Thursday, 14 January 2010

Knowle West: Lessons Learned or Lessons Spurned?

In an earlier post I described how successive generations of my family had gradually moved (or been moved) from central Bristol slums to Knowle West and on to Hartcliffe. The midpoint of that journey - Knowle West (or Filwood Park if you prefer – an early example of rebranding) - is currently the focus for regeneration efforts and I have recently been reading two documents concerning some of the issues facing Knowle West/Filwood Park and thus the challenges for those seeking its regeneration.

The first document highlights that “the area has the largest population of children and young people out of all Bristol wards” and this, combined with “a low average household income” leads to a number of resulting issues. The second document also mentions “the high proportion of young people” and refers to “exceptional proverty” due in part to the “high incidence of unemployment”.

The first document goes on to mention multiple levels of deprivation in relation to “income, employment, education, health and crime” whilst the second mentions that “nearly half” of children were actually "below the ‘poverty’ line”, and that many illnesses such as asthma were “still far too prevalent” among children, there were also concerns about women’s health issues, whilst hooliganism and crime gave the area a bad reputation the stigma of which “left a lasting impression”, the last echoed by the first document which agrees that the area “suffers a poor image and reputation”.

Both documents agree that unemployment levels in the area are well above the average for Bristol whilst other shared conclusions refer to limited community, social and leisure facilities, poor transport connectivity especially with the City Centre, and poor retail provision within the area. Another key element is that the mix of house types in the area is limited, with the second document pointing to this causing many young couples to leave the area.

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that two documents studying the same area should arrive at the same conclusions – except that the first document referred to here is the “Knowle West Regeneration Framework” published in 2009, whilst the second is “Housing Estates: A study of Bristol Corporation policy and practice between the wars” published in 1949 and based on studies that took place before 1939. In other words, two studies separated by 70 years but, in that time, very little appears to have changed to alleviate the poverty and deprivation suffered by many of those living in Knowle West. That must be difficult reading for all those who have been in a position of power in Bristol over the past seven decades.

Jevons and Madge, the authors of the earlier study, called for better design to include such things as better retail provision including small local shops, higher incidence of parks and play areas, provision of crèches, public amenities from the start and cheap (or even free) transport to the city centre. The authors castigate planners for failing to understand the needs of residents; “many planners have failed to appreciate the implications of living in central areas” which are “of primary importance as a guide” to what is required in [new] neighbourhoods. It also points to the need to provide choice and not to allow over-dependence on one provider - “one big pub is often a poor alternative for three small ones”. The authors' final conclusion was that “denied its traditional institutions and amenities, denied the life and variety which course through the veins of a central area, ....a neighbourhood feels the full burden of its own poverty”.

It seems that their advice fell on deaf years - within two years of the book’s publication, Bristol Corporation had, in 1951, acquired more land on the northern slopes of Dundry where it proceeded to repeat all the errors it had made in Knowle West on an even larger scale. Ironically, growing up on this new estate of Hartcliffe, I remember having to travel to Knowle for many facilities including swimming, the cinema, and for more extensive shopping than the limited choice available locally. I suspect that similar stories of lack of neighbourhood facilities can be heard from those brought up on other estates built in the 50’s and into the 60’s and 70’s. Even with the move away from council planned estates, I am sure the early residents of Bradley Stoke can empathise with the lack of local amenities and public infrastructure.

We can only hope that, this time, the regeneration (or should it be simply “generation”) of Knowle West learns from those early mistakes, that it seeks to fully understand the needs and wants of the local community, and works hard to engage that community in making real and critical decisions about the future of Knowle West. The planners may find it hard to get the local community to involve themselves, 70 years of neglect and unfulfilled promises tends to generate a certain level of understandable cynicism and wariness, but planners should not give up too easily and resort to assuming that a "silent majority" means compliancy,  and it is additionally to be hoped that no promises are made that cannot be realistically delivered.


  1. Good post Tony. The sad fact is, none of the issues correctly identified in the 1950 report were tackled: transport access and jobs provision particularly.

    The famous stretch of dual carriageway was built - that doesn't go anywhere! The original "ring-road" idea (A4174) was never finished, so the whole thing has been a waste of money and space for 40 years. The SBLR is an attempt to fix that, which is why I think it is necessary. The Hengrove BRT will put in a direct transport link to the centre, although it will be passengers only, obviously (and not freight).

    On the jobs front, the Wills factory was a successful coup for a few decades, but ultimately it was largely unskilled assembly (of fags!) and didn't kick off a wave of vocational training and up-skilling. When it went, there was no surplus of trained people that were attractive to other industry, so the whole thing fizzled out.

    To top it off, the recent jobs renaissance has been almost entirely driven by retail in the area, which is likewise largely unskilled and doesn't have any knock-on effect of up-skilling. The jobs are largely low-paid and part-time without requiring qualifications. Quite good for holiday work and for mums, but no good for aspirational people in their teens and 20s - who will generally leave if they want to get an aspirational career.

    Something that is bothering me greatly at the moment is the lack of integration between Knowle West regeneration, the Hengrove Park regeneration, the Somerfield/Hawkfield/Hartcliffe Campus regeneration, and the existing Imperial Park retail area. Cllr Jon Rogers and I have pushed this up the agenda as a serious hole in the current plans. Those 4 quadrants around Hartcliffe roundabout need to be a properly integrated and coherent entity if this zone is to become a functioning district centre that can serve 80,000 people. The elephant in the room is the roundabout itself.

  2. Mark. Good point about lack of integration so why not be really radical. Your Link Road, although I personally think it won't achieve your claims, is planned to be single carriageway which makes the need to have the present road as a dual carriageway redundant.Just think of all that land that would be available if it was redesigned and also made single carriageway. Now that would be a real opportunity to regenerate South Bristol, unlike some of the spurious one's we continually hear. What do you think?

  3. Paul: Jon Rogers and I are keen that every option be on the table, including what you suggest. Having said that, the SBLR will only be a single lane for road but will have also the BRT in some form or other. So another option is to dedicate one lane of the current dual carriageway to continuing that BRT.

    An attractive option from removing one carriageway would be that it woud release the big central reservation, which is otherwise extremely hard to think of uses for (anyone got ideas?) A downside of this is cost, as land values are so low in this area they generally wont pay for such work.

  4. Hi Mark,

    I remain unconvinced that the SBRR/SBL will provide a long-term solution to the regeneration issues that affect Knowle West and Hartcliffe, as it fails to deal with the bottlenecks on the A4 at Cumberland Basin and at Brislington (choke points whose limitations will be exacerabated by the delay in delivery of the Callington Rd Link). It is through these choke points that the majority of freight needs to be transported, and good access to the motorway network for freight is a key issue in encouraging businesses to relocate. A strategy that relies on providing additional roads rather than more efficient traffic management of existing roads will, in my opinion, merely lead to pressure to implement some of the additional road building programmes identified in the GBSTS.

    The A4174 doesn't stop at the Hartcliffe roundabout of course, it continues along the Hartcliffe Way which, along with Winterstoke Road, provides a more direct route to the City Centre and the Port of Bristol then the SBL will provide. Wouldn't it be a more efficient use of public funds to tackle the traffic levels on this existing route? Presumably the Winterstoke Road part is OK, as nobody from the council appears to be objecting on traffic grounds to a proposal for a 9000m2 superstore there ;-) so perhaps money is better spent tackling the Parson Street gyratory system, along with better management of traffic on the existing roads. As it now seems likely that the Hengrove to North Fringe BRT link will go through Knowle West itself rather than down Hartcliffe Way perhaps it is time to reassess what capacity there is on the existing Hartcliffe Way to provide segregated road freight provision.

    These are all arguments similar to those that were explored with others on the Bristol Blogger website a couple of months ago and I think it may have been the Blogger who pointed out the rather obvious point that given the nearness of Bristol's Northern Fringe to the motorway network (and the Port of Bristol) compared to South Bristol, any strategy that hopes to attract business to the south of the city based largely on improved road links is doomed to fail because even if the council was somehow to turn all existing experience of road building on its head and produce roads that didn't get filled by expanding traffic use, South Bristol will still remain unfavourably located in relation to the motorway network. Tthere has to be other strings to South Bristol's bow to encourage businesses to locate there.

    I agree that investment in decent educational and vocational training should provide the sort of skills that businesses will find attractive, but South Bristol at present fails to have some USP that will make businesses set up shop there rather than, say, the Northern Fringe. Identifying the USP for South Bristol is quite possibly the greatest challenge in ensuring that the small acorns of regeneration that have so far been planted grow into the mighty oaks of a vibrant and transformed South Bristol economy. Perhaps, given that recognition is dawning that this country needs to expand in the sort of skills needed to make Britain more sustainable - not just the academic skills need for the development of energy efficiency and renewables, but also in the vocational skills needed to implement those technologies - from retrofitting insulation to microgrid operation and so on. Why can't South Bristol be an epicentre for this prospective growth industry?

    Finally, regarding the Hartcliffe roundabout - it has always seemed to me that such a large roundabout serves merely to create waste land, whilst acting as a barrier similar to the way the M32 separates large tracts of Bristol north of the Avon - perhaps a redesign involving the removal of the roundabout junction itself, linked in with better traffic management can serve to provide additional development land which has the potential at the same time to integrate the four regeneration areas you mention into a single supportive whole?

  5. Tony

    May I say what an excellent post that highlights the problems of south Bristol, problems which contribute to the low esteem and expectations of so many people.

    Unfortunately I can't agree with you regarding the cumberland basin choke point as you refer to it.
    A vast amount of traffic currently has to use Winterstoke rd to access the areas of housing on the Dundry slopes and beyond, plus all the traffic attempting to get to the A38. A link road by-passing this area would benefit many more than it affects.