Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Brunel and Planning

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is celebrated in Bristol as a visionary engineer, who did great things for the city. However, even his most ardent supporters admit that he had an enormous ego with a tendency to believe that he knew better than anyone else, and that this often led him to dismiss conflicting opinions as unimportant.

When Brunel became involved in the proposals for the Great Western Railway, he quickly identified the site that he felt was ideal for the railway station at the Bristol end of the line.

Bristol's great rival Liverpool already had a railway line - and in Liverpool the railway led from the Edge Hill station through the Wapping tunnel directly to the dockside for direct transfer shipboard. With this in mind, but with a limited knowledge of Bristol's history, he decided that College Green would be an ideal site for the new railway station.

Yes, that's College Green, an historic open green space with centuries old mature trees, the setting for the city's Cathedral and the Lord Mayor's chapel and with local associations dating back to pre-Norman times and perhaps even earlier.

Like many modern developers, Brunel found that the locals were loath to give up their sacred green spaces without a fight. Brunel tried to force a fait acompli by building the Royal Western Hotel for railway passenger on an adjacent site, but eventually the weight of local opinion forced the GWR to look elsewhere. Unfortunately they had been so focused on College Green that they were left with limited options.

In the end, and in some haste, they selected a green field site on the eastern edge of the city; Temple Meads. It was a site that suited nobody, it was away from the centre of the city and too far away from the docks. Unlike Liverpool and its direct access, goods arriving at Temple Meads for onward shipment from the docks had to transhipped by horse-drawn carriers - Bristol was the only city that saw the opening of a railway leading to an increase in horse-drawn transport.

The off-centre location of the station would have other drawbacks. When trams and buses began to operate in Bristol, they needed a central terminus - a natural focus would have been the train station but the combination of its location and the lack of crossing points from the northern side of the river negated against it - instead the trams concentrated on The Drawbridge in Colston Avenue. The Drawbridge became known as The Tramways Centre and later still simply the Centre. The Centre remains the focus for buses serving the city.

Later still the Blitz saw severe devastation in the city, and almost immediately, plans began to be drawn up to not just rebuild the city but also to replan it. One of the decisions required was where to build a new bus station to serve country buses and coaches. Large areas in the Victoria Street area had been devastated and a coach station could be accomodated close to the railway station, whilst the 1944 Reconstruction Plan highlighted a site in Lewins Mead close to the bottom of Christmas Steps and a short walk from the Centre. Both sites ended up as commercial offices. In the end a site for the bus station that was neither duck nor fowl was chosen in Marlborough Street.

The results still haunt us today - the lack of interconnection between road-based and rail-based public transport has serious implications for improving services and reducing dependency on the car.

Whatever your feelings about the merits of the bus-rapid transit scheme, the general consensus is that it needs to interconnect with the rail and bus links to create a transport interchange. The Plot6 site next to Temple Meads is ideal and may be the last chance that Bristol will ever get for a public transport interchange allowing direct connections. The BRT route needs to be extended into the site and the bus station should also be relocated there. Or will Bristol once again fail to use joined up planning to create better public services?

There is still a physical reminder of Brunel's vision of College Green as a railway station, the Royal Western Hotel. It is no longer an hotel of course, that didn't survive beyond 1855. College Green is also a shadow of its former self - in the 1930's another developer ignored local protests, lowered the green and cut down all the ancient trees so as not to ruin the view of its new offices. The developer? Bristol Corporation of course with its new Council House. The council has since expanded into adjacent buildings, including the Royal Western Hotel - it is now called Brunel House and is home to the City's Planning Department.

Do you think they know the history of their building? And the lessons that can be learned from that history?

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