Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Fracking: testing the grounds

On Wednesday, while a packed hall at the Wills Memorial Building was in thrall to a powerful talk from George Monbiot, down the road at St Mary Redcliffe another audience was learning about just one of many threats to the climate.  Fracking for shale gas.

Prof Peter Simpson of Imperial College promised an unbiased, fact-based appraisal of the scientific, environmental and economic factors in the Great Fracking Debate. 

Much of his evidence was based on the useful, if arguably limited “Shale Gas Extraction in the UK” published in 2012 by the Royal Academy of Engineering.  Limited because it looks primarily at the engineering risks of fracking, not the wider issues.

The talk offered plenty of insights that the industry, and its supporters in Downing Street and the DECC, wouldn't want to highlight.  It's not going to provide cheaper energy.  It's nothing like the US situation, where fracking has boomed because of vast reserves, a market that pays landowners for fracking rights, and a geology that provides much greater depths of rock between clean water and the shale than is the case in the UK.   Even so, there's plenty of evidence from the USA that fracking is bringing many local problems, and there (as here) its development may be as much to do with geopolitical dominance as with securing essential energy.

Put in persective, the UK gas resource is miniscule as part of global reserves – by far the biggest are in China, followed by the USA. 

It turns out, too, that if it is exploited, only around 3% of the shale gas will be put to use.  The rest will stay in situ as the extraction pressure drops, or else over the years seep out to the surface, perhaps via the water supply.

That seepage, and a host of other 'legacy' impacts, would of necessity become the responsibility of a new publicly funded quango, much as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has the impossible task of dealing with radioactive waste for centuries to come.

For Stockwood Pete, whose default position is to challenge anything that might increase fossil fuel burning and consequent climate change, the talk tended to confirm that position.  But it didn't get round to addressing the big claims made for fracking in the UK – that by displacing coal fuel, it will reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, and that it will improve our energy security.  OK, in an hour and a half that would have been too much to ask!

Here's a coal train, heading out this week from Temple Meads en route from Portbury Dock to EoN's Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Leicestershire.  The coal might have come from Colombia or from Australia, Russia or the USA, but it's just one of hundreds of trains from Britain's ports constantly feeding the huge Midlands power stations – allegedly to keep the lights on.  (Sorry, that's a stock political soundbite term, like 'hard working families').
Will fracking actually reduce carbon emissions?

Not in my book.  Or at least, only if internationally there's some kind of agreement to cap global fossil fuel emissions.  It's inconceivable that without such a deal, rigorously applied, the coal will just find its way into some other market, and finish up just the same spread through the planet's atmosphere.

At the end of the British Science Association's event at St Mary Redcliffe, someone pointed out that the choice of energy sources won't depend on any rational assessment of safety, emissions, or price; it will be a matter of political horse-trading, ideology, and influence.   Our votes on May 7 just might help with that.

Much more about the background and the local impacts on the excellent Frack Free Somerset pages

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Neighbourhood Partnerships in partnership

A good day at Circomedia looking at ways to make Neighbourhood Partnerships work better.  Plenty of NP members and councillors there - Labour Green and Tory.  For the Stockwood/Hengrove partnership, there were two of us Stockwood residents, but no sign of any of these wards' councillors.  Pity.

Clearly some Partnerships are already very proactive and forward-looking, and it's intended to expand the role of NPs later this year (a cynic might think we can do little more at present than decide which road repairs won't get done - and get the blame for it!)  So there's hope even for NPs like ours that rarely - if ever - stretch beyond the bread-and-butter workload prescribed by officers.

To work, though, it's got to attract a wider range of residents, not just the narrow demographic broken down by age and sex that we saw today and we see at NP meetings.  And can it break free from the local authority stranglehold by a bit of 'arms-length' creativity, or with urban parish councils?   Though even with that independence, a top-down austerity agenda will emasculate them from the start.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Rus in Urbe

Wedged between the consumer palace of the Brislington's giant Tesco Extra store and the non-stop traffic along Callington road, there's a short quiet stretch of Brislington Brook and a brookside path.
The kingfisher has been a regular patroller recently – though it's very camera shy!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Bridging the Gap ? Not 'ere, mate!

The scene when Stockwood Pete left the Temple Gate consultation for a peak time journey home. The 3 mile trip took an hour, most of it spent here. The new proposals would do next to nothing to relieve the discomfort and delay of this and similar journeys.
'Bridging the Gap' looks like being a strapline for Bristol's year as European Green Capital. Not as a daring highwire act, but as a serious attempt to bridge the gap between our green rhetoric and what we actually do to green the city and the world around us. Because we have to.  And because it will make Bristol a better place to be.
At Temple Gate, the talk has always been about seamless interchange (add similar phrases of your choice) as well as the wider city ambitions to become a low carbon, healthy, pacesetter among the Core Cities.
Do the current proposals for Temple Gate bridge that gap? No chance..
If (a very big if) the plans now out for consultation do allow traffic to flow more smoothly, then that will help a bit. There's not much to suggest that will happen, though. We're told merely that 'The reconfiguration of the road will ensure the existing capacity is maintained'. That doesn't really sound like a step forward, and doesn't take into account whatever extra traffic is generated by the Enterprise Zone developments and the major modernisation of Temple Meads railway station to accommodate ever-rising passenger numbers.
By the same token, the conflicts between walkers, bikes, and traffic mostly remain... a double whammy because it not only discourages the first two groups, it causes delays and traffic build-up.
A huge problem for the city's planners is that they simply don't know what's going to be built on the various Enterprise Zone sites. The Arena and the new Friary-side station entrance seem assured, but the rest are just a gleam in the eyes of the LEP and speculative developers. How can anyone design a road traffic system to serve that?
The obvious answer would be to wait and see. Even the suggested improvements to a short section of the Brunel Mile, taking centre stage in the Temple Gate literature, can't form part of a coherent whole until the big decisions are taken about Plot 6. For the rest of it, the newly straightened Temple Gate – Temple Way alignment would provide no opportunities for better public transport access to the immediate station/interchange area – wherever it might be. Even the spanking new Metrobus gets no nearer than 300m to the station – and that's a single route in a single direction.
To 'Bridge the Gap' would be to provide that interchange. It's essential to absorb all the new travel demands of the TQEZ and the rising passenger numbers at the station. And it's got to be good – very good - if it's to persuade significant numbers to forsake the car.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Temple Meads - Now and When?

A rare glimpse into the opaque planning process for the derelict sites around Temple Meads station is promised from Tuesday 13th, when we'll be invited to “help shape our proposals for Temple Gate”. There'll be an exhibition of the latest plans at the Engine Shed (the original GWR offices) on weekdays till the end of the month, with actual planners present between 4 and 8pm on the 13th and the 21st.  The consultation website is at

If they've kept to the letter and spirit of the Temple Quarter design brief, published a couple of years ago, the proposals will contribute to

which sounds like common-sense if seriously unambitious (where's the connectivity with the rest of Bristol, where's the expectation of quality?  "21st Century" isn't enough)
Before we get to a glimpse of this promised land on Tuesday, lets look at where we are – at least with the rail/bus links.
Temple Meads is a lovely station – but it provides next to nothing for people on the town side of the ticket barriers. No seats. No toilets. No cash machine. During the working day there's a WH Smith's, plus basic refreshments and flowers outside by the taxi ranks. There's been an attempt to provide more public transport information as well – a real-time display and more for buses leaving stops around the station, and volunteer meet-and-greeters for the bewildered.

There are bus timetables to take away – but the only bus map of the city comes courtesy of First, and only shows their services (I got the last one, anyway!) Even the Elf-Kingdom to our southwest publishes a bus map – but the European Green Capital no longer seems interested.
For those travelling on from Temple Meads by bus, the most fortunate are those heading for the airport, or for the 8 and 9 services to the city centre and Clifton.
They get the benefit of the station canopy while they wait.
No such luck for UWE students and staff, and others headed up the Gloucester Road. For them – if they can find it - there's an unmarked, un-timetabled, unsheltered stop half way up the ramp.

For buses into the south-eastern suburbs and beyond, there are stops along Temple Gate at the foot of the ramp; small shelters that may be the only option for the busy narrow pavements they stand on, but totally inadequate for the passenger numbers they attract, and under extra pressure from pave-cyclists escaping the considerable risks of riding the main highway .

Those arriving from the same places, or boarding the 1 or the 2 towards the north-west of the city, must cross Temple Gate, adding as much as 2 minutes to the journey time, or much more if it leads to a missed train or bus.

 (Those 2 minutes might not seem much, but similar time savings are used to justify many £millions of investment in grandiose flagship transport schemes!)

No real-time displays on any of these stops, by the way
Passengers suffering these minor, but wholly unnecessary inconveniences are actually the lucky ones. Those whose journeys will take them to other parts of the city – huge swathes of the south, southwest, east and northeastern urban areas must add an extra leg, and an extra wait, to complete their journey.  Or jump in a taxi, of course.

WasteLand of Opportunity.... the undeveloped brownfield sites around the station.

Even before electrification and MetroWest, passenger numbers at Temple Meads have been rising.  With the present shambolic interchange between rail and bus there'll certainly be a shift in the modal split away from rail/bus toward rail/car or rail/taxi - exactly what we can't afford to happen.  So radical change is a must - and it's got to involve those wonderful windfall sites around the station.  The Temple Gate proposals must take them into account.

First among them is Plot 6, of course.  That's the strip between the station and the Friary, where Network Rail have talked of putting the new station entrance.  Although the DigbyWyatt Shed (the redbrick part of the station currently used to park cars) will be provide a home for the London electric expresses, and so won't be available as a common concourse for all passengers, it must be possible to find similar space in the new entrance for the amenities that waiting passengers want.  Plot 6 offers easy access to southbound buses from Temple Gate, and could be engineered to allow northbound buses to enter and leave while the pedestrian crossing is in use, keeping flow interruption to a minimum.
Next, the area around the Bristol and Exeter building at the front of the station.   Again, a great opportunity to get the buses off Temple Gate while their drivers are busy taking fares and issuing tickets to boarding passengers (what a crazy way to do things!).   Already First seem to be using this 'mixed use development' as an ad hoc bus park.   An advantage could be easy access into the station at the road level, and through to a planned eastern exit on Cattle Market Road (for the Arena, more new developments, and traffic-free routes to Brislington and beyond).   Difficulties might be in providing a route into the site to and from the northbound lanes of Temple Gate.  
Finally, that long-derelict eyesore the Royal Mail building on Cattle Market Road.  Probably not a place to redirect buses - but potentially a hub for pedestrians, bikes, and - yes - cars!  With the Arena over the bridge, dependent in its financing plan on parking revenues, that's become a sad reality - and of course there'll always be a need for some station car parking.  Whatever happens on the other two sites, this one needs to complement them.   Reported plans by the present owners Kian Gwan to use the existing structure for multiple uses, and to relieve the isolation of the site with a riverside boardwalk link towards the town actually look very promising, especially if Network Rail and the Arena planners manage to provide direct access to and through the station (those who are familiar with Cardiff Central will recognise the similarities)
The conclusion is that all these sites are interdependent, and all relate to Bristol's transport infrastructure.  Mess one up, you mess the lot up.   On Tuesday, when we get to see what's being lined up for Temple Gate, the big test will be how it relates to improving public transport, and whether it shuts down options for the other sites.
This picture is the flyer for the Temple Gate consultation :
Apart from the much heralded two-way carriageway, some scaffolding removed and an opportunistic spot of infilling, it looks much as it does today.   Lets hope Tuesday reveals something much more radical

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Railways Bill

[See update (added Jan 9) at end]

Come January 9th, the Railways Bill is scheduled for its Second Reading in Parliament. Bristol's MPs should be well-placed to support it – but will they?
The Bill, introduced by the Greens' Caroline Lucas with formal support from a number of Labour and Plaid Cymru MPs, has been hyped as renationalising the railways.
It doesn't do that though. This Bill is more modest and very much cheaper. It sets out to bring the passenger train operating franchises, the ones currently held by Virgin, Stagecoach, First, and a fistful of foreign owned companies, back into public control.
picture from
Instead of buying these companies out, it waits for the end of each contract, then awards the new operating contract to a publicly owned company – thus turning the trains back into a public service instead of the cash cow they've been for the private operators.
Test bed - East Coast Main Line
Of course, cash cows don't always cough up, and when franchisee National Express East Coast found that they couldn't fulfil their contract and show a profit, they walked away (very cheaply!) from their expensively negotiated franchise. To keep the trains running, a public company East Coast Main Line was created to fill the breach. They filled it very successfully from 2009 to date, increasing passenger numbers and revenue, and cutting the net subsidy to a mere 1% (the industry average is 32%, and a lot of that leaves the country!)
Even so, the current government has insisted on returning the route to the private sector.
Public Opinion
Very positive. A YouGov survey shows overall backing of three-to-one; even Tory voters were evenly divided. It's not unreasonable to think that Bristolians' opinions won't be much different.
Party policies.
MPs in this parliament aren't as enthusiastic as the general public, according to a recent Ipsos-MORI survey – as you'd expect given the make-up of the House. But in practice, few parties have a clear-cut policy - just Conservatives who are ideologically against, while Greens are strongly committed in favour. 
SNP have made positive noises, but where would that leave their funding from Brian Souter of Stagecoach? LibDem conference agreed that public bodies could enter the franchise bidding against the private sector – though, as Christian Wolmar points out, the franchise bidding system is hugely expensive and wasteful. Labour, while famously once espousing the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, now seems frightened of any formal endorsement of even having anyone but the private sector run the country's train services. That's in contrast with Labour's position in the Welsh Assembly, where they're looking at setting up a non-profit arms length company to run the Wales and Borders services, when the franchise enjoyed by Arriva (Deutsche Bahn) ends in 2018. That's a proposal backed by Plaid Cymru in the Wesh Assembly, but dismissed by the Welsh Tories as 'Marxist'!
As for UKIP, who knows?  Maybe, if he still reads this blog, Mike Frost could tell us?

On January 9th, the Railways Bill could be killed stone dead, or it could trigger a sea change in which passenger train services can run primarily for the benefit of the public. That depends on which MPs can find the time to be there to vote, and how they balance the pressures from their party whips, their constituents, and their consciences. We'll see.

[Added Jan 9:]   There was no time for the second reading today in the House of Commons, so it's been put back to February 27.   Meanwhile, not much enlightenment from local MPs about their voting intention.  Just Kerry McCarthy, who seems to be saying NO - she wants to keep the franchise bidding market going, but to allow a publicly owned company to join the bidders.   No word from Stephen Williams, while Dawn Primorolo still pretends her deputy speaker's role demands that she express no opinion on anything parliamentary!

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Rendles of Bedminster

Until a couple of weeks ago, Stockwood Pete had never heard of Thomas Rendle VC, whose bravery a hundred years ago was being honoured at a ceremony in St John's churchyard, Bedminster.

But I had heard of his younger cousin Ellen who lived just two doors further down Victoria Place.   I actually met her once – and later married her grandaughter.   So reading the family name in the 'Post' reports gave us both special reason to find out more.

While Thomas and Ellen were Bristol-born, his father, her mother, and their five siblings had all been born in mid-Devon, and brought to Bedminster by their mother when she was prematurely widowed.  Other Rendles had already made the move, part of the mass escape from the market failures and grinding rural poverty of Victorian England that forced so many to migrate into the growing industrial cities.

Thomas's career, through reform school at Kingswood (where he learned his musicianship) to the army, through South Africa where he met his wife, and on into the horror of the First World War will be well documented elsewhere (though I'll add some links at the foot of this piece).   Here I'll stick to a couple of side-stories that have been turned up in the course of the research, and offer an insight into Bristol around the end of the Victorian era.

Wiliam Rendle

William Rendle would, had he survived childhood, have been Thomas's uncle.  Instead he was, literally, cut down at the age of ten.

His widowed mother had remarried in Bedminster when William was just seven.  Her new husband was Richard Davis, blind from birth, who eked out a living on the streets playing a harmonium – a sort of reed organ.   William was in the habit of being Richard's eyes, helping him – and the harmonium – around the city.

In the darkness of an early evening in January 1882, the two of them were making their way down Captain Carey's Lane, off Old Market Street.   You won't find it now, as it's become part of the Temple Way underpass, but it shows up very clearly on the excellent “Know Your Place” website.  Captain Carey's Lane was narrow, but it was much used by the carters who shifted goods to and from the railway goods yard on Midland Road.

That evening, as the harmonium was being trundled down the lane, William leading and Richard behind, two horse-drawn carts were making their way in the opposite direction. There should have been room enough to pass – but the impatient driver of the second cart attempted to overtake.

It was never clear whether he had control of his horses, or heard William's warning shouts, or even saw the child.   The cart hit the harmonium, crushing William against the wall. 

The boy was carried into a neighbouring warehouse and from there to the Infirmary, but he died within minutes of arriving.   The distraught driver of the cart briefly disappeared from the scene.

At the inquest, the evidence emerged that many of the rules of cartage were rarely observed, and that the driver had been all too aware of what he'd done, though he claimed to know nothing about it till later.

A verdict of accidental death was returned.  Several of the jury remarked that at present the street was very dangerous as a thoroughfare.    Just another death in Victorian Bristol.

Education, Education, Migration

Life was indeed hard for the children of the poor.   Thomas Edward Rendle VC, living in Bedminster with three younger sisters and two brothers, had lost his mother in 1898 when he was just 14.

Not long afterwards he was ordered to be detained at the Kingswood Reformatory.  Over a century later, S.Glos council is, for some reason, reluctant to release the school records for inspection at the Bristol Record Office, so it's not clear why he was sent there.   One thing's for sure; the motherless family was pretty chaotic and its members would have to live on their wits.

His younger sister Lottie was likewise sent to a reformatory school, in distant Exeter.  Later she returned to Bristol and married an Exeter man at St Mary Redcliffe in 1908, going on to live back in Exeter and later to emigrate to Canada.

A younger sister, Elizabeth, was brought before the courts in 1899.  The record shows that her offence was to be 'found wandering', and the court, in its wisdom, ordered that she be detained for four years at the Carlton House Industrial School for Girls, on St Michaels Hill.

Another sister, Maud, was sent to live with her married aunt's family in Coventry, but in 1904 was sent (along with the two younger brothers) to Canada by the Bristol Emigration Society to a very uncertain future.

All six children, then, were  'rescued' by the social reforms that were all too slowly supplanting the workhouse.   The powers of those rescuers, who seemed to have little or no accountability, over the children now seem unbelievable;  but they continued for a long time afterwards; even now charities like Fairbridge and Barnados are having to live with the shame of exporting children to the colonies as indentured labour, while knowingly hiding from them the fact they still had parents in Britain.  

I wonder if that's what happened to the younger Rendles.

Bristol Record Office for the news reports of William Rendle's death, and the Carlton House school registers – and help in using the archive.
Bristol Libraries for free access to Ancestry records.   FindmyPast (subscription) for censuses, news searches, and online reprints
General Booth of the Salvation Army for the pictures above – they're details from the frontispiece of his 'Darkest England and the Way Out', published in 1890.
No thanks to South Glos council, who've still not even acknowledged a request for access to the Kingswood Reformatory archive.  Why?

More on Thomas Rendle VC:  try
Great War VCs – a comprehensive description and CV, plus the pictures to go with it
Excerpt from Victoria Crosses on the Western Front – including more about Thomas's siblings.