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Gavin Bridge of Cubex Land discusses the importance of Bristol’s Infrastructure

Image for Gavin Bridge of Cubex Land discusses the importance of Bristol’s Infrastructure

The tricky subject of devolution was top of the agenda at the inaugural Bristol City Talks event last month, and panellists didn’t shy away from sharing their frustrations.

Come next May, there could be a new elected metro mayor for the new West of England Combined Authority if a devolution deal is agreed. But getting everyone to agree to be part of that deal has been far from plain sailing. Neighbouring North Somerset has turned its back on devolution, which is causing more than a little disappointment in Bristol.

John Wright, panellist at the debate – held at Bristol’s MShed building at the Harbourside – and director at Stride Treglown, said: “It seems absurd to me that the fourth local authority that butts up to Bristol, and has the airport based in it, hasn’t joined the party.”

Other panellists, including Ross Polkinghorne, head of real estate development at Burges Salmon, agreed. He said: “North Somerset is key to making [devolution] work. Bristol itself is a small city and you need a critical mass to attract large investment.”

Although the omission of North Somerset from a devolution deal was a difficult subject for Bristol City Council director Alistair Reid to comment on openly, he alluded to the fact that meeting the city’s and sub-region’s transport and housing needs would be difficult without everyone on board.

He said: “This is devolution deal one. We’re already in discussions about what is called Devo 1B and Devo 2, so the government has put on the table the potential for £1bn of infrastructure investment over 30 years. It sounds a lot of money, but it isn’t possible for a city with tightly drawn boundaries to plan for all its transport and housing needs on its own. So there needs to be common sense around the concept of devolution.”

In a lighthearted moment, Gavin Bridge, director at developer Cubex, quipped that Bristol might consider just compulsorily purchasing North Somerset, before broaching the serious topic of how the role of Bristol’s elected mayor would link with the proposed metro mayor.

“Bringing a bigger brand to the city region would be good,” said Bridge. “The city suffers in comparison to Greater Manchester and there could be a positive Greater Bristol effect.”

The panel agreed that the city needed a strong figurehead to bang the drum for Bristol nationally and internationally. There was frustration that Bristol was not marketing itself effectively. A straw poll was taken, asking how many in the audience knew, for example, that Bristol was a ‘smart’ city and a ‘gigabit’ city. Few raised their hands.

Key priorities are improvements in road and rail infrastructure and connectivity, including better links between the city centre and the airport and better connectivity along the M5.

“Getting in and out of the city and driving around it has become difficult. I don’t think a metro bus is going to cut it with most people. Getting between the M4 and M5 is virtually impossible. Putting in more motorway junctions may alleviate the issues. We need something to help with those pinch points,” said Stride Treglown’s Wright.

Connections between the airport and city centre, and Bristol Temple Meads and Cabot Circus, must be addressed by the council, said Bridge, who described the two journeys as “woeful”.

Reid added: “Cars will never be the solution because of the water and the gradient. Had the city come to that conclusion 20 years ago, it would have been better.”

finzels-bridgeA faster rail link would have a positive effect on Bristol’s property market by making the city closer to London, Bath and Manchester. But overseas investors arriving in the city via Bristol Temple Meads station still get an uninspiring first impression of the city.

Reid said that the council has taken a number of steps to address the problem. For example, it has struck a deal to acquire the neighbouring Post Office site.

He said: “We have approval and funding to knock the Post Office down and by February 2017 you will see work starting on site. It is a dreadful entrance to the city and we will do something about it. We are also in extended talks with a major end user and hope to make an announcement before Christmas.”

Reid also confirmed that talks are in place between the council, Bristol University and Skanska to extend the Engine Shed incubation scheme next to the station by up to 45,000 sq ft, and that the council has acquired the Holiday Inn hotel opposite the station as a future development opportunity. It is also in talks with the owner of the Grosvenor Hotel about bringing that into play for redevelopment. The large roundabout at Temple Circus will be removed to free up space for a 100,000 sq ft development.

Commenting on the planned improvements, Chris Grazier, partner at Hartnell Taylor Cook, said: “It’s the first time in my working life here that we’ve seen the council actively involved in the development market and it is working.”

Bringing in other organisations such as the Homes and Communities Agency, private investors and developers, and bringing forward CPOs will help accelerate the pace of development, said Bridge. “The council can’t do it on its own and it needs to recognise that.”

These moves will bring forward much-needed development opportunities in the city centre, especially as only 1m sq ft of developable land is left. Even though savvy occupiers are now taking a third less space for lower headcount due to agile working practices, said Morgan Lovell’s Nigel Wild. Should Bristol now be considering building tall?

“Bristol is a constrained city, so going up makes sense,” said Grazier. The panel believed that the council needed to consider developing tall buildings to maximise the city’s potential offer of new, grade A office space, adopting a more flexible approach to height.

Polkinghorne said: “Bristol is also a small city. There aren’t many opportunities of scale to attract the same money that would go to Birmingham and Manchester.” According to guest Phil Morton of CBRE, the remaining developable land will soon run out. “You’ve got to go high and you’ve got to cluster this type of development,” he said.

Asked if it was time to see a Bristol Shard, around a third of the audience favoured building tall in the city. Bristol is on the up.

Author: Lisa Pilkington, Estates Gazette