Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Green Spaces - the sham debate

Bristol's LibDem councillors have gone one step further than their Westminster counterparts. Not only do they do hypocrisy, but they can do NIMBYism simultaneously.

The Great Green Spaces Debate on Tuesday was their demonstration platform. We were told that there was no whip in force, this was a free vote for the LibDem councillors. Several of them represent wards with a lot to lose through the policy of green space sell-off - so they dutifully tell their constituents that they'll oppose sales in their own wards, and then vote for the rest of Bristol to bear the cost. It would be hard to find a more NIMBY position than that.

It was the 100% support of these councillors in 'un-whipped' votes that won the day for the LibDem administration. No doubt it will, in turn, be used to justify the sale of green open spaces (although, for some reason, no-one mentioned that for every £1 raised in land sales, only 70p will go back into the parks anyway).

True, the original Tory motion wasn't up to much, as it threw out the baby with the bathwater; all the good work that had gone into the Area Green Space Plans would be scrapped under their proposals, not just the land sales. Both Greens and Labour had suggested improvements, that would allow the best of the plans to be retained; and the Tories took that on board.

The debate itself quickly degenerated into a routine shambles of tribal point-scoring. Jay Jethwa, seconding the Tory motion, set the tone with an attack on Executive member Gary Hopkins. She must know after nearly four years that no-one wins Gary's heart or mind with that approach, he just digs in deeper and responds in kind. Clearly, Jay's priority was to impress her constituents, not the decision-makers.

What a waste! There was an option that just might have worked - we'd included it in the Friends of Stockwood Open Spaces response to the Green Space Plans, and the Greens invited the Tories to take it up. It was a key passage in the Parks & Green Spaces Strategy that said "should there be insufficient 'low value' marginal land available....  the council will review the ambitions of the strategy and consider alternative funding sources." Reference to that might (and still could) provide the face-saving formula that would allow the LibDem Executive to quietly drop the unpopular and unsustainable drive to sacrifice the city's open spaces.

Llandudno Junction, 0620hrs, November

I'll try to forget the carbon footprint of this one - it was just too good an opportunity to miss. Arriva Trains Wales 'Premier Service' offers its first-class passengers the full monty... a complimentary three course dinner on the northbound Cardiff to Holyhead journey, and a full breakfast on the way back.

And thanks to an unintendedly generous special offer, the whole trip, from Bristol, was there for the taking at £32. The bike went free, and made it possible to reach a good accessible Youth Hostel - Conwy - for a couple of nights, with a bike ride round waterfalls, woods and castles in autumnal sunshine in between.

Young when it suits, old when it suits. Can't be bad. And if I wasn't there, I'd have felt obliged to go to the council meeting - so it was a double benefit!

(Penance done - I've watched the webcast debate)

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Kerry and the Bill-killers

Kerry McCarthy MP is rightly aggrieved. Arcane parliamentary procedures allowed neighbouring MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to recite poetry as part of a government strategy to 'talk out' the second reading of the Sustainable Livestock Bill yesterday.

Yet again, a Friday afternoon "Private Members Bill" that made a great deal of sense and had very strong support, was lost not though argument, not through a vote, but through the abuse of Parliamentary procedure. And it's become a habit. No wonder Kerry tweets that
"We've got to sort out these Friday procedures".

Pity she wasn't so keen when her party was in power, and, as a junior whip, she was only too ready to use those same procedures to block Bills that, for its own reasons, the government didn't want discussed.

Bills like Lord Morris's Haemophiliacs Bill, to compensate victims of "the worst medical treatment disaster in the history of the NHS" the contamination of haemophiliacs with HIV/HCV through plasma imported from US prisons. That one was killed stone dead by Kerry's call of 'Object!' one Friday back in February.

There have been innumerable popular Bills killed off the same way. I know, I've often been part of the lobbying to persuade MPs to try to get them taken up in the first place.

Caroline Lucas MP was, like Kerry, appalled at the way yesterday's Bill was stopped. Unlike Kerry, Caroline hasn't got a history of killing Bills herself, or of using arcane procedures to avoid debate - the legislative equivalent of using legal loopholes to avoid paying tax. As she told this autumn's Green Party conference:

" I remain conscious of how strange, even alien, Parliament is.

It isn't just the odd language, the arcane procedures and strange costumes.

It's an institution designed for, and run by, an elite, who simply don't want to let the people have a real say in decisions. "

Kerry and the rest really need to get their act together if they really mean to challenge this shameful side of 'the mother of parliaments'.

But will it happen?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

New Kids on the Blog

Two new additions to my blogroll (right)

Save Stockwood's Green Sites is one I run for Friends of Stockwood Open Spaces. It's on the roll to alert locals to new posts - but I want to spread the word further - and asap - about the most recent post, backing an all-Bristol call to prevent the sale of the city's green spaces to fund the Parks Strategy. Key date is the council meeting next Tuesday, so please take a look and spread the word.

Those on Facebook (me, I avoid it!) can help it go viral with this link

The other link is to Stockwood's Other Blogger - the LibDem candidate, Michael Goulding. Michael's blog is, he assures me, entirely his own work, though he has been advised not to link back here to Stockwood Pete, which he regards as a front for the Green Party! (it isn't of course. Well, not always.) Anyway, the blogroll link will alert me to whatever he has to say without me having to visit to check.

What a pity our two Tory councillors still don't have a presence on the web, or even take the trouble to comment on these pages.

The Big Shift

Meanwhile, back on the ground....

Here's a nice contrast with the Zaragoza junket (previous post), with its focus on the abstractions of brands and image as the key to a golden future.

It's about the real world, and it's much cheaper and easier to get to, too. (Council House, Sunday 28th, 9.30 till 5, £14/£8)

I wonder if Barbara Janke or our Director of Place-Making will find the time to go....

Monday, 8 November 2010

Bristol goes to Zaragoza

This search on the city council's website really was for 'eurocities' and not, as they feared, 'atrocities'. I'll save that one for another day....

It did find a few references, too - but none of them were about the trip that Leader Barbara Janke has just taken to the four-day Eurocities Conference at Zaragoza. That doesn't seem to be on record anywhere.

Barbara's big Zaragoza opportunity was to join a panel discussion where she could share with fellow leaders "the process of developing Bristol's identity, and the consequences of building an internationally recognized city brand". That may be why she took our newly appointed Director of Place Making along with her.

I see that one Steve Woods has been wondering about the value of trips like this (perhaps remembering how they jetted off to Copenhagen for the Climate Change conference, and came back to twitter about an innovative bicycle wheel that we knew about anyway). Steve wants to know if anyone else went to Spain and what it all cost us, so he's put in an FoI request.

He misses the big questions, though. After the Conference closed on Friday, there was still 24 hours entertainment available for anyone not rushing back home. So did Bristol's finest hang back for the guided Zaragoza bus tour? Or the dramatised tour? Or the tapas tour? Or the Saturday morning Chocotour ("Let yourself be sweetened and discover Zaragoza’s chocolate tradition in some of the city’s most well known chocolate caf├ęs").

I think we should be told...

Friday, 5 November 2010

An Apple for the Banker

Thanks to a team from Barclays Bank, we made a terrific start on opening up the abandoned orchard on Stockwood Open Space earlier this week.

Residents, the council (even a councillor!), and the Wildlife Trust played a part too, so you could - if you wanted to make political capital - call it 'Big Society' in action. Except that it wasn't a case of a 'partnership' taking over council duties, it was something that wouldn't have been done otherwise, and it wasn't so much an exercise in self-flagellation (until you look at the bramble scratches!) as it was pleasure.

Now we've got a part-cleared orchard, loads of unidentified fruit trees, and a winter window to finish getting it all into shape before the breeding season starts up again. We'll need all the help we can get.

More on the Friends of Stockwood Open Spaces web site. (And all welcome at the AGM on Monday, 8th November, at the Free Church, 7.30pm)

Why Smart Cards aren't so smart for First Bus

[Over on 'Turning Bristol Red', Darren Lewis takes a well justified pop at the problems of travelling by bus in Bristol. Here's a bit more, to explore how First Bus's corporate priorities actually prevent progress.]

On the face of it, 'smart' oyster-style tickets have a lot to offer bus operators. They free up drivers from the fare collecting duty, save costly, non-profitable time at bus stops, make the service faster and more attractive to passengers. All good for business, good for profits. But instead of going for it, FirstBus are keeping well away from Bristol's efforts to introduce smart travel cards.

Could it be to protect their monopoly?

In Bristol, it was the First group that held the dominant position after the post-deregulation bus wars, and they've protected that monopoly ever since.

Near-monopoly, of course, brings economies of size and (in theory) greater efficiency. That was one of the great assets of publicly owned transport networks; full access to the more profitable routes allowed cross-subsidy for the less economic routes. First, though, don't have to do that - they can (and do) abandon unprofitable routes at will, leaving local councils with the obligation to provide a subsidy to keep those buses running.

FirstBus has two more vital trade advantages that help maintain their monopoly, and thus their profits, while removing the need to actually improve services.

One (believe it or not) is customer loyalty! There's persuasive anecdotal evidence of customers waiting for First's more familiar and long-established buses, with a history on that route, rather than use one of the upstarts like U-Link or ABus, notwithstanding the time and fare advantages they might offer.

The second, crucially, is their First Day ticket; £4 each and travel anywhere in Bristol for the day - so long as it's on their buses. Take the family (off peak) and it's a mere £7.50. But of course, if you want to do one leg of the trip on someone else' bus, you'll have to pay that fare on top.

No other operator in Bristol can compete with that offer - and First know it.

In London, the Oyster card seems to set the standard for smart cards on local public transport. It does what a First Day ticket doesn't do - it takes you on London buses, tubes, trams, and even on heavy rail. Who runs the service doesn't matter. If, at the end of the day, you've 'spent' more in fares than a daily cap (if you'd used a Travelcard instead), you pay the lesser fare.

In Bristol, such a scheme would threaten First's monopoly, because they could no longer rely on selling cheaper 'First-only' tickets that keep passengers from using rival services.

First Bus get deeply involved in forward planning for such things as bendy bus routes, where they think there's something in it for them. But they're nowhere to be seen when smart cards are mentioned. So what progress has Bristol managed without the active support of its main bus operator? As you might expect, very little.

Any good scheme has to be ITSO compliant, ITSO being the national standard for smart travel cards. Apart from a 'back-office system' that's being set up to manage it, there's little progress in Bristol to turn it into reality. Instead of helping push it forward, First are looking the other way.

Meanwhile a couple of minor (but more progressive) operators - U-Link and Wessex - are trialling a simpler short term substitute, a 'stored value' card that offers quicker boarding and fare reductions, but isn't ITSO compliant. That's all.

In short, First's priorities are self-interest and non-cooperation with anything that might undermine the market distortions that it has cultivated to protect its monopoly. And that stalls progress towards the smart travel card that Bristol desperately needs

[ADDED] There'a an e-petition on the city council web site calling for Oyster-style smart cards for Bristol