The future of Ashton Vale, where a 30,000-seat stadium is planned, will now be decided in court. Political Editor
Ian Onions (email@example.com) talked to the former councillor who is leading the challenge.
Nearly a year ago to the day, an independent inspector rocked council leaders and Bristol City football club by recommending that Ashton Vale should be registered as a town green, effectively ruling out plans for a new £92-million stadium. But Alderman Peter Crispin was not surprised.
He had been turning up to hear the evidence at the inspector’s inquiry four months previously and believed the residents had come out on top.
“Half-way through the public inquiry, it was pretty obvious to me which way it was going,” says 73-year-old Mr Crispin, a former Labour city councillor who represented Bedminster ward for 16 years.
“One witness was cross-examined by one of the best QC’s in the country but at no time did any of the evidence waiver, yet the case for the objectors (landowners) was in my view quite weak in comparison.”
Mr Crispin, an electrician by trade, now finds himself chairman of a newly-formed group called SAVE (Save Ashton Vale’s Environment) which is mounting a legal challenge against the council’s split-site town green decision in June.
Councillors agreed that the southern part of the 42-acre site should be registered but the northern section, which includes the former landfill tip where the stadium would be built, has not been awarded town green status which, in effect, allows the stadium to go ahead.
The decision was a watershed in more ways than one. It meant the dispute switched from the landowners to the council and perhaps just as important, it led to the residents now having a figurehead, someone to champion their cause.
Mr Crispin explains: “Some of the key members of the group dropped out for one reason or another and I just found myself in the hole in the middle.”
As a former councillor, he is used to talking to journalists and facing the cameras or having a microphone shoved under his nose.
And he is no stranger to Ashton Vale which he passionately believes should remain as green belt land.
When he first became a councillor in 1991, he helped residents fight plans for an extension to an existing landfill site – a campaign which they won.
Mr Crispin, who lives with his wife Chris in Bishopsworth, says he worked behind the scenes on that campaign in an advisory role.
He continued as a “backroom boy” when the residents decided to submit a town green application after the stadium plans were revealed nearly four years ago.
He says he helped them by advising on planning issues – he is a former chairman of one of the council’s planning committees – and the process of how the council is run.
But surely a landfill tip can hardly be described as green belt?
Mr Crispin replies: “Ashton Vale is not the only landfill site to be reclaimed. Bedminster Down has been reclaimed and is now a nice green open space.
“It’s a positive thing to see them brought back into the public domain.”
But what about the economic arguments in favour of a stadium which would bring jobs and investment to South Bristol?
Mr Crispin believes the case has been over-egged because he claimed most of the jobs would be “transient” and regeneration was not a good enough reason for destroying the green belt.
“Once you have got rid of the green belt, you can’t get it back.
“I get a bit fed up with this argument about regenerating South Bristol – we have been regenerating the area for the past 15 years.”
He says it would be much better to upgrade Ashton Gate in the same way that other clubs had improved their existing grounds.
These views, of course, fly in the face of many people who are convinced that the stadium is good news for the whole city and the region, not just South Bristol.
Former Lord Mayor Colin Smith, Labour ward councillor for Bedminster and Bristol City FC season ticketholder, says: “The stadium is more important than football. It’s about confidence, it’s about investment and jobs and bringing prosperity to the city in times of recession.
“It’s a misnomer to talk about the stadium site as green belt – it’s a former landfill tip which has got pipes coming out of ground which give off methane gas.
“Ashton Vale itself would benefit greatly because of the community facilities such as a doctor’s surgery, and the leisure and community facilities.
“I believe the vast majority of people want to see this stadium go ahead.”
What really riled Mr Crispin was the decision by the council’s Public Rights of Way committee which went with the split site option because he said it ignored the independent inspector’s recommendation.
It was this council decision and the basis on which it was reached that is the focal point of his pressure group’s legal challenge.
Mr Crispin, a Londoner and Chelsea fan who settled in Bristol after meeting his wife during National Service at Filton, cut his political teeth as a shop steward for the former electrician’s union, the EEPTU, which has since merged with Unite.
He became a member of a union negotiating committee at Rolls-Royce and stood for election as a councillor when the Labour candidate dropped out at short notice.
He loves public service but found himself dumped by his party when he failed to be re-selected as the candidate for his Bedminster ward.
Mr Crispin refuses to be disloyal to his party by talking about this publicly although he said it still “rankled” and said he was very frustrated at having to fight his battles “from outside” instead of “from within”.
Mr Crispin’s group currently has a core of about 30 supporters, some of whom are residents in Long Ashton and oppose the stadium plans.
The cost of mounting a legal challenge can run into the kind of sums which look like telephone numbers, so how is Mr Crispin bankrolling a judicial review?
He says that a supporter of the group has paid a £5,000 bond which has triggered the first stage of the legal action by paying to instruct a firm of solicitors, the same Cambridge-based firm which previously represented the Ashton Vale residents.
Mr Crispin says he is confident of further financial support in the future.
He says: “We have had promises of additional funding from sources which must remain anonymous.”
He says that as chairman of the pressure group, he sees it as his job to front the cause.
“I think we have a strong story to tell and therefore there is no point in sitting back on it,” he says.
Although he is no longer a councillor, he is still chairman of the governors at Cheddar Grove Primary School, chairman of the management committee at The Grove youth centre and chairman of the Malago Valley Conservation group.
A judge will now have to decide whether to give permission for a judicial review to go ahead.
If he does not, then the challenge could be over within a matter of weeks.
But if permission is granted, then the legal wrangle could drag on for months. If successful, it could kill off any hopes of a new stadium at Ashton Vale at all.