James Edwards, heritage expert at Colliers International, tells David Clensy why Bristol needs to make the New Cut work for the city’s regeneration
IT cuts a swathe through Bristol, championed as a "green corridor" for wildlife, yet it is the most unnatural river course in the city. But with stretches like a miniature Liffey or Seine, and stretches little more than an abandoned backwater, could the New Cut be the most underused and under-appreciated regeneration resource in the city?
That's certainly the opinion of the heritage specialist at one of the city's main real estate companies, Colliers International.
James Edwards has urged authorities in Bristol to consider transforming the New Cut into a vibrant recreation facility for water sports and boating, and into a visual stimulus for regeneration on the banks of the waterway.
Running from Netham Lock to the Underfall Yard, Brunel's great creation was designed as an extended series of weirs and enormous hand-cut channels, aimed at allowing a delicate balance of water levels to be maintained in the great engineer's Floating Harbour.
But James is keen for "simple measures" to be introduced to make the New Cut the centre of a regeneration of the area, stretching from the proposed Temple Meads Enterprise Zone and through the "under-appreciated" Coronation Road and Cumberland Road corridor.
"Thousands of Bristolians drive, jog or walk alongside it every day but this engineering marvel which has determined the city's development for the past two hundred years is in danger of becoming little more than a litter-strewn backwater," James says.
"We must think positively about the New Cut's role as one of the outstanding elements of the city's industrial landscape, whilst also recognising the value it can have in the present day – including as a nature conservation site.
"We have some fantastic developments and opportunities along the course of the New Cut and yet the watercourse itself appears largely ignored, neglected and abused. It could be the centrepiece of Bristol's expanding waterside attraction.
"Bristol City Council has made it clear they believe in enhancing the role of waterways in the city. Hopefully the Bristol Central Area Action Plan presently being drafted will support our case to boost the New Cut."
The waterway was dug by hand at the end of the 19th century to provide an alternative course for the River Avon during the construction of the Floating Harbour. It has declined in prominence while the roads which run along its 3.2 mile length have become the main arteries in the city centre used by thousands of commuters every day.
"I'm realistic about this – I know the cash just isn't there to regenerate it by putting in a barrier so it becomes a non-tidal marina, as was envisioned recently by Business West's Bristol 2050 plan.
"But just think how much nicer the New Cut would look if we had boats using it during the high tide, for sailing and recreation.
"There's no real reason why it can't be utilised as a place for anchoring small boats – they look picturesque down on the tidal estuaries in Devon and Cornwall when the tide is out.
"It's just about providing a visual stimulus, which would make this whole stretch of the city a much more desirable place to live and work.
"Places like Southville, Bedminster and Hotwells could see a resurgence on the back of very little investment.
"The size of the New Cut as an engineering feat must make it an integral part of any future plan for the city centre. The legacy the New Cut has left is immeasurable – Bristol's success could be attributed to the construction of the channel to create the Floating Harbour and the ensuing trade it created.
"Yet over time its role in the city appears to have been degraded and now appears little more than a backwater with overgrown river banks blighted with fly tipping and additional flotsam and jetsam brought in with the tide."
James believes the newly established Enterprise Zone which has been created near Bristol Temple Meads was an ideal spark to rejuvenate the waterway.
"We need to focus upon improving the public areas along its banks to ensure people are encouraged to look to the watercourse as a feature in its own right rather than just looking the other way towards the Floating Harbour. We must look at how we can successfully manage and reintegrate the New Cut back into the heart of the city and be rightly proud of such an asset, which can add so much to the city if it is proactively managed.
"There is no reason why the New Cut cannot serve a multitude of uses such as a wildlife habitat, maritime channel and heritage landscape as well as making a full contribution to a revitalised public realm along this route."
James pinpoints opportunities to enhance the New Cut close to the Feeder Canal adjacent to the now derelict Parcel Force building, Totterdown Lock and the Bathhurst Basin.
"The locks at these points were in-filled to protect the Floating Harbour during the Second World War and to prevent the docks losing all the water in the event of bombing.
"These locks could be re-opened to encourage more maritime activity along the New Cut at high tide, which in its own right creates more visual interest.
"This would also provide an alternative to making the city grind to a halt when a larger ship wants to enter the Floating Harbour at the swing bridge.
"There is great potential running through the length of the New Cut, which could easily be tapped into for the greater advantage of the city."
PUBLICATION: This is Bristol - 3rd March 2012