Fears over future use of empty zoo car park

The former Bristol Zoo north car park could become an “empty piece of asphalt” for at least a year. 

It’s unclear what will happen to the car park on Clifton Down as the zoo’s parking licence formally runs out at the end of 2023.

Bristol Zoo had asked the Downs committee — a group of councillors and Merchant Venturers — for permission to continue using the car park for until June 2025, for staff and students who will still occupy the site until at least March 2025, with an offer of £50,000.

But the Downs committee had to consult campaigners Downs for People, who in 2021 legally challenged whether cars were allowed to park on the parkland. Due to a High Court decision, they had the deciding factor on if the zoo could continue using the car park.

Downs for People said they were “unable to agree” on the deal for the zoo to carry on using the car park. During a Downs committee meeting on November 13, Green Councillor Paula O’Rourke, said the site might now be used instead by van dwellers.

She said: “I did hope that we would be persuasive enough to make the case that we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, where post-pandemic and with the cost of living crisis our income has been very badly hit. When the zoo made this offer, they wanted to be able to use that car park space for the next 18 months, it did seem like a really good opportunity.

“It was about £50,000 income that we hoped would be able to help us over this difficult time. But we absolutely realised that we needed to get consent from the Downs for People, especially as they were claimants in the case. We were never trying to breach the order.

“Once December 31 comes, we haven’t had time to do anything to get it on to the next phase. So that bit of land is going to stand empty. At the moment the zoo polices it, they give out permits and they walk around several times a day, and they manage it.

“But once it becomes a free space, it will probably become a very attractive place for vans or whatever to dwell on that. And they won’t pay us, so we’ll have no income and we’ll have cost implications because the site won’t be managed.”

An increasing number of van dwellers have been staying on the Downs, causing complaints from some local residents and park users. In turn, some van dwellers say they have chosen to stay there due to skyrocketing rents in Bristol becoming rapidly unaffordable.

Downs for People said the car park should become “amenity space”, but failing that, it should be kept for people who use the Downs, rather than nearby buildings. They claimed it would be “fundamentally unlawful” for the zoo to continue using the car park.

In a written statement to the committee, a spokesperson said: “While we sympathise with the committee’s financial difficulties, Downs for People is unable to agree that Bristol Zoo should continue to use the North car park after the end of this year.

“Such use would be unlawful, and no compelling case has been made for it. The financial benefit cannot outweigh the fundamental unlawfulness of what is proposed. Parking on the Downs can only be provided for those using the Downs.”

By Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporting Service