Shaping a hole in the heart of Bristol


Spotted this yesterday in Bristol’s ‘Harbourside’, the flashy development in an area once known as Canons Marsh. “Shaping a soul in the heart of Bristol” says the promotional drivel.

Shaping a hole in the heart of Bristol, more like, given that many of these flats are empty.

Many cities are now the same, blighted by a glut of empty flats built in the boom. Many of them destined to become the slums of tomorrow, or student villages.

I’m having an imaginary conversation here …

Me: I appear to have stumbled upon an old iPhone. It is all dusty. Let me rub it … What the …?!

MJF: Greetings! You have reached the Magic Journalism Fairy! How may I help thee?

Me: Oh boy! I’m prepared for this one!. I know how this works! One – an end to all hunger, disease and war; two – this here list of actresses and a supertanker of baby oil; three – immortality for everyone I like and …

MJF: … Hold up. I will grant thee one wish (because frankly you don’t deserve the full three), and only a journalistic one. So ask me to do your job for you and tell you something you’re too lazy to research for yourself.

Me: OK, I want to know exactly how many yuppy flats are currently standing empty in Bristol. Because of that building boom of the last 15 years or so which has suddenly crashed to a halt. All those city centre apartments, all those “urban living spaces” “designed for the 21st century”, all those bunny boxes which got plonked down willy-nilly. Often under the guise of “regeneration” and often with some mendacious guff about how a proportion of each development would be “affordable” but …

MJF: Enuff already! Get off the goddam soapbox. I get the idea.

Me: No way! I’m into me stride now … Many are elegant and appropriate to their setting, I will grant you, but many others obscure views and blot the skyline and arrogantly grab what had once been public space, e.g. down the Harbourside. All these flats which were supposed to be meeting a housing need, but which were in fact fuelling a buy-to-let (BTL) bubble which was bound to burst because there’s a limited supply of wealthy single professionals and cultured homosexuals.

MJF: What was the question again?

Me: How many of these places are empty? There were always lots of empty flats, but that didn’t matter while the bubble was swelling. If you’re a property developer or a would-be BTL landlordy, it’s not too bad if you don’t have a buyer or a tenant for your flat as long as its paper value is increasing. But now … Besides, developers often leave flats unfinished to evade taxes and housing regulations.

MJF: I can see why you would need my help. Most developers would be loath to talk to you. They’d fob you off with their public relations agency who’d spin you some bland reassurance that everything is fine. If you really dig your teeth in they’ll mutter something about “commercial confidentiality” and hang up. Then you’d have to go through the same thing with every other developer.

Me: When the history of the last 20 years of financial folly comes to be written, it won’t just be about unregulated city spivs getting rich by gambling our money, or our moronic plunge into debt-ridden consumerism. It’ll also be about all the time, money and precious space sunk into building homes that weren’t really homes at all, to meet a demand which never really existed. So anyway, how many of them are empty?

MJF: I don’t bloody know. Can’t I tell you who masterminded the Kennedy assassination instead?


5 Responses to “Shaping a hole in the heart of Bristol”

  1. out of interest what sort of prices are these? there are plenty of people in Bristol who would buy a place if the price was right – or would that too much of a hole in the soul of the developers profit?

  2. 2 Christina Marie

    It’s a bloody disgrace. A heist, a fast buck, a rip-off. Eugene, those flats are not only going to be standing empty, they’re going to be flooded, or near offer, within our lifetimes, unless the EA gets its act together and starts defending the Somerset coastline with money provided by central govt.

    So slash-n-burn Tories on the way, and the massive national debt. What do you mean you can see it happening –

    OH NO!!! Duck!!!!!

    Phew. That was close. Nearly got hit by those flying trotters.

    I want the MJF to answer a few more questions – not that s/he will.

    1. How many of these flats have been sold and at what price?
    2. Of those sales, how many were BTL?
    3. How many have in fact been L?
    4. Of those L, how many have been L to permanent Bristol residents (you know, “the community”)?
    5. Who exactly has profited? The people BEHIND the people, I mean. How about the owners of the land, for example. Who are they? What did they make, and if it was public space, what happened to the money? Does anyone know?
    6. What regeneration regulations were bent to allow this development?
    7. Who decided it was OK to go ahead with this urban blight of a scheme and did they declare their interests appropriately?
    8. What further development is planned, or going ahead, now that they can see for themselves the sorry mess the existing development has turned into already?

    Just asking, like. Me, I miss that open sky and the airy sense of the seaborne more than I can say.

  3. Prices at the Crest Nicholson Harbourside development 1-2-bed apartments in the c. £200k-£350k range, though it’s worth noting that some blocks of flats have not yet been “released”.

    According to a recent BCC press release – – there are c. 7,000 empty properties in the city, while there are 12,000 people on housing waiting list. Same statement notes trend among developers to leave houses/flats uncompleted to evade council tax and empty home regs.

    Not suggesting that Crest Nicholson do this, of course. But apparently someone’s at it …

    Christina, the history of flats on the docks is a long and baleful one, and Crest Nicholson play a particularly undistinguished part in it. Bought Canons Marsh off various owners, mostly Bristol City Council, re-branded it ‘Harbourside’, submitted plans twice to universal condemnation for too-tall, inapprpriate buildings, approved on third try. This follows years of political wrangling in Council over use of dockside land – for leisure, or business. I personally would argue that the mix on that side of water is kind of OK – Millennium Square, At-Bristol, Gala Casino, Blue Reef, a load of drinking sheds, Lloyds HQ etc. Just too many expensive flats, is all.

    Crest Nicholson are not worst offender. That honour would have to go to Crosby Homes, the folks behind The Point, that big modern block plonked on docks between ss Great Britain & Brunel’s Buttery. A foul, utterly inappropriate development that ruined a decent public. It’s the one where residents were complaining their balconies were falling off; legal settlement sometime last year I think.

  4. If George Ferguson had had his way, instead of boxes of boxes, we’d have had something more akin to Paintworks – live, work, make, play, family spaces. Except his plans came before Paintworks had been thought of and he said it would be like Venice. Lots of people like Venice. The Venetians were rather good at “harbourside'”

    We have one of the greatest urban thinkers in the country in our midst, and the local council mostly ignore him!

  5. 5 Charlie McF


    Your photo missed a key detail – underneath the bollocks about the soul of Bristol etc was an interesting notice, in traditional brass if i remember correctly, about no skating, no this, no that…………very Massive, very Bristol

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