Bristol Zoo Gardens could be bought by local group to stop housing scheme

By Conor Gogarty

A residents' group has secured an option to bid for the Bristol Zoo Gardens site — in the hope of preventing it from being replaced by housing.

Bristol Zoological Society, which owns the Clifton site, announced last year that the land would be sold and the zoo would move into the Wild Place Project, near junction 17 of the M5 in South Gloucestershire.

The society plans to get permission for housing on the Clifton land before selling it — but there is an alternative proposal for the site to become an "augmented reality zoo", driven by the OurWorld Bristol group, which includes former Bristol mayor George Ferguson and broadcaster Prof Alice Roberts.

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Now the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society (CHIS) has successfully applied for Bristol Zoo Gardens to become an asset of community value. This means the community group will have the right to bid for the site if it goes up for sale in the next five years.

Granting the request, Bristol City Council said: "The ‘owner’ must not dispose of the freehold or grant a lease of 25 years or more without giving interested local community groups the opportunity to put a bid together."

CHIS wants to avoid the site being used for housing development, instead backing the OurWorld Bristol plans for "a fully immersive" zoo experience with technology like digital headsets and a "more accessible city garden" with bees, birds and butterflies.

But Zoological Society says it will not reconsider submitting a planning application for housing, which it intends to do late this year or early next. It believes only a residential-led scheme can "secure a sustainable future for the Society and for the gardens themselves".

Asked if it could appeal against the listing, a spokeswoman for the Zoological Society said: "This is a matter that we are discussing and no decision has been made at this time."

CHIS' joint planning coordinator Chris Jefferies said: “The Bristol Zoo Gardens are too precious to be lost to a housing development.

"This is why we asked Bristol City Council to list the site as an asset of community value so that if the Zoological Society try to sell the site, we have an opportunity to buy it and shape its future. We are delighted [the council] has backed our bid to safeguard the historic site for future generations.”

Plan for Our World Bristol (LDA Design)

If the Zoological Society wants to object to the listing, it must do so by October 21. If the council was to then uphold the listing, the Society could appeal it at a tribunal.

With the listing in place, CHIS must be informed if the site goes up for sale in the next five years. It could then bring forward a Community Right to Bid, which gives the group six months to raise funds for a purchase.

The group says it recognises the financial challenge of buying the 12-acre site and it is considering options on how it could do so.

Mr Jefferies added: “Like so many in the city, we are inspired by OurWorld Bristol’s proposal. It offers a fantastic future for the site that supports what the Zoological Society stands for. We call on Bristol Zoological Society seriously to consider this alternative, which is so much more imaginative and appropriate than developing the site for private housing.”

Under the Zoological Society's plans, Bristol Zoo Gardens would remain open until late 2022. Wild Place Project would remain open before becoming the new Bristol Zoo from early 2024.

The Society's chief executive Dr Justin Morris said: “In late 2020, we announced our plans to safeguard the future of our 186-year-old charity, by selling Bristol Zoological Society’s Bristol Zoo Gardens site and creating a new, world-class Bristol Zoo at our Wild Place Project.

“Our decision to sell the Bristol Zoo Gardens site was not one that we took lightly. However, it is vital to safeguard the future of Bristol Zoological Society, and ensure an exciting new future for Bristol Zoo, for everyone in Bristol and beyond.

“We realise the significance and importance of the Clifton site and that Bristol Zoo Gardens has a special place in the hearts of many people. This is why we are leading the planning process for a high-quality residential-led scheme which respects the history and heritage of the site and gardens.

“We want to ensure that we create an exemplar for environmentally and socially sustainable residential development that Bristol can be proud of and showcase to other cities across the UK. The spectacular gardens at the heart of the site will be enhanced to encourage greater biodiversity with consideration of public access to the gardens beyond the Clifton Conservation Hub that is already planned.

“There is a huge under-supply of housing in Bristol. New homes are needed in all parts of the city, including affordable homes, to address the housing crisis."

Dr Morris says the Society respects the council's decision to list the site and will "ensure the community has the opportunity to prepare and submit a bid" when the land goes up for sale.

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“Bristol Zoological Society has been engaging with CHIS since our strategic announcement in late 2020 including meeting with them regularly in our dedicated Community Forum and will continue to do so as our plans evolve," he added.

“A period of public consultation is already underway for the Bristol Zoo Gardens site. We are meeting with, and listening to feedback from, a range of interested groups including near neighbours and Clifton residents."

Stuart Wood, the executive director of Boomsatsuma — an organisation supporting young people — is among the Bristol figures backing OurWorld Bristol. He said: “Our proposals continue to build support. We are keen to work with Bristol Zoological Society and partners to find a better way forward for this vital asset for the city.”

Other supporters include Billy Elliot film director Stephen Daldry and Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris.

OurWorld Bristol's project would see visitors "travel in space, time and scale to experience animals in their natural habitat, enter the world of insects or go back millions of years to when dinosaurs roamed the adjacent Downs".

The Zoological Society said in July that its recent review of the site had found a new attraction would not be "viable financially or operationally sustainable".

It said Bristol Zoo Gardens had been struggling "for many years" with a lack of space, declining visitor numbers and restricted parking.

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