Controversial cafe to replace 'hideous' public toilet block on Bristol Downs

A proposed site plan for the Sea Walls cafe on the Downs
A proposed site plan for the Sea Walls cafe on the Downs Credit: Chris Goodsall Architects

A new controversial cafe will be built on the Downs in Bristol to replace an old 'hideous' public toilets block.

Despite concerns about building on the historic parkland, the cafe was given planning permission on June 29 by Bristol City Council.

The cafe, off the Circular Road near the Sea Walls, will include replacement public toilets and a small education centre.

In April this year, the council’s development control committee voted against giving planning permission. It asked officers to come back with reasons for refusal.

But when the committee met this week to ratify that decision, they instead voted to approve the plans.

One councillor on the committee suggested the new toilets should not be left open to the public. She claimed that created a risk of gay men having sex in them. Other councillors criticised her “homophobic” comment.

The Downs are jointly run by Bristol City Council and the Society of Merchant Venturers, a group of wealthy businessmen.

Earlier in June it was revealed that a spare £900,000 unspent from the council’s budget last year would go into reserves and towards the mayor’s office - despite calls for that money to be partly spent on public toilets across the city.

The Downs committee, made up of Bristol councillors and Merchant Venturers, said they needed to build a cafe in order to provide income for replacing the public toilets.

But the new toilets included in the plans will be smaller than the ones currently there.

The cafe was given planning permission on June 29 by Bristol City Council. Credit: Chris Goodsall Architects

Robert Westlake, chairman of Friends of the Downs and Avon Gorge, said: “It’s essential the toilet block is replaced by something that’s fit for purpose.

"In the current financial climate it’s essential that the Downs generates some income, and this proposal is predicted to generate at least 10% of the running costs of the Downs, through the rent that will be charged.”

The cafe will open from 8am to 7pm Monday to Saturday, and from 10am to 4pm on Sundays. During winter the cafe will close at dusk.

The toilets will be free to use for the public while the cafe is open, and will cost a small fee to use while the cafe is closed.

One councillor on the committee raised concerns about the toilets being open at night.

Conservative Cllr Lesley Alexander said: “You leave yourself open to all sorts of unsavoury things happening in those toilets.

"We had the same problem in my ward [Frome Vale] and we had to close them and pull them down in the end. You get cottaging in them.

"I have no objection to anybody doing whatever they want to do, in private. But sex in a toilet is not the [right] place, where young children or anybody could walk in on them.”

Labour Cllr Fabian Breckels said that each toilet cubicle would have a door and a lock, so “once it’s locked nobody else can get in”.

Green Cllr Ani Stafford-Townsend said cottaging was a “harmful stereotype” which “shouldn’t be promoted in this chamber”. But Cllr Alexander refused to withdraw or apologise for her comment.

Cllr Breckels added: “The cafe will help fund the toilets. These days with less and less government money coming in to fund things like public toilets, other ways are going to have to be found to fund public toilets.

"We already have cafes and a water tower within the same conservation area. It’s the way things are going to have to be going forward. I can’t see councils being able to drop toilets in without any other supporting facilities to help cover it.”

Other concerns included the loss of biodiversity from building on the Downs. A separate, offsite area will see new flowers planted to offset any loss, although this could take several years to happen.

An education board will also be set up in the new building to educate people about the importance of biodiversity. But not all councillors supported the scheme.

Green Cllr Lorraine Francis said: “We’re talking about the Downs committee commercialising and making profit from erecting a cafe on a protected green space. They want to increase the footprint of the building and I think it’s outrageous.

“If the Downs committee wants to rebuild the toilets, then rebuild the toilets. We cannot ignore the value of biodiversity and maintaining habitats which have been in existence way before us or should continue way after we’ve gone.”

Councillors voted five to three to grant planning permission. Those voting in favour were Guy Poultney, Marley Bennett, Katja Hornchen, Fabian Breckels, and Andrew Brown.

Those voting against were Lesley Alexander, Lorraine Francis and Ani Stafford-Townsend. The cafe was previously granted planning permission in 2019, but this expired after three years.

Credit: Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporter