Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Dark Side of the Shops

It would easily top any poll for the title of the ugliest part of Stockwood. The uncared for facade and brutalist concrete stairways along the back of the Hollway Road shops border a potholed, badly drained patch of tarmac that provides a hub for the ward's antisocial activities.
Everyone agrees that something must be done about it - but that's the easy bit. Clearly, the recent (and very welcome) wall-painting doesn't quite do the whole job!
BUT this little patch is prized by shopkeepers and residents alike. It provides an informal and unofficial car park, ideal not just for the shops but as a drop-off for Waycroft Academy, the highly rated primary school a few steps away.
The whole shopping area started as a single property, but ownership is now fragmented, and bits like this rundown back yard find speculative buyers in remote investment markets, “site unseen”.
In 2012, it was in the portfolio of a London investor, who got planning permission to build 4 detached houses within the site, in spite of strong local opposition including the ward councillors and several shopkeepers. [One protesting voice stood out, with a theatrical and emotional personal plea to the planning committee for the survival of his business and livelihood, threatened with extinction by the loss of the essential access he and his customers must have to the back of his shop. The reality was that it had been boarded up for years!]
That planning permission has now lapsed, and a new owner is trying his luck. This time the scheme packs in four semis and no less than five two-bedroomed flats. Full marks for ambition!
Something Must indeed Be Done – and here's a new Something for a planning committee to decide.
Predictably, it's attracting much the same objections as the last one, most of them centred on an alleged loss of parking, and its impact on the economic viability of the shops. The assumption is, clearly, that this local shopping centre, away from the main arterial routes, can't survive unless customers can be guaranteed a parking place within a few steps of the shops, while the parents, from wherever, can drop and pick up their offspring with minimum exposure to the elements.
Stockwood Pete did a couple of spot checks (pre-11am and post-4pm) on a wet Monday in August. On both visits, there were plenty of public parking spots outside this 'private' space, though some might require a fifty yard walk to the furthest shop. 
There's also on-road parking in front of the shops, and that really is in high demand (your reporter was bawled at by one of three drivers who moved off from double-yellow lines as soon as they saw his camera). Available shoppers parking was reduced, too, by the 17 cars that had taken day-long occupation of key spots close to the shops. Shop staff, maybe? Or commuters, avoiding the problems of driving and parking in the city? I think we should be told.
The site won't be everyone's idea of a dream home, or even of a starter home – backing on to the shops loading area isn't a strong selling point - but marketing it is a problem for developers, not planners.
It's true that there would be some losses if building goes ahead here. 
  • The shops will lose some ease of access to their rear doors (it will become gated, and narrower, and will need careful management).
  • There will be a net loss of parking if these 'unofficial' spots are lost to housing (though it could be recovered if those spots fronting the shops were to be time-limited instead of being lost to permanent occupation.)
Weighed against those losses are:
  • nine new units of housing at a time of housing shortage, using a brownfield site very well served by local amenities and close by a good school.
  • An area far less likely to attract antisocial behaviour (better oversight and better defended access to the back of most shops)
  • Improvement and screening for Stockwood's biggest eyesore.
For Stockwood Pete, the scales tip heavily toward granting permission.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Now Showing on Stockwood Open Space

The Open Space has - at last - got a couple of Interpretation Boards installed, one at the Whittock Road end and one at the main Stockwood Road entrance. They should encourage people to take a closer look at  what this wonderful but little known reserve has to offer.

Now's a good time to start, after the warm spell has seen the early flowers burst into life...

Cowslip - this one making a first appearance in the glade behind Whittock Square

Blackthorn (sloe) at the 'back door' entrance to the reserve, at Ilsyn Grove

detail of blackthorn blossom
Bluebells and celandine in the Ilsyngrove woodland
Primroses in the woodland edge of the orchid meadow
Snakes Head Fritillary, orchid meadow

Bullace blossom in the orchard edge

Dog Violets, Ilsyngrove woodland
Viola Alba, now carpeting the orchard floor since we cleared the brambles a few years back (thanks, DR, for keeping up the good work)

Wood Anenome at the foot of Ilsyngrove woodland
and finally something completely different - new arrivals that appeared in the cart-washing pond.  At least until the herons find them!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Stockwood hits the headlines – for better or worse

Strange that this Bristol backwater should suddenly attract media mentions across the British Isles. Stranger still that it should happen twice in successive months.
Both stories have what the press loves – the chance to write a story that will produce a titter or a snigger among the readers.
In March, it was the BioBus, usually described as the Poo Bus. I'm sure it's no accident that First introduced it on the Number Two route, gifting an easy line to the journalists and guaranteeing media attention. Apparently the bio-methane fuelled bus is a first for the UK, though the technology is well established.

Long before moving to Bristol over a decade ago, I organised a Green Party trip to see Wessex Water's plant at Avonmouth. What made it special was that while other water companies were still pumping sewage into the sea, or taking it out in barges to be dumped, Wessex already had the foresight to treat it onshore. The biogas provided a renewable fuel, used primarily to generate electricity, while the dried granular byproduct could be used to enrich or remediate soil. It's that biogas that's now being used as a (relatively) clean renewable fuel to carry passengers from Stockwood to Cribbs Causeway (if they have the staying power, and nothing better to do!) and all points in between.
So it's a good news story.... well done First, well done Geneco and Wessex.
This month's Stockwood story has a very much darker side. I don't know how the media got hold of it, though I have my suspicions. In the coming local elections, UKIP's candidate to succeed Jay Jethwa as one of Stockwood's two ward councillors apparently has a 'professional' life as Johnny Rockard (snigger) a maker, promoter, and actor in pornographic videos. Google his name if you must - I did, but a click or two more was enough before I abandoned the enquiry!
Cue lots of press and broadcasting media attention for the candidate, who's the vice-chair of the local party. Cue righteous indignation from UKIP and its supporters, complaining of being picked on by the media. My guess is that all the attention was inevitable, no matter what colour rosette the candidate was wearing.
Apart from the press enjoying the chance to describe in detail the 'plot' of one such video, and a huge burst in public awareness of UKIP's man in Stockwood, just before an election, the story is a bit of a non-event. It won't bring about a multi-million local tourism boom. Most people accept that for better or worse, the sex trade exists and people do work in it and they do meet a demand.
But despite of UKIP's defence of its candidate, making and selling porn is not like more legitimate businesses. It's a very dark sector of the economy, strongly associated with exploitation, with people trafficking, with drugs, violence and even modern slavery. Perhaps the media should have used this story to raise these much more serious aspects of the industry, instead of just treating it as a bit of a joke.  [added 14/04/15] Looks like 'Object' are presenting them with the evidence now.
Meanwhile, for balance, here's a list of the other candidates aspiring join David Morris as Stockwood's councillor for the coming year, until the first 'whole council' election in 2016. Sadly, like the UKIP man, none of them actually live in the ward.
Phil Bishop – Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Ian Campion-Smith – LibDem
David McLeod – Labour
Graham Morris – Tory (David's son, I understand. Part of the Tory's inheritance strategy?)
Ellie Vowles – Green. Best of luck, Ellie!

Friday, 3 April 2015

A Mail Mystery

We've all seen a marked deterioration in the postal service.  Higher charges, less collections, less deliveries, less staff to do the job.  I think it's called 'efficiency savings'.

Today, among the junk mail on our doormat, was this envelope:

Inside it was a letter we'd posted to London on 1st February

By March 3, it appears to have reached Belfast, where the guardians of the nation's postcodes decided that there was 'no such address'.  So they took a look inside, and sent it on its way back to us in Bristol, a journey of another month.  And we're no further forward.

I can just about understand that the postcode N1 9DY could be interpreted by some 'efficient' sorting machine as being somewhere in Northern Ireland - possibly Londonderry?    But somewhere, at some point, there must have been some of the Mail's remaining human hands making a judgement on the addressing.   And getting it all abysmally wrong.   Maybe it's a reflection of the sinking morale among the staff, maybe it's just that they have absurd targets to meet, 'lost' letters to process?  Even so, such a consistently inept two months of mismanaging the mail (it's not as if the letter had got lost) stretches credulity to the limit.

A conspiracy theorist might even believe there was more to it; a letter addressed to a radical bookshop might have less chance of getting delivered intact than your average birthday card.   But that would be silly, of course.

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!