The end for Turbo Island as the diggers move in

A patch of ground close to the city centre that has become famous in Bristol and beyond has been fenced off and dug up after years of being a notorious spot for street drinkers and free parties. The corner of Stokes Croft and Jamaica Street got the name Turbo Island back in the 1980s because of the street drinkers’ favourite brand of cider – but now the authorities hope a new future beckons as a rather more humdrum part of the street scene.

The land, which is owned by a London-based billboard advertising company called Wildstone, was behind fences with a team from local road maintenance firm Colas working hard to dig it up and pave it.

It is not known exactly what is planned for Turbo Island in the long term, but plans for a paved area with seating, bike racks, are being enacted now by Wildstone, who said they are keen to discuss further enhancements with the local authorities and community.

Read more: Turbo Island could be paved over for food truck in radical new plans

On Monday morning, the area was cleared by Bristol Waste’s street team, and mayor Marvin Rees said he welcomed the action by Wildstone after years of successive owners of the site doing little, if anything, with the area. “We welcome the landowner taking action to prevent anti-social behaviour at this hotspot,” he said.

The hope is that if the area is paved rather than just bare earth, it will be, at the very least, a deterrent to the persistent creation of bonfires on the site, which were the cause of a total of 44 call-outs for Avon Fire and Rescue Service between April 1 and July 13 this year alone.

The land has been an issue for Bristol City Council and law enforcement for decades because of its slightly unusual status. It is a ‘SLOAP’ – a space leftover after planning – and was created when a narrow building – a shoe store – was demolished by post-war planners to create better sightlines for the road junction at the crossroads of Stokes Croft and Jamaica Street. It ended up being owned by advertising companies because of its prominent position facing the city-bound traffic on the main A38 road into the city centre, and the value of advertising revenue from the two billboards high up above the land put at £1,000 a week – which explains why, when the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft began a fundraising campaign to try to buy the land back in 2019, it was worth an estimated £300,000.

But over the years, its value as an advertising space above trumped the use of the land below, and a series of ad agency owners were happy to leave it as private land that was open, as long as nothing obscured the view of the advertising boards. Its status as private land meant, however, that it could not be included in council orders banning public consumption of alcohol. So it became a notorious drinking spot, as well as an after-hours street party centre, gaining a reputation, often humorously, as the centre of Bristol’s alternative scene.

Songs were written about it – including the Surfin’ Turnips pirate punk classic Return to Turbo Island – and at one point it had better Trip Advisor rating than many of Bristol’s more established or official tourist attractions.

But as the area around it became more gentrified, complaints about its downsides of anti-social and threatening behaviour, and the fire problems, became more of an issue, and in April, local MP Thangam Debbonaire took up the job of sorting out Turbo Island.

In late June she called a multi-agency meeting, bringing together council chiefs, the police, local councillors and the landowners, and the result is this week’s action with Wildstone served with a community protection order requiring them to keep the area clear, and Bristol City Council pledging to work with them to improve the space.

Workers have fenced off Turbo Island on Stokes Croft, Bristol, and have started to dig it up
Workers have fenced off Turbo Island on Stokes Croft, Bristol, and have started to dig it up
(Image: Bristol Live)

That came too late for the nearby Jamaica Street Stores, whose owners closed the doors permanently in mid-July citing the persistent problems with anti-social behaviour ‘lawlessness’ from Turbo Island as a major factor. Local residents and passers-by stopped to take pictures and videos of the scene as the digger team moved in today, Tuesday, October 25, and there was a mixed reaction on social media to the dramatic change to the space.

“I think it’s a good thing because it was attracting really unsavoury characters, and they were putting too much plastic on the fire, it was getting out of hand,” said Marcus, one local resident riding past the scene. “They weren’t being responsible enough with the fire. It was inevitable that it was going to happen. If they kept the fire down to a minimum, kept it sensible, it would have been alright, but they couldn’t could they? They were just getting too drunk and putting too much on the fire, putting bins on there and all sorts. Someone was going to end up getting really hurt.

“You’ll still have the same people coming down, but they won’t be able to light the fire, because you can’t light a fire on a pavement,” he added.

Philip Allard, Operations Director for Wildstone, said the work to improve Turbo Island would last around a week, and are just the beginning for the area. “The works will include tarmacking the site and installing cycle parking,” he added.

“We are paying for these works which we hope will significantly improve the appearance of the site and make it more attractive. However, wider social issues that have affected the site in the past are beyond our control.

“We are continuing to work closely with Bristol City Council’s Neighbourhood Team and other agencies including the Police and Fire Brigade on the project. We are also engaging with the local community and businesses. Once the works are complete, we would like to discuss with the local community how the site can remain a more welcoming space,” he added.

Read more – The Turbo Island story

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