Nicolette Boater investigates whether privilege, connection or economic thinking and practice wins the day for nature’s protection. The image is by James Allen.
In summer 2023 the UK’s National Trust celebrated their forever and for all restoration of Bathampton Meadows as the first of twenty “green corridor” projects connecting urban areas of the UK to green spaces on their fringes.
But such a destiny for the meadows would have seemed incredible eight years ago. For in 2015, Bath and North East Somerset Council was intent on building a Park and Ride on the meadows (P&R East) to reduce the impact of traffic on the World Heritage City of Bath.
However, local residents and others who valued the meadows’ natural and community assets were alarmed. And so, the Meadows Alliance emerged, intent on publicly challenging the rationale, evidence and decision-making processes underlying the council’s proposal. An epic battle ensued (see box: The battle for the meadows).
Meadows residents submitted so many questions that the meeting went on for hours, overwhelming councilors and their supporting officers.
From the outset, co-founder of the Meadows Alliance, Christine Boyd, believed that the only way to challenge the seeming fait accompli of P&R East, was to undercut the arguments for it. So, on discovering ”forty or fifty people with their heads in their hands saying, what can we do”, she urged them to “challenge everything” by submitting written questions to the November 2015 Council meeting where P&R East was being decided on. Meadows residents submitted so many questions that the meeting went on for hours, overwhelming councilors and their supporting officers who were unprepared for such thorough public scrutiny and found themselves on the defensive.
Unsurprisingly the agenda and airtime allocated to the Meadows Alliance was tightly constrained at the council’s March 2016 Scrutiny Inquiry. But the Alliance’s presentations punched above its weight.
Data analyst Andrew Lea, challenged the council’s use of 2011 census data and, analysing current data of usage of existing Park & Ride sites, proved that on average they were less than half full and that users were predominantly shoppers and day-trippers, not the daily commuters the council said P&R East was targeting. Furthermore, Bath residents ridiculed the P&R East solution to the city’s transport problem, knowing from experience that school runs, not commuters were its root cause.
The Meadows Alliance also highlighted concerns about the potential ruination of the floodplain. This was scantily addressed in the council’s Environmental Impact Assessments of its decisions, but the alliance posted vociferously on social media when the meadows flooded in spring 2016: “Our floodplain is a gift to Bath not P&R”.
Similarly, there were hearty cheers by the alliance and other supportive Bath residents when local architect and TV celebrity Piers Taylor argued to the crowded and contentious January 2017 Cabinet meeting, that whether or not the proposed P&R sites lie on or outside the border of the designated World Heritage Site, they are nonetheless visually prominent and damaging.
Although the Conservative majority on the council enabled it to soldier on with P&R East despite the breadth and cogency of opposition, the seeds of its demise had been sown.
Although the Conservative majority on the council enabled it to soldier on with P&R East despite the breadth and cogency of opposition, the seeds of its demise had been sown. The final blow was delivered by the National Planning Inspectorate in June 2017. In response to arguments first made by the then chief executive of the Bath Preservation society and Alliance champion, Caroline Kay, at the March 2016 Scrutiny Inquiry, the Planning Inspectorate instructed the council to “Alter Policy ST6 ‘Park and Ride’ to ensure clear and convincing justification of the need for facility and any harm arising”.
And so, 633 days after the council declared its intent to build a P&R facility on the meadows, and some £3m had been spent trying to do so, the council U-turned on its plans.
And so, 633 days after the council declared its intent to build a P&R facility on the meadows, and some £3m had been spent trying to do so, the council U-turned on its plans. It used the announcement to unveil a new “integrated transport plan for Bath” including a study of school transport needs and filling up the existing park and rides with better signage and access.
Today, the National Trust owns Bathampton Meadows, ensuring public access and involvement in the land’s stewardship through an Alliance-negotiated agreement, and setting a precedent for participatory natural space governance for subsequent green corridor projects.
The meadows are also a jewel in the crown of the council’s subsequently declared climate and ecological emergency plans. Those plans are so ambitious they are striving to embed climate, nature and community inclusion into all council strategies, policy and decision-making procedures, and partnering approaches.
It remains to be seen whether the council as an institution will be flexible enough to support such change or allow all communities a significant role.
It remains to be seen whether the council as an institution will be flexible enough to support such change or allow all communities a significant role, and whether the economic thinking and practice supporting such decisions is cleansed of embedded bias and the data sufficiently granular.
However, a more durable people-planet-place mindset is baked into the mission, business model and governance of some of the council’s partners in the delivery of the council’s climate and ecological emergency ambitions. Bath and West Community Energy and the Bathscape Landscape Partnership are prime examples.
A plethora of purpose-led businesses, collaborations and community initiatives also dance to the city’s emerging locally-rooted globally-savvy tune. While it is impossible to identify causal relationships for this changing narrative, there is much in the timing of the battle for the meadows and in where it happened, to suggest that it was a significant enabler of change.
So as we face escalating climate change, nature depletion and concentrating land ownership, I draw hope from these meadows – meadows that wouldn’t be, were it not that the people whose lives are rooted in the place, knew, with all their being, how much it didn’t need more cars and more paving, but did need more climate resilience, biodiversity and open space amenity. And I am proud of how we nurtured our shared purpose, harnessed our diverse powers and talents, and navigated a path through institutions colonised by other purposes and perceptions to change the destiny of the place we call home. Change as vital to the wellbeing and resilience of your particular bit of our planetary home as it is to mine.