It’s not easy embracing big ideas when the Authority to which you are elected is having to watch its spending but one of B&NES youngest and newest cabinet members isn’t going to let the lack of money in the council coffers affect his role in helping to shape the regions future.
Ben Stevens is just 24. Two years ago he was elected to the Bath and North East Somerset Authority as a Lib-Dem member for Widcombe. Tonight – at the Council’s AGM – he will officially take over the important role of leading ‘Sustainable Development’.
I met him for coffee on the eve of his official appointment to talk about balancing Bath‘s World Heritage status with the needs of ordinary citizens trying to earn a living. We talked about the economic benefits of regenerating the River Avon and its bankside developments. His concerns for jobs in Keynsham and finding a new identity for the former mining communities at Radstock and Midsomer Norton.
I asked him first about balancing the past with the present and the future.
Cllr Stevens: ‘ For me its a question of making space for a modern city within a heritage setting. We have got to remember that Georgian masterpieces like the Royal Crescent – though jewels in our heritage crown – are still houses where people live or run businesses. From that perspective it is a struggle at times to make that space, but l think the fact Bath is a modern living city is part of its charm. It is not a museum city where nothing is ever happening. We have a vibrant cultural sector, the Arts are important and so is the additional energy from the city’s two university’s. I think the two – the past and the present – sit quite easily together and it’s all part of what makes Bath the special place it is.’
Bath’s Roman remains and Georgian set-pieces were great for attracting tourists – the city’s biggest industry.
Cllr Stevens: ‘ Without it we would be in the same situation as Bristol in having to cut back on services more than we currently have to.’
Bath was awarded World Heritage status in 1987 for its Roman remains, Georgian architecture and town planning plus its amazing setting. Great for tourists but doesn’t mean much for ratepayers going about their daily lives?
Cllr Stevens: ‘If we think about business owners who settle in Bath there is an interesting piece of work that someone could do about the value to your business of having Bath as a business address. In that respect – because we are an internationally renowned World Heritage city – businesses see a great advantage in having offices here because they are automatically associated with the same sort of quality that people associate with Bath. But there are constraints to living and working here. Narrow Georgian streets designed for pedestrians and horses and now we are pushing large amounts of traffic through and you do get that conflict between the World Heritage city and modern life.’
Though he is not in charge of transport he will pick up responsibility for the remodelling of the High Street which is supposed to make things safer for pedestrians. Having laid new paving, some will have to come up again for bus shelters and the style of lighting has still to be sorted. I felt there was an element of learning on the job here.
Cllr Stevens: ‘To some extent. The High Street refurb – as you say – was all about making space for pedestrians and public transport users.To try to make it easier not to use your car which l think is something most people are signed up to in terms of trying to reduce the amount of traffic on Bath’s streets. Simultaneously to the High Street project we were developing the ‘pattern book’ which is going to set the standard that anyone who does any work in Bath – whether they are the Council or an outside developer – is going to have to stick to. So – for instance – we want to see good quality paving stones used and l think , if we could go back and do it again, we would try and do the pattern book first and then the High Street but unfortunately time frames didn’t line up.You are right to a certain extent that there were alterations made as we were going along but from that point of view it has been a very useful project in terms of trying to work out how to make a ‘pattern book’ practicable in the future’
B&NES has already gone on record to say it applauds the setting up of a River Regeneration Trust to restore the River Avon to its rightful place as a major contributor to Bath’s prosperity and beauty. In the past it has only been seen as a channel for flood water.Now it will also be seen as a social asset.
Cllr Stevens: ‘It’s a long way from being a finished project – the river – but we are starting to acknowledge that it is an important asset and , just two months ago, the Council’s Cabinet agreed that they should be putting together a river strategy so that we know how we can better use the river to make sense of our city.’
I asked if he was a member of the independent River Regeneration Trust?
Cllr Stevens: ‘No l am not. i decided as a Cabinet member it was better not to be but l am still in contact with them and one of the officers who sits in the Economic Development area is an observer member so there is that linkage between the Trust and the Council which l think is actually very important. Some of their ideas are just fantastic.’
One of the most concrete is to install a turbine to generate hydro electricity to one side of Pulteney Weir to power the Christmas lights this coming December. Further up the river another Trust is hope to restore Britain’s earliest and Georgian Lido at Cleveland Pools.
Cllr Stevens: ‘That would be fantastic too.’
He also thought the idea of having a ‘park and sail’ ferry service for shoppers and commuters would be good.
Cllr Stevens: ‘Again a fantastic idea but my suspicion is that it would require some fairly generous backers because l don’t think it would ever break even, but as soon as we start seeing boats on the river that automatically brings attention to it. Activity on the river breeds more activity on the river.’
I suggested it’s maybe time to stage a River Festival?
Cllr Stevens: ‘ A nice idea and l would like to see it happen but l suppose again its always money with these things.’
Seemed to me the Council was happy for things to happen as long as it didn’t have to pay for it.
Cllr Stevens:Yes l think that’s about right and that brings us back to discussing the costs involved in developing the river and its banks. We are doing it as a piecemeal process as where developers build we can use their developers contributions to fund it and slowly – over time – we will see the public realm improve.’
One thing the Council is financially involved in is flood mitigation works.
Cllr Stevens: ‘Chunks of the pile-driven steel bank linings will be removed by the Avon Street car park, at Green Park and there is a reserve chunk that we don’t think we will need at Norfolk Crescent. The idea of that will be to lower that sheet piling and use the earth that we take out to raise the top-level of the bank as it will landscape it so there is access to the river and again you are widening the river and increasing its capacity during flood times but you are allowing access to the river.’
‘When you look at where any economic development is going to come from the majority are riverside sites and they need to be dealt with in a way that is sensitive to that.’
The Avon is proving a bit of an issue further down stream.
Cllr Stevens: ‘ l am looking at how we are going to develop Keynsham because at the moment it is going to end up being quite lop-sided. All the new housing – because it is restrained by the river – is going to go south of the town and as far away from the High Street as possible. We need to think about how that is going to affect the economic potential of Keynsham and think about sustainability. If people are having to travel for the shops or for work that reduces the green credibility of that whole development.’
Our new cabinet member is also thinking hard about two communities in the south of the Authority’s area.
Cllr Stevens: ‘Radstock and Midsomer Norton have been struggling with an identity crisis since the mining industry closed and want to know what role they have now. So we are looking again at the economic strategy for the whole of B&NES with an emphasis on the sort of highly paid hi-tech jobs that we think will fulfill a need.’
As we ended our meeting and drank up our coffee Ben Stevens held out little hope of saving Bath’s last standing gasometer but denied that the Council couldn’t wait to erase all memory of Bath’s industrial past.
Cllr Stevens: ‘ I don’t think you could ever accuse B&NES of having an intentional desire to wipe out Bath’s industrial history. l think that maybe it hasn’t been given the consideration it deserves and l think that is more clumsiness than an intentional desire.’
He thought the Victorian age was an interesting period in the city’s history although ‘ very little is ever spoken about what happened to Bath during that period.’
I finished off with a question about the old Cadbury chocolate factory and proposals to use part of it for office or small industry use and had heard the River Regeneration Trust were looking at maybe getting involved in that element of the new development proposal.
Cllr Stevens: ‘ They are looking into it. It will ve very exciting if we could get some guaranteed employment on that site because its fair to say there is a bit of concern that we could end up with the space for employment but not jobs and l think if the River Regeneration Trust were able to get involved and could guarantee those jobs by working with their private sector contacts then that would be a big weight off our minds.’