Readers of the Post will have seen reports about the ongoing dispute over community access to 20 acres of open space at Stoke Lodge in BS9. It's generally portrayed as a row about a fence. It's not. Here's why it matters to people right across Bristol.
Cotham School's lease was granted when it converted to being an academy in September 2011. That's an automatic process, there's no consultation involved - but BCC had already held a public consultation a year before, in 2010, about whether to fence off the playing fields. Following that consultation, the BCC Cabinet decided that no fencing should be erected at Stoke Lodge and that the land would continue to be shared – school and community together – as it had been for decades.
And those terms were written into the lease – the school's rights to use Stoke Lodge are 'subject to all existing rights and use of the property, including use by the community'. Bear in mind that the school doesn't pay a penny for the lease – it cuts the grass, but it negotiated for the Council to be responsible for all the trees and boundaries. That doesn't normally happen, with public money, on land that's purely for academy use. The school understood the deal for many years – it's documented in governing body minutes. But recently it has started to describe Stoke Lodge as its 'private property' and 'business premises'.
In response to pressure from Cotham, Council officers made a sequence of decisions in late 2018 that allowed the school to put up security fencing with no transparency and no public consultation – elected Councillors were also kept out of it, even though officers were overturning a Cabinet decision.
Why should this matter to you?
Well, for one thing the Council needs to build three more secondary schools, and those schools will all need playing fields. What if the location they choose is your local green space? Oh, you might have a public consultation, you might be given promises about continued public access, you might have special terms written in the lease. But in ten years' time you might also find yourselves, like BS9 residents, standing outside locked gates at a time when you are most in need of local open space for safe exercise.
And fundamentally it's about democracy and proper process. If our Council can freely overturn decisions made after public consultation, then what guarantee does any of us have about how it will act in future? If our Council, as the owner and landlord of this historic parkland, won't enforce the rights of Bristol citizens and taxpayers – rights that it wrote into the school's lease – then does it really have the interests of its citizens at heart? Can we trust our Council with the future of our parks and open spaces?
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