‘Progress made’ on how Bristol’s Downs are run

Progress has been made on how one of Bristol’s largest green spaces is run after heavy criticism over a lack of transparency. 

Following a survey last year, a series of reforms were brought in to overhaul the running of Clifton Down and Durdham Down.

Clifton Down is owned by the Society of Merchant Venturers and Durdham Down is owned by Bristol City Council. Together the Downs are run by a committee made up of councillors and members of the Merchant Venturers, which has faced several major issues recently.

The outgoing chair of the committee, Green Councillor Paula O’Rourke, said she had accomplished the four goals she set out to do last year. She was previously Lord Mayor of the council, a role that usually lasts one year and includes chairing the Downs committee.

Speaking at a Downs committee meeting on April 25, she said: “I’ve always said that the weakest link of the Downs committee is the Lord Mayor. I feel even more strongly that that’s true having been in the role for a year. It’s a very difficult role. The Lord Mayor is very busy doing a lot of other things and there isn’t a huge amount of resources to support the activities in between the meetings.

“In previous years when I was a member of the committee, very often it was business as usual. It’s very hard to get anything proactive done in between meetings. Somebody has to drive it, and unless you have a Lord Mayor who has got specific interests in this, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that’s going to happen.”

Cllr O’Rourke represents Clifton, which borders the Downs. The previous Lord Mayor was Conservative Cllr Steve Smith, who represents Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, also bordering the Downs. The new Lord Mayor is Labour Cllr Paul Goggin, representing Hartcliffe and Withywood in south Bristol.

Controversies on the Downs include previous plans to use part of the parkland as overspill car parking for the Bristol Zoo, which has since closed. This saw campaigners Downs for People take the committee to court, ramping up steep legal fees.

This issue also prompted questions about why the Merchant Venturers were at all involved in running the Downs, whereas most parks in Bristol are managed solely by the council. The survey last spring asked the public about how the Downs should be governed, including whether the Merchants should remain involved.

Now reforms enacted include setting up an advisory panel with the volunteer group Friends of the Downs and Avon Gorge; improving communications with the public; and hiring a fundraising manager to get external grants and cash to pay for the parkland’s upkeep. 

Cllr O’Rourke said: “We needed to get an agreement on the new governance arrangements. We needed to get a strong ally, which we did with FoDAG. We’ve set up the advisory panel so that we’re reaching out to the broader community and we have a very strong conduit for communication into and out of this committee. And we needed to get ourselves in a position where we could recruit a Downs manager. I’m very pleased that we’ve achieved all those four things.”

By Alex Seabrook, LDRS