Campaigners face a last minute scramble to safeguard 74 mature trees on Baltic Wharf, land on which Bristol City Council plans to build luxury flats.
Community group Save Baltic Wharf Trees have a deadline of Wednesday (December 22) to gather 3,500 signatures on their petition, which they say is not only about the trees, but is about council decision-making and ‘the future of Bristol.’
Baltic Wharf, a 2.2 acre site on Spike Island, is owned by the council and currently leased to a caravan club. In 2018, the council announced plans to relocate the caravan park to Bower Ashton and to develop the site, resulting in the loss of 74 of the 100 mature trees at the Wharf.
Goram Homes, the council’s own housing developer, has now advanced plans to build 166 flats – mostly luxury – on the Wharf. The decision will be ultimately be decided by a planning committee in February 2022.
Local residents concerned by the plans started the Save Baltic Wharf Trees campaign to protect the trees on the site threatened with felling, and to challenge the council’s decision-making around the development.
Campaigners say that preserving trees on the harbourside is essential for protecting land from flooding and heat waves, as well as absorbing air pollution and sequestering carbon.
Projections from the Environment Agency show that the whole Bristol Harbour area could be regularly underwater by mid-century. The Agency objected to both the housing development and the caravan club relocation plans for this reason.
In September this year, activists from Save Baltic Wharf Trees held a marriage ceremony in which each tree was married to a woman to raise awareness of the threatened tree loss.
John Tarlton, of Bristol Tree Forum and an active member of the Save Baltic Wharf Trees campaign, said: ‘We really can’t afford to lose any more trees on Baltic Wharf, but yet it’s being described as brownfield site.’
It is the council’s description of Baltic Wharf as brownfield – land suitable for development – that is at the heart of the Save Baltic Wharf Trees campaign.
Tarlton explains that within planning regulations, Baltic Wharf cannot be considered a brownfield site at all since there is only a small permanent structure, the rest of the land being trees and residential gardens, which are exempt from brownfield status.
Also, national planning regulations dictate that local planning authorities must keep a register of all brownfield sites. Baltic Wharf is not on Bristol City Council’s register.
According to Tarlton, it is an inexact use of the term brownfield – largely by politicians – that is ‘being used to manipulate the planning committee into feeling obliged to grant planning permission,’ not only on Baltic Wharf but at sites like Bristol Zoo car park, too.
‘And that’s really what we’re objecting to,’ said Tarlton.
The campaigners now hope to trigger a full council debate on the issue by getting the necessary 3,500 signatures on their petition. They want councillors to address the creeping use of brownfield designations to justify development.
For Tarlton, Baltic Wharf is the tip of the iceberg arguing that if you describe Baltic Wharf as a brownfield site ‘you could do the same with Brandon Hill, you could do the same with Queen Square, you could do the same with Castle Green. All of these places then become vulnerable to development.’
Predictably, Save Baltic Wharf Trees campaigners have been accused of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), but Tarlton says that this is about more than saving a few dozen trees.
‘It’s about the future of Bristol,’ said Tarlton. Accepting the need for development in some cases, he went on to say that ‘if you continue to build on all of the green spaces in the centre of Bristol, within 20 or 30 years the centre of Bristol is going to be virtually unlivable.’
With Bristol facing a housing crisis, there is a clear need to build homes in the city centre.
Yet if that need is allowed to trump all other concerns, including the council’s own professed goals, such as doubling tree cover in the city by 2046, then all we are doing is building our house on foundations of sand.
The petition is available to sign here.