THE PLAN TO FILL IN THE DOCKS
IN the late 1960s, as car ownership grew in Bristol, it was anticipated that more people would be commuting into the city to work. The need to improve the city's road network became apparent.
Things moved on quickly in 1969 when Bristol City Council announced its intentions to close the city docks.
The City Docks were now only handling 10 per cent of Bristol's total cargo, while the rest went to Avonmouth. In 1970 this amounted to 800,000 tons, but fewer and fewer ships were coming up the river.
From the planners' viewpoint, dock closure had a great advantage; it would make completing the new road system easier. Large stretches of water in the middle of the city could now be covered over or filled in to provide space for roads and offices. And bridges could be built more cheaply as they would no longer have to be high enough for ships.
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The Council announced in August 1969 that it was promoting a Parliamentary Bill enabling the city to withdraw navigation rights from the Docks. The article spoke of bringing in a "lagoon system", which was a way of saying there would still be stretches of water in the city, and an even nicer way of saying other stretches would disappear.
The Bristol Corporation Bill went off to Parliament and was passed in 1971. It gave the Council all the powers it needed to close and reclaim parts of the Harbour.
Casson, Conder & Partners were appointed and the Bristol City Docks Redevelopment Study was delivered in 1972. It is a short yet quite remarkable document known as The "Casson Report".
It contained no glossy pictures and few statistics. Instead its tone is rather idealistic, even poetic in places. It dutifully included the roads and bridges, but its comments on the proposed road system, and its map showing where these would fall, cannot have pleased anyone at the Council House.
It merits a lengthy quote: "Here we have a shining wedge of water bounded by romantically dilapidated wharves and robust warehouses driven into the very centre of the city, and now facing a new and useful future. Obviously this future cannot be left to chance. Nor, so rich is the area's potential variety of form and mood, should it be too strictly regimented. The clean sweep and imposed formula would be as socially and aesthetically unwelcome as the architectural bedlam of private initiative taking what chances it can ... The waters of the harbour, used to unify and to separate, to enliven and relax – should return to the citizens for their enjoyment: the wharves and banks to be opened up for boatyards, marinas and waterside promenades with the restored Great Britain as the magnificent centrepiece."
Other factors were in play by 1973-74. Collapsing property values, inflation, the OPEC oil crisis and domestic political instability meant the sort of government capital funding needed for the road system was unlikely to materialise. Local politics also played a part. Until now, the Council's Labour group had been an enthusiastic supporter of new development, but the mood was changing. Many councillors were beginning to realise what impact the roads would have on the communities in their wards, and they didn't like it.
The Evening Post gave huge amounts of coverage to the issue, and for many Bristolians the destruction of the docks was a powerfully emotive issue.
In the elections Labour retained control with a significantly increased majority. But something else happened as well; for the first time since 1926 there were now Liberals on the Council. Three new Liberal members had been elected. One of them was George Ferguson, who would become Bristol's first elected mayor 39 years later.
Unbuilt Bristol: The City that Might Have Been 1750-2050' by Eugene Byrne looks at the docks plans and several other proposed structures and plans for Bristol which were never built. It is published by Redcliffe Press at £15.