The following letter has been sent to the council for consideration alongside many others from those concerned about the legitimacy of both the plans and the process that agreeing on them has taken. The decision is set to be made tomorrow (5th December).
I have been following the discussion that has been going on in some areas of the public regarding the Bristol Cathedral Primary School (Cathedral Primary) and the Bristol Central Library (the Library) with interest. Since first learning about the plans I wondered why we'd see such a situation come to pass; the near-certain reduction in services or service efficiency of a city-wide asset seems like strange to trade off against primary school places, instead of finding a solution that would see both the library remain functioning as fully as it is today and the primary school a home.
Since the plans have come to light there have been numerous calls by supporters of the Library for Cathedral Primary to find a more suitable location that doesn't require the requisition of space from a city asset. There has in public discourse been mentioned various empty spaces that could provide capacity for our city's growing child population, none more interesting than St Mary's Hospital on Brandon Hill which is situated only a short walk away from the current proposed space.
I have been disappointed by the details that have come from the school, though perhaps it would be better to say the lack of details. Where there have been answers to questions made by the public, it was particularly concerning to me that they were jointly issued by the Bristol City Council, despite it being clear that no decision has yet been made about this plan.
Also disappointing is the insinuation that modernisation of library stock and its cataloguing is impossible without moving stored resources to another location; it seems disingenuous to make claims that the plans help a library without clarifying that such help for the library is technically possible without the school taking up residence in the lower floors.
If these are plans to deal with plummeting Council budgets, then they should be dealt with in the appropriate way and with the appropriate scrutiny when it comes to changes in how we fund our city's resources, and not solely within the limited scope of giving planning permission to an organisation to go ahead with their development. Right now it feels like the council is not being honest with the public about what this plan is about, and if there is to be a sell off of city space it seems inappropriate for one body, in this case the Cathedral Primary school, to be given first refusal without ensuring the best value for Bristol taxpayers.
It should be clear that there are benefits to the Library and its resources remaining in the centre of the city. Available throughout the day it need not be a drain on the cities roads as people attempt to reach it, and is placed at the heart of the city's public transport network. It is accessible, it is able to readily service satellite libraries, and has all of it's knowledgable staff on site ready to help.
The Cathedral Primary school, on the other hand, will increase journeys in Bristol at peak times of the day and due to the lack of distance based allocation could bring traffic from further than other comparable schools would. More useful to the city for local residents who would welcome being able to walk their child to school would be a different school placed further south in oversubscribed Windmill Hill or Southville where there were over 600 children unable to get their first choice primary school this year, or in Easton where there are 2.5 children unable to get their first choice primary school for every child that is successful and still no plans for increases of primary school places (as of a 2012 report made to the Cabinet).
It would be my feeling that schools in these areas with admission criteria that help those who are in those local and usually more deprived areas, is of greater benefit to the city than a school that does nothing to target social mobility or specific geographic shortage of places due to its random allocation policy.
I also feel that it would be easy to get drawn in by the language used by Cathedral Primary. They state "The primary school building needs to be near Bristol Cathedral Choir School’s dining hall" and "near to the cathedral to be cost effective and within safe walking distance for four-year olds." This language seems to suggest their desires for their own cost-effectiveness are an obligation for the council, and therefore the people of Bristol, to act on its behalf.
For example, the school seems more willing to spend the £500-600k they plan to draw from the central Education Funding Authority to re-house books from the library, than to create a second dining hall to cater for hundreds of new primary age students that would otherwise have to share with hundreds of secondary school students. It is this order of priorities, putting spending on its location above the facilities and resources that it could otherwise build, that creates big questions around the reasoning for trying to achieve its residence in the Library.
Simplifying it all, the main question is this: Is there such a pressing need for this particular school in this particular location that we should near-permanently alter one of the city's grandest old buildings?
Elsewhere in the city planning applications are refused despite evidence of a market or desire because there isn't a clear an overwhelming need at that particular location, and that the need couldn't be serviced by other bodies or other developments.
For me it is clear. There are likely to be other options for development, there are other options for expansion. It would seem contradictory for the council to give the go ahead to Cathedral Primary's plans when it would, and does, otherwise refuse similar types of proposals by smaller businesses in extremely similar circumstances.