Marvin Rees’ announcement that no homes should be built on Brislington Meadows, less than a year after getting the Government to buy the land for housing, could end up costing the British taxpayer £15 million, Bristol Live can reveal.
That is how much Homes England, the Government’s land and housing agency, paid for almost 10 hectares of land, at the request of the council 12 months ago.
Mr Rees, who is standing for re-election in next month’s mayoral election, is now accused of ‘a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money’ after he announced last Friday that he’d decided that no homes should be built there after all.
Mr Rees announced that he had decided that the ecological emergency declared by Bristol City Council at the start of 2020 had to be balanced against the ongoing housing crisis, and that, in the case of Brislington Meadows, it was more important to preserve the fields than build much-needed new homes.
That decision, if Mr Rees is re-elected next month and follows through with it, means the Government has spent £15 million on what would end up being a nature reserve.
A spokesperson for the office of the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said: “We will work closely with Homes England across the city to deliver much needed homes, while balancing the ecological and climate crises.”
The £15million spent by Homes England was split between three landowners – Bristol City Council, London Property Firm Olympia and Hammersmith and local businessman Johnny Palmer, who had acquired a tiny strip of land at Brislington Meadows just four years earlier for the cost of a boozy lunch at Claridge’s.
Bristol Live can reveal that the Government paid almost £3 million into City Hall coffers for the council’s part of the land.
The saga of Brislington Meadows
The land that used to be called Emery Farm in Brislington has never been developed. Part of it is Victory Park, some of it is allotments, and the rest – some 9.34 hectares of green open space that became known as Brislington Meadows – was eventually and controversially included in the city council’s Local Plan in 2014, when George Ferguson was mayor.
Some of Brislington Meadows was owned by Bristol City Council, but most was owned by a London property firm called Olympia & Hammersmith, or O&H.
In 2016, new mayor Marvin Rees pressed ahead with plans to develop the land. In November that year, a mayoral decision at a cabinet meeting was made to instruct council chiefs to start making a deal with O&H so that hundreds of homes would be built there.
But progress was slow, and nothing concrete had happened by 2019: O&H were taking too long for frustrated council chiefs who wanted to see homes built quickly, ahead of the 2020 city council and mayoral elections.
Mr Rees had been elected in 2016 with a pledge to be building 2,000 new homes a year in Bristol by the year 2020, a pledge which also included 800 affordable homes a year.
The land at Brislington Meadows had been earmarked in 2014 for 300 homes, and at least 90 of them would be affordable.
So by 2019, the council decided that instead of working with O&H, the land should be bought from them so the development could happen more quickly.
The council brought in Homes England, the Government’s land agency. The council persuaded Homes England to use its money to bring all of Brislington Meadows under one owner – Homes England – by buying the land from the three owners: Bristol City Council, O&H and local businessman Johnny Palmer.
By April 2020 the deals were done and, which said the deals would ‘unlock’ the land for much-needed housing development of 300 new homes and Bristol Live can reveal that just a year ago, Homes England paid O&H £11.9 million – plus VAT – for its 7.43 hectares.
Homes England paid Bristol City Council £2.9 million for its 1.77 hectares, and paid £180,000 for Johnny Palmer’s tiny strip of land which was just 0.14 hectares.
Mr Palmer is a well-known businessman and landowner locally who had gradually acquired all the business units just off Bonville Road, opposite the fields of Emery Farm, over the course of nine years from 2007.
Mr Palmer is the owner of a venue business called PYTCHair and the distinctive colour-fronted business units on Bonville Road in Brislington. He recently installed a 727 jet at the site that he intends to convert into office and event space.
He told Bristol Live he ended up as the owner of a narrow strip of land on the other side of the road in bizarre circumstances in 2016 when he did the deal for the final business unit across the road.
He said he got its owners, London property firm Berkeley Square Properties, to throw in the strip of land across the road from the business units after he agreed to pay the lunch bill at Claridge’s, where they had all gone to finalise the deal.
“It was part of the property of the final unit I was buying, but we were haggling over it. I thought it would be nice to have, and I thought I would plant an orchard on it.
“They were drinking the expensive wine but I wasn’t,” he said. “The bill came to about £400 and I said ‘OK, I’ll pay the bill if you include the strip of land opposite’, and they agreed.
“With what happened next, it has ended up the best £400 I have ever spent. It was the best deal of my life,” he said.
Mr Palmer didn’t know at the time, but a few months later, Mayor Marvin Rees made the decision to drive forward with developing the fields beyond, and Mr Palmer’s new strip of land was part of it.
“Then all of a sudden, Bristol City Council approached me to talk about buying it,” said Mr Palmer. “So I thought that was interesting.
“While it was Homes England that eventually bought the land off me, I never spoke to them, all the negotiating was done with someone from the council.
“To be quite frank, the first offer they came in with was insulting, a real low-ball offer, so insulting that I decided to dig my heels in a bit.
“They ended up buying it for much more than I would’ve sold it to them had they been sensible at the start. I sold it for £180,000,” he added.
The land in question opened up the fields of Brislington Meadows and made development much easier. “It wasn’t a ransom strip,” said Mr Palmer. “They would have had to have paid much more than that if it was.
“The alternative access for them would have involved building a bridge further up, so they wanted to buy this strip of land because it saved them the costs of having to do that,” he added.
“So there I was with a bit of land I bought for the price of a very expensive lunch, that I sold for £180,000,” he added.
Later in 2020, Homes England began the process of turning the ten hectares of land they paid £15 million for into 300 homes, at the request of Bristol City Council.
Homes England submitted a pre-application ‘scoping request’ to the council last autumn, and over the winter just gone, began engaging with local residents and campaigners who had been fighting to protect the meadows for years.
They told them they wanted to start a formal public consultation, but so that it didn’t become an election issue, that would not begin until after those elections in May.
Mr Palmer is now standing for the city council himself, as a Liberal Democrat candidate in Clifton.
He said he was stunned when he read that Mr Rees had now decided no development should take place there.
“I think it’s great they are not building on the land,” he said. “I don’t think it should be built on. But I’ve got a real issue with the amount of taxpayers’ money that’s being wasted here. It is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money to get Homes England to buy it at development prices, and then say ‘no development’ less than a year later,” he said.
“For me, it’s paid my house off. I might offer to buy that strip back from Homes England at the level of the first offer the council came to me with. It’s covered in knotweed, that strip. I can go ahead with planting my orchard,” he added.
What happens next?
Bristol City Council no longer owns any land at Brislington Meadows, and the question of what will happen next to the land depends on who wins the mayoral election, and what Homes England does.
Bristol Live asked Homes England what it thought about Mr Rees’ announcement. We also asked what its plans for the land were now, and whether Homes England would now be looking to sell the land, if it couldn’t develop it.
A spokesperson for Homes England did not answer those questions, and issued the following statement.
“We are aware of the announcement,” they said. “We intend to work positively with all parties involved to identify a sensible route forward.”
A briefing document from senior council executives within City Hall, seen by Bristol Live, also appears to question whether the mayor would have the power to unilaterally stop any development on Brislington Meadows.
“The site is allocated in the Local Plan for housing,” it read. “A proposal to remove the allocation could be made as the local plan progresses and this would be reviewed by a planning inspector.”
Both the Liberal Democrat and Green Party candidates for mayor said they have long agreed that Brislington Meadows should not be developed, but last week Green candidate Sandy Hore-Ruthven questioned the mayor’s timing, given he’d spent the last few years trying to get homes built there.
Conservative mayoral candidate Alastair Watson did not commit to a position on the question of whether it should be built upon, saying the decision wasn’t the mayor’s to make, but a planning inspector who assesses the changes to the Local Plan.
“Marvin’s U-turn on the development of the land at Brislington Meadows just as an election is looming is another example of his sheer incompetence as Mayor of this city,” Mr Watson said.
“He sold the land to Homes England to build affordable houses on, and now he is saying that it should be designated as a nature reserve.
“Is he also intending to pay back the £2.9million pounds Bristol City Council sold it for as development land?
“What will happen to the other parcels of land in the development that were sold privately for over £12m? This just sounds like another of his promises that he won’t be able to keep,” he added.