Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

If you go down to the woods today, enjoy it while you still can....

Dear Kerry,


As the Member for Bristol East, could you consider adding your signature to this Early Day Motion?

I imagine that like me, you're alarmed at the prospect of deep cuts in the budget, and the sale of a substantial part, of the Forestry Commission estate. It is hard to see what possible benefits there could be from a sell-off, apart from the immediate one-off lump sum, to set against multiple threats to long term public enjoyment of the forests, biodiversity, forests as carbon sinks, and jobs.

Jonathon Porritt has blogged about the broad implications in (Forests on the Front Line) as lucidly as ever, with an update that takes a closer look at the Forest of Dean and its MP

At a time when you and I both are urging a rethink on the plans to sell Bristol's own open space assets, perhaps we shouldn't lose sight of the much bigger national picture where the same thing is happening. (There's a seasonal crack here about not seeing the wood for the Christmas trees - but I wouldn't dare use it!)


Pete Goodwin

Friday, 17 December 2010

Babs, Gary, and the Age of Stupid

Barbara Janke was an onlooker at Wednesday's scrutiny commissions meeting where her councillor underlings spent over five hours going over the plans to sell off green spaces, all across the city.

Who knows whether she'd managed to read the 400-page plus documentation, let alone the public statements, but she did hear very clear reports of a flawed consultation, mislaid papers and petitions, expert advice disregarded, Freedom of Information requests unfulfilled, all of it showing that the 'consultation report' is founded on unreliable envidence. Probably the inevitable result of asking a heavily cut-back department to deliver and assess a huge consultation and review of the city's open spaces, way beyond its own resources.

The five hour session was enough to persuade the councillors that a hasty decision to sell the land on such dodgy grounds would be unwise; far better to give it just a bit more time to make sure we get it right. After all, these are final decisions, there's no going back, and there's no rush. So that's what they recommended to the LibDem Cabinet.

The Scrutiny Commissions' appeal was echoed by many others, including even the independent Parks Forum which had until now been 100% behind the sell-off plan (and is being vilified by the Evening Post for it). Add to that the pleas of more councillors, groups like our own Friends of Stockwood Open Spaces and the Neighbourhood Partnership, residents groups and individuals.

To defer a decision on the sales seemed obvious..... Everything to gain, to make sure the eventual decisions are well founded, sustainable, and in keeping with sensible city planning. Anything else would be stupid.

A pity the Cabinet was unanimous in rejecting their advice, and chose the stupid option instead.

Something to do with false pride, the pleasure of exercising power........ or even, possibly, just being stupid?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Aren't Neighbourhood Partnerships brilliant?

We actually achieved a bit of people power at the Neighbourhood Partnership meeting last night.

It was a pretty earnest but uninspiring agenda that delivered all that was required of it - but the interest lay elsewhere.

We threw out the 'Code of Conduct' required of Partnership members, and substituted something called 'ground rules' for the meetings, yet to come, and to be written in plain English. For me (as one of the delegate members), it means I can feel free to blog about the NP without first signing an Official Secrets Act.

We had a Public Forum item, too - which is probably unique in the curent round of NP meetings, because it's been disappeared from their agendas. It drew three statements, and they in turn contributed to our final decision - added as an emergency item in spite of vigorous protests from the LibDem corner (including our own Goulden Boy, self-styled saviour of the Craydon Road Open Space). They didn't want it discussed at any price and raised every possible objection (none of them valid!)

The subject was, of course, the Green Space sell-off - or rather the failures in the consultation, such as the loss of Friends of Stockwood Open Spaces response, the failure to fulfil FoI requests, and the under-recording of petition numbers. I'd distilled this into an appeal from the NP to Thursday's Cabinet to delay any decision to sell land until it could be sorted out. Eventually, it was overwhelmingly approved - with the sole exception of the three dissidents, who presumably want an immediate decision to sell.

I'm glad to say that today's Scrutiny Commission reached the same conclusion as our Neighbourhood Partnership, so the Cabinet will be faced with a multiple appeal to hold back on the controversial sales when it meets tomorrow.

Festive Airport

At the Broadwalk shopping centre, this year's Christmas display is of a festive airport.

Maybe it's a sign of the times that airports have joined the iconic symbols of Christmas. It prompted me to confirm that you can still buy the ultimate in destructive holiday flights, taking the kids on a day trip to Lapland for a visit to Santa and a snowmobile trip. It won't be long before the trip becomes impossible, as the snow and ice disappear under relentless climate change caused by - people who do trips like this.

Meanwhile, you can still go. For parents and two under 12s, the day will set you back around £1700. So why not do it properly with a couple of nights in a room in a log cabin - for just £4,600? Or even in an 8-seater private jet from upwards of £19,000 - plus your accommodation and keep.

I think I'll settle for Broadwalk. And feel good about it.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Green Space sell-off: the back-of-an-envelope analysis

Key figures (revised 13/12 to compare like with like):

Feb 2008 Cabinet:

Element of Parks & Green Spaces funding required from land sales:
£41m :For capital investment
£22m :For maintenance
£63m :Total to fund parks programme
£27m : agreed share (@ 30% of gross sales) for the council pot
£90m : total sales receipts required.

Dec 2010 Cabinet:
£16m : total value of sites identified and recommended for sale
£ 4.7m : lost to parks as the agreed cut for other purposes
£11.3m : funds available toward PGSS target.

Shortfall : £51.7m (i.e. only 18% of the total can be raised)

Extract from Parks and Green Spaces Strategy, driving the sales:

"should there be insufficient 'low value' marginal land available.... the council will review the ambitions of the strategy and consider alternative funding sources." (p42)

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

News Management, Council House style

Extraordinary - but not that unexpected.

Tuesday was the day that BCC had to reveal which of the city's green sites it intends to sell off, so that the others might be properly looked after. With a bit of a bonus; 30% goes into the general council pot, and not into the parks at all.

The details eventually emerged in the papers for the Scrutiny meeting next Wednesday.

But well before that, the press and broadcasting media had been called in for a briefing, even before fellow-councillors had been told what was planned for their wards. Then there was a press release, in which Gary Hopkins reveals that the whole Cabinet has already agreed (what? when?) which green spaces should be sold off - subject, of course, to a token hearing of whatever the scrutineering councillors might say, and public statements made at their cabinet meeting.

In other words, verdict first, then square the press, then seal the deal with a 'democratic' dance of confirmation.

The long and comprehensive consultation process looks like a complete waste of time and effort, at least as far as those of us in Friends of Stockwood Open Spaces are concerned; our comprehensive response to the consultation has been lost, stolen or strayed, because it isn't even listed in the verbatim reports among the papers.

Add to that, of course, that a Freedom of Information request for officer assessments of each disposal site continues to be ignored, way beyond statutory time limits.

It all stinks.

Update, Wed 8th:

The council has promised to get the overdue FoI information to me next Monday - which gives about 24 hours to go through 60-odd site details and get representations to the Scrutiny Commission meeting.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Whipping Yarns

"We're not being whipped" Cabot's LibDem councillor Alex Woodman told the council debate on abandoning the sell-off of the city's green spaces.

Technically, he was probably right, because a Labour amendment had just been introduced, and any formal whipping on it was impracticable. But only the previous day the LibDems had announced that "Bristol City Council’s ruling Lib Dem group (38 members out of 70) will amend the Tories’ motion on the Green Spaces Strategy (PGSS) at tomorrow’s full council meeting (Nov 16th).". It's hard to know how Alex could have any choice but to do what his party had agreed.

You'd think that the selective sale of green space wouldn't really be a big 'party' issue, except maybe for the Greens - but right through this debate, every vote was conducted entirely on party lines. LibDems in wards threatened by proposed sales still voted for it; Tories and Labour in wards that could only gain voted against. The usual disciplined tribal voting patterns, in fact.

Why this 'default' of routine voting as a block? Don't parties trust their own councillors to make their own judgements?

I put in a Public Forum statement to the same full council meeting to suggest that where a whip is in force, speakers should say so, and say why. I explained that "If an election or manifesto promise is involved, or some intrinsic party values, then a whip is understandable; but for the majority of council decisions (for instance the motion to be heard later about the funding for the Area Green Space Plans) it is very hard to find any rational difference between the parties."

The statement's been referred to the respective party whips. So far, only Labour has responded; I'll come back to this when I hear more.

As a footnote, it's worth noting that Alex Woodman and his fellow Cabot councillor Mark Wright (defender of Green Belt except when it involves a stadium) have put out a 'Cabot E-News', acknowledging that "that there is opposition to the sale of some of the sites (around 15 of the 60 proposed)". It turns out that the 15 are not actually sites, they're protest groups, while the 60 are proposed sale sites - so it's grossly misleading. It's still not been corrected though.

Meanwhile my own Freedom of Information request for the officers' assessments of the various suggested disposal sites remains unacknowledged, a couple of weeks after the statutory date for a full answer. With decisions imminent, you have to wonder why such a delay.