Packer's Field

History: What's Happened So Far

Packer's Field is a seven acre space of green land that is sandwiched between the Easton, Whitehall and Greenbank areas of Bristol. Not much is known about its early history, but we do know that as Bristol's suburbs expanded eastward in the late 19th Century it remained undeveloped, lying just outside what were then the city limits. At some stage it became part of the Packer's chocolate factory complex, from which it gained its name, and was used for recreation by both the plant's workers and local people. Cricket, football and a whole range of activities flourished on the park and the area became an important pair of 'lungs' for the city at a time when Bristol was rapidly urbanising.

When the Depression hit the city in the 1930s, Packer's, like other businesses, looked at ways it could cut costs. One way to stave off the receiver was to sell off the field. And so Packer's passed into the care of local government with the proviso - allegedly inserted by Packer himself - that it be used for the recreation of local people. For over 70 years that is exactly what has happened, Packer's has been used by local schools and sports teams and residents have used it to walk their dogs, have picnics or to simply enjoy the fresh air.

But by the 1990s clouds were looming on the horizon. The Thatcher and Major governments had put a severe squeeze on local government spending. This meant that authorities up and down the country were only too eager to offload land into the hands of the private sector. At the same time there was a drive, in line with Labour Party policy, to rationalise school playing fields. Instead of every school having their own area for sporting activities, there was a plan to create a few select 'hubs' that a number of schools could use simultaneously. Individual schools would then be free to sell off their own fields.

In tandem with this was the government's drive to create 'academies' as a way to improve inner city schools. Instead of being under LEA control, this new breed of school would be part funded, and indeed partly run, by private investors. One of the first to be earmarked for academy status was St George's in Redfield, which had traditionally used Packer's for its games lessons. As Bristol City FC and the University Of the West of England were among the private backers, St Georges had already been designated as a 'sports academy'. At this point the Labour run council saw a way it could kill two birds with one stone. They could relinquish responsibility for Packer's Field and at the same time give a flagship New Labour policy a push in the right direction. And so in 2002, Packer's Field was leased to the City Academy for 99 years on a peppercorn rent.

And that was only the start of the Council's grand plans. They also had designs to move Bristol Athletics to this 'hub' site at Packer's which would mean the construction of a race track, a stadium, car park and attendant facilities. All in an area that is already notorious for its traffic congestion.

Naturally this was all done behind closed doors. The first residents got wind about it was later in 2002 when a 'public consultation' meeting was held. They challenged the plans and a campaign group was swiftly formed. A year later the council returned with no mention of the plans for the stadium. Instead they proposed enclosing the site, and construction of a car park and new changing rooms. Campaigners were not impressed - they would still lose a hefty proportion of the field under these modified plans. It was clear too, that the council still had their eyes on building their stadium but were simply making sure that the first phase of the development was in the bag before they commenced on Stage Two.

At this juncture, and facing what was essentially a done deal, residents got in touch with the Open Spaces Society who encouraged them to register Packer's Field as a 'town green'. This could be done under the 1965 Commons Registration Act, whereby urban land that has been used 'as of right' by members of a local area for more than 20 years can be saved from potential development and given the same protected status as a village green.

Seeing that the residents were serious about preserving Packer's, the Council and their allies at the Academy stepped up the fight. Dirty propaganda was unleashed: articles in the local press appeared, alleging that Packer's was a haven for drug dealers, vandals, paedophiles and rapists. Flyers and leaflets were circulated around Easton and Whitehall claiming that if the town green application were successful all sport on Packer's would cease.

It got worse. Kids at St Georges and the local Whitehall infants school were made to write letters to the Council supporting the proposed development (italics) in lesson time. Later Robin Moss, then Labour councillor for Easton (and also coincidentally a director of the Academy), sent round a 'consultation document' on which he asked the outrageously loaded question 'Do you/ Do you not want state of the art sporting facilities for our children?'

The residents and local campaigners were not deterred by this and were determined to force a public enquiry into the Town Green application. In January 2005 they succeeded in doing just that. The Council were caught on the wrong foot when at a meeting of the Public Rights Of Way And Greens Committee, they were presented with a 500 signature strong petition and faced with numerous witnesses who turned up in person stating that they supported the Town Green application.

The public enquiry duly took place in April 2005 but it soon became clear to the residents the sheer strength of the forces they were up against. The council's barrister was one Philip Petchey, an expert in land law who had advised a string of councils on similar town green applications. The campaigners represented themselves. The 'independent' advisor was chosen by the City Council who were, of course, the main objectors to the Town Green proposal.

The enquiry heard evidence from both sides, including some elderly residents who confirmed that the field had originally been bequeathed by Packer for community recreation, and a number from the Council/ Academy's side whose statements sounded suspiciously tampered with.

The report was published three months later, and sadly the Town Green application was turned down. The principle reason for this was the fiendishly problematic question of what constituted a 'locality'. Under the 1965 Act a Town Green had to be used by a single 'locality'. In this case, this was assumed to be Whitehall. According to the law, it did not matter that people from Easton and Greenbank have been happily using the field for generations. Even though the field lay adjacent to all three areas, their usage of Packer's was deemed irrelevant. Also, under the 1965 Act a 'locality', had to possess some element of 'cohesion', meaning that it had to possess a number of facilities, used by all or most of the residents. Alas, Whitehall does not have a community centre or village hall to its name, itself a reflection of the fractured nature of modern day inner city communities.

And so, at the time of writing, it looks as though the Council have got their way and a significant proportion of Packer's Field will be lost forever. But this is only half time. Opposition is growing to the Council's ambitious plans for an athletics stadium. Local campaigners are determined to preserve as much of this precious inner city green space as possible. The fight goes on...