often conflicting agenda to Bristol itself. Housing will eventually dominate the whole of the site. Permission for over 2000 houses has just been agreed and eventually there will be over 6000 homes.

To walk around the perimeter and to observe the farm buildings, the fields full of cows and the dilapidated buildings is to picture a space steeped in romance and intrigue. It is to gape at the huge empty runway, still one of the largest in Britain and essential to our war effort in the 1940s, the development of Concorde and Rolls Royce engines and to the deployment of nuclear bombers during the Cold War. It is to imagine the earliest days of flight when the runways were of grass, before Germany’s air raids in September 1940 kicked Britain into the reality of modern life and filled the skies with squadrons of bombers.

Today, the reality of modern life is shopping and the attacking armies come not in aeroplanes but cars. To walk around the site now is to be reminded that the wilderness of the deserted runway is no longer threatened by the Luftwaffe but by shops and houses.

The opening of The Mall in 1998 was made possible by Margaret Thatcher’s rampant free-market Conservative government and in particular by one of the last decisions of the divisive cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley, Secretary of State for the Environment. Ever since The Mall opened it has battled head-to-head with Broadmead and to a lesser degree with Bath. Its opening meant that Broadmead not only lost John Lewis but also its highest-spending customers. It also meant that urban planners in Bristol needed to be mindful that restrictions on cars in the city would not so much encourage the use of public transport as encourage potential shoppers to drive away to The Mall.

But today few Bristolians care about the politics of urban planning and The Mall is here to stay – almost certainly at double its current size. The good news is that The Mall needs Bristol more than ever and that rather than fighting each other and competing head-on, it only needs better public transport between the three golden corners of the triangle – Bath, Bristol and Cribbs Causeway – to create a commercial powerhouse impossible to match outside London.

Ideas for a country park, a city forest or a new wilderness are no longer possible, but the opportunity to preserve a green channel still is. It would allow a safe and short cycle route directly from Westbury-on-Trym to Cribbs Causeway, which could easily connect to The Downs and on to Clifton. The freeing-up of 350 acres of open space directly south of the Mall is the best opportunity ever for new cycle routes and dedicated public transport links, possibly even for a hub to an underground link between all three centres.

What Bristol needs now is for the two mayors to work with the property developers and to devise a plan to make it possible.