What future for Bath’s Recreation Ground?

Bath Rugby’s plans for a permanent and larger seating stadium beside the River Avon have been the subject of much divisive comment for quite a few years now. A dividing line drawn between supporters of the club’s redevelopment plans and those who – though there has been much legal wrangling – still think it’s a bad idea for several different reasons.

The current heavy rain and river flooding has prompted more concerns and the release of an statement – by the Friends of the Recreation Ground Bath – calling on B&NES – who are ‘custodians’ of the Rec – to NOT support any planning application, for the redevelopment, the club may make in the future.

One of the arguments put forward by those who are against the club’s plans is that the Rec is a designated flood area and indeed – the photo below – taken from the Bath Heritage Watchdog web site – shows flooding of the rugby ground in the year 2000.

© Jim Warren, Bath Heritage Watchdog

Regular contributor, Rob Coles took a photo yesterday showing the club had put a flood barrier in place against the West Gate as a precaution and, indeed, today’s (Saturday, January 14th) game with Toulon has been postponed because of rising ground water and restricted riverside spectator access.

© Rob Coles

The area has been subject to a recent flood warning from the Environment Agency – something that one local resident, Rosemary Carne, received.

She’s letting me quote from a letter she has sent to B&NES councillors and planners pointing out that ‘active flood plains like the Recreation Grounds serve a vital role in flood resilience.

In Bath’s case – with all the development and concreting of the catchment for the River Avon in the last 20 years – and with the recognised challenges of climate change, it is surely vital it is not built on and destroyed.”

© Rosemary Carne

Here’s more from her letter:

“I was woken at 2.16am on Friday morning by my ringing telephone with an automatic FLOOD WARNING announcement from the Environment Agency that my home was expected to flood. Terrified, I looked out, relieved to see no lapping water, still the grass of the Recreation Ground. My relief turned to anger when I saw the large marquee erected on the Rec by Bath Rugby. A reminder commerce is given priority over householders. Anger at B&NES Council and planners for being prepared to destroy an active flood plain which is vital to keeping my home dry. As advised, I checked the EA website and of course got no more sleep.

I have lived next to the Rec for 12 years and this is the first time I have received a FLOOD WARNING – not an alert – a WARNING. I have struggled to find an insurance company prepared to cover my home and am forced to pay an exaggerated premium because of the flood risk. My neighbour remembered when his house flooded, citing the Radial Gate as our saviour together with the Rec. 

I believe Bath has been lucky in recent years to escape flooding. Are the pictures of city centre flooding e.g., Carlisle not a sufficient deterrent to make Councils treat flood plains as sacrosanct? Are the frequent pictures of flooded homes in the Somerset Levels making them passive, rather than active in increasing flood resilience and flood risk reduction? Since the insertion of the Radial Gate at Pulteney Weir, the Council has allowed huge areas of concrete to cover the catchment areas of the river. The massive Lansdown development together with Holburne Park just two examples. 

I want the Council to change from their apparent commitment to destroy a city centre green open space and give priority to city preservation measures like reducing flood risk. 
Nottingham Council has recently announced replacing the Broad Marsh city centre shopping mall with a green open space, a brave move for the health and wellbeing of its Citizens.

Bath has a city centre green open space which crucially is an active flood plain providing protection for the riverside properties, both homes and business premises. I am appealing to the Council to stop destroying it.”

 Being part of the flood plain is only one of the reasons why the Friends of the Rec are against any redevelopment proposal. Here is the statement they sent me. One that acknowledges the fact that all B&NES councillors are up for re-election in May this year!

“With the Ward hustings for the 2023 Local Election in March, the association of the Friends of the Recreation Ground Bath is calling on B&NES councillors to confirm their positions in upholding the truth and the law governing the use of  the Rec.

The Rec was sold to the ‘Citizens of Bath’ in 1956 at a knockdown price, conditional on it remaining an open space, without preference to any single sport or user, the Council acting as legal Custodian of these terms, in perpetuity.

  In 2002 a High Court Judgement upheld the 1956 Agreement.  It also confirmed that the Rec was not Council property and that it should in future be managed as a charity independent of the Council.  The 1995 lease for part of the Rec to a single user was a breach of contract; its continuance after the 2002 High Court Judgement was a contempt of court.

The council’s re-registration of the Rec in the name of Bath Recreation Ground Charity is not an unencumbered Title, its Charges Register being subject to the 1956 terms, with the Council continuing as legal Custodian of these terms.

With a new Local Plan 2022-2046 on the horizon, the Friends association has submitted a Representation to B&NES as the Local Planning Authority, for the Rec to revert to its legal (1956) status so that it be returned to a whole community facility, and perhaps more significantly act as a further magnet for the escalating number of visitors to the City.  The  Representation is on grounds of Climate Change – the Rec being a designated flood area – and on Heritage grounds – the Rec being a significant feature of Bath’s World Heritage Site – and also on legal grounds.

In 2021 the Friends association also made an Application under the relevant legislation to the Minister for the Rec to be formally Designated a Local Green Area within the emergent Local Plan. The Application has been delegated to B&NES for Determination.

The future for the Rec must lie in its contribution to alleviate the existential impact of progressively severe annual heatwaves and hot spots in the city centre by providing carbon reducing planting, by creating shade, and by recognising its designation as a flood alleviation area, reversing the now 40% hardstanding, so that it can act as a sponge for increasingly massive downpours.

B&NES new Local Plan to 2046 provides a chance to recognise the Rec as an opportunity to upgrade the whole riverside environment for the benefit of citizens and visitors, re-opening the Rec to its river frontage, creating a gravelled promenade beneath a double or triple line of trees, while further planting could alleviate present light pollution across the Rec. The residual area, the size of a cricket pitch, can yet be re-opened for amateur sport and recreation.

How can this be funded?   The ongoing income Bath Recreation Ground Charity receives from its lease of the site to the Leisure Centre and its car park can be put to better use for the good of the whole community.”

What do others think? I have sent a copy of this article to Bath Rugby and to B&NES for comment.