Slow progress on efforts to upgrade changing rooms

A plan to refurbish “atrocious” changing rooms on the Downs in Bristol is making slow progress due to a shortage of cash. 

Toilets and changing facilities on the historic parkland are notorious, with football players frequently complaining about cold, faulty showers.

The Downs are run by a committee of Bristol councillors and members of the Society of Merchant Venturers. Questions were put to the Downs committee on Monday, June 12, about when the refurbishment works might finally begin.

David Redgewell, a transport campaigner, said: “If you compare any other public open space in the South West, the National Trust looks after toilets and cafes; and trusts in Cheltenham work with the borough council to look after amenities and facilities in the parks.

“This is an international site, we’ve got the gorge, we’ve got the bridge, and it’s massive for tourism. But it’s also a big facility for residents of Bristol. It’s shameful, the changing rooms are atrocious.”

Previously football players have claimed the poor condition of the changing rooms, with showers that are often cold, have put many off from continuing to take part in the Downs League. A refurbishment plan exists, but it’s unclear who will pay for the much-needed works.

Councillor Kye Dudd, cabinet member for climate, said: “It’s been a long-term aspiration of this committee to redevelop or refurbish the changing rooms. I think for the first time, we’re probably in a very good position to begin to get funding together.

“We’ve already drafted a potential refurbishment plan in terms of what it looks like. The challenge is finding the funding to get that plan delivered. We are making progress, but we’re probably at the start line now. We’ve taken years to get there, but we are at the start line with the changing rooms.”

The Football Association could help with some money for the changing rooms, but won’t be the “anchor funder” and the committee will have to find a large chunk of cash elsewhere. However, the FA could also help pay “several thousand pounds per pitch” per year towards maintaining the 30 football pitches on the Downs.

Patrick Despard, master of the Society of Merchant Venturers, added that a shortage of cash was the main problem. Refurbishing the changing rooms could cost up to £1.5 million.

Mr Despard said: “Finance is the key point here. We all want to improve the facilities, but we’re talking substantial sums, and the rough cost of refurbishing the changing rooms is between £1 million and £1.5 million.”

A similar issue is the “disgusting and awful” condition of the public toilets at the Sea Walls. A long-held plan to replace the toilet block with a new cafe and smaller toilets was thrown out earlier this year, due to a Victorian law protecting the Downs from development. The committee initially wanted to pay for the building by renting out the proposed new cafe.

Cllr Steve Smith said: “As far as the toilets go at the Sea Walls, the ambition here is that they’re disgusting, they’re awful, they’re shameful and they need to be better. We want those to be better but we’re bound by the Downs Act that prevents us from building on the Downs.

“While we all want things to improve, not everybody shares that view and there are people who will challenge us legally — and if we don’t get it right, they’ll succeed. So we have to do it in a way that’s compatible with the law. Unfortunately that makes it extremely complicated when that law is totally unique and 160 years old.”

By Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporting Service