Bristol’s latest plans to upgrade vital infrastructure, whilst providing badly-needed new homes, should fill many people with interest.

Headlines and recent high-profile comments in response to Bristol City Council’s ambitions for the proposed Western Harbour have certainly raised feelings, although probably not in the way that was hoped.

However, there is reason for those of us living and working in Bristol to be enthusiastic about the plans for this part of the city. If we look beyond the headlines at the comments online and on social media, there are some supportive voices too. 

And, on plans that will ultimately impact us all, in different ways, we must ensure that all voices can be heard.

The case for change

As a born-and-bred Bristolian and director of a business in the city, I get the need to reconfigure the Cumberland Basin road network. It’s confusing, dated and often gridlocked. Its layout means that land which could be developed, bringing lots of benefits, lies unused.  It has also been said that leaving the Cumberland Basin as it is will cost us tens of millions of pounds to maintain at its current level. Doing nothing, on this basis, doesn’t sound like a sensible option.

So, I was pleased to hear details last year about the plans to reconfigure and regenerate the area as part of a much bigger plan. Part of this is to create a new community of thousands of new and affordable homes at Western Harbour. After all, Bristol needs the homes. The council owns large parts of the area earmarked for development. And it’s a great, central location for development to happen.

However, since the consultation started, the overall – and I believe genuine – ambitions for the city seem to have got lost in the noise. Concerns raised have been well documented. It’s not my place to address them here, other than to express a hope that they are used to shape future engagement.

Engagement matters

A big part of my job involves talking to communities about large and complex developments. From my experience, I understand that some people just don’t like change. Others, however, are more supportive and become interested if they can become involved in the engagement process.

Engagement is about more than sticking some information boards up in a hall and asking people to come along. Creating real dialogue isn’t easy and there can be missteps along the way. After visiting a Western Harbour consultation event to check out the information available to the public, it’s clear that there’s some ground to make up to build greater awareness for what’s being suggested with the Cumberland Basin area.

I’d suggest three things that could support this work:

#1. Firstly, the conversation should focus on a vision that we can all understand and relate to. It’s about more than a road and certainly isn’t all at promoting the car as the only way of traveling through the city. The area is brilliantly located for people to cycle, walk and catch public transport into the city. Many other developments proposed in Bristol are being planned with significantly fewer parking spaces than those based nearby in more established neighbourhoods. This is the right direction of travel: housing, connectivity and climate change are the most pressing issues facing the city today. Setting clear ambitions for Western Harbour that positively responds to these points would help to address some concerns raised.

#2. Ensure information about the early plans is available in areas where businesses and communities can find out about them – on websites, on social media, through local influencers, in pubs and cafes. This needs to be engaging, clear and easy to understand. It is always harder and more time-consuming to present information in a clear, concise way than it is to include detailed information about ‘key considerations’ and ask the public for their ‘views’. I think this tendency to over-communicate leads to what’s known as ‘consultation fatigue’. Making it was easier for people to engage on their terms would tackle this.

#3. Finally, it is important be clear and open about the timescales for the project. A project of this nature will take decades to deliver. A high-level timetable, details explaining the ‘next steps’, and involving the community in those discussions will reassure people about what they can expect and how they can feed into the process. This can support how the development will be accepted by those that live, and work in Bristol the future.

The Western Harbour scheme has potential to be a fantastic example of how infrastructure regeneration can improve and benefit a growing city. Ultimately, if the community and stakeholders feel engaged and involved, it stands a better chance of success.

As I said, it’s not easy. But this is important for this city’s future. The people who live and work in Bristol deserve Western Harbour to be something they can be proud of.

A version of this post was first published on Bristol247 on 10 September.

Photo: Damian Everett