Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Brief Encounter 2

Temple Meads, today, 12.45 - 12.50pm.

On the left, the 1pm Cross-Country train to Manchester Picadilly.  Busy with passengers headed north to Birmingham and beyond.  

Drawn up alongside, the Direct Rail Services freight from Bridgwater.   On board, two flasks of highly irradiated spent nuclear fuel rods from Hinkley Point, on their way to Sellafield where the plutonium will be extracted and stored to try to keep it out of the way.    

Full international cast of Brief Encounter 2 includes:
Direct Rail Services, the only publicly owned rail-freight company in the UK, being run by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.  Hinkley Point is owned by Electricite de France (EDF), who will aim to keep the waste flowing by building Hinkley Point C, with French and Chinese capital and generous operating subsidies from the UK government.   Sellafield is, like the trains, in the ownership of the NDA, but is run by Nuclear Management Partners, a consortium of the URS Corporation (USA), AMEC (UK) and Areva (France).  Emergency Planning services at Sellafield have been contracted out to those exemplars of integrity and good practice, SERCO  (honest!).   Emergency planning in Bristol is provided by the council's Civil Protection Unit.   Cross Country is owned by Deutsche Bahn.

Unlike the 1945 film, in which the head finally rules the heart, this 2013 release gives full rein to to the recklessness of the lead characters. And sod the children! 
 Now showing at railway stations across Britain
Edited 31/12/13

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Horrors of SERC

It's three years since the Localism Bill was proudly unveiled by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. It would, he said
herald a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control and starting a new era of people power “ . 
There was a lot more of the same sort of populist guff....

Six months earlier, South Glos councillors had turned down an application from SITA to build an incinerator – sorry, waste-to-energy facility – sorry, Severnside Energy Recovery Centre - at Hallen, three miles north of Avonmouth. It was much more than a NIMBY decision; the area was already overcommitted to waste treatment plant over and above the local need, and the West of England councils were committed to a 'dispersal' strategy to reduce distances that waste must be carried . [Since then, our councils, with that unlikely Local Hero Gary Hopkins at the fore, have abandoned incineration altogether and gone for more advanced technology, along with then innovative food waste colections which are both proving themselves well . Gary survived the Evening Post vilification treatment. Lets hope Daniella Radice is equally resilient ].

But SITA now saw a commercial opportunity to burn as much as half the industrial and commercial waste produced in the West of England area. They appealed to the Secretary of State against the South Glos. decision. In 2011 there was a planning inquiry, at which Mr Pickles' Inspector took the SITA side. Pickles duly overturned the local councillors' decision. So SITA got their permission, but, in the absence of the local customers they'd described in their appeal, they still had nothing to give investors the confidence to put up the cash.

Incinerators need an assured flow of waste to burn – so the operators build in contract terms so that their customers must pay dearly for any shortfall in supply. Who cares that that obstructs any new measures to reduce waste or divert materials for recycling? If local authorities, desperate to avoid landfill taxes, commit to paying out £1.4 billion to burn waste by open combustion in an incinerator for 25 years; well, it's a proven if primitive technology, and financiers are keen to put up the capital with such low risks and high prospective profits. That's the theory.

Having had no more luck selling disposal contracts to local businesses than it had with the West of England local authorities, SITA cast its net wider. In west London it found a consortium of 6 underperforming and unambitious boroughs that were still sending high levels of waste to landfill, and were pretty low down the recycling tables. A deal was done. The incinerator would be built at Hallen as that champion of localisation, Pickles, had ruled; the waste to feed it would now come from the bins of Ealing, Brent, Hounslow, Richmond, Harrow, and Hillingdon.

Of the incinerator outputs, some would be the stack emissions, mostly drifting across North Bristol; some would be 'bottom ash'; some would be highly hazardous fly ash. Some of the heat would generate electricity for the grid, but unless neighbouring customers could be found for the bulk of the waste heat, that would just be dissipated to atmosphere.

Even given the deal, the promise of a cast iron long-term contract, and the profits and low risks that go with it, it seems that investors still didn't exactly queue up waving their cheque books.

Enter the Green Investment Bank. Set up about the same time as Pickles was banging on about the virtues of small government and local decision making, the GIB is supposed dip into its £3.8 billion to back 'green' projects in offshore wind, energy efficiency (especially the 'green deal') , or waste reduction/treatment where its “capital, knowledge and reputation make the difference that enables a project to be successfully financed.

The GIB must be struggling, what with investors pulling out of offshore wind and the controversy over the big energy companies 'taxing' consumers with what Cameron reportedly dismisses as 'green crap'. It's been putting money into such bizarrely ungreen projects as converting Drax from coal to biomass – wood pellets imported from the forest clearance in the USA. Apparently that's a net reduction in local CO2 emissions, so it qualifies.

At Hallen, the GIB has put £20 million into SERC. As their press release put it, “GIB will invest £20 million of the senior debt alongside a lending club of Credit Agricole Corporate & Investment Bank, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and Mizuho Bank. Equity will be provided by SITA UK, Japan's ITOCHU Corporation and Scottish Widows Investment Partnership.”

Thanks to them, and Mr “where there's muck there's brass” Pickles, household waste with plenty of recyclable materials still in it will be rail freighted from London to be burned here, in an area where our more progressive local authories have already found ways to recycle more, to pollute less, and to keep it local.

Happy Christmas.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Bristol opts for the Barnet model?

The announcement that Bristol has recruited Max Wide to become the city's 'Strategic Director for Business Change' raises some alarming questions. Not so much about the new man, but on the agenda of those who chose to recruit him.

It doesn't look good. Mr Wide has history, inside and outside local authorities. His CV shows he has 'worked with over 60 local authorities delivering change programmes' either as employee, on secondment from BT Local Government (the IT services arm of BT), or with consultancies such as iMPOWER. There's one constant theme running through the lot – outsourcing and privatisation.

Local government watchers will be well aware of 'Broken Barnet', the London borough whose political leadership has gone to unprecedented lengths to cut services and farm out what's left to expensive and inefficient 'services' companies. Mr Wide was very deeply involved in making it happen.

Then there was Suffolk CountyCouncil, with much the same agenda (since abandoned) . And the West Midlands borough of Sandwell, where the management of Children's Services was contracted out to Mr Wide's iMPOWER, led (oddly enough) by their newest employee, Suffolk's director of Childrens Services. After that it was Doncaster, where the government insisted that management of the failing Children's Services be privatised – and iMPOWER got the contract, at least until an 'independent' trust can take over.

So that's what Max Wide is about. Privatisation and outsourcing is what he does. And now he's been invited to take up a lucrative post in Bristol.

But the real story, surely, is to ask who chose him, and why... what's the political programme he is to carry out?.

It's inconceivable that his record as an arch-privatiser is not the reason.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Abraham's 'Empty Heads' Law.

It's always going to be difficult when elected councillors are asked to rule on planning applications from their own councils. When it happens, they're expected to exercise the same dispassionate and independent judgement as they apply to any other planning application. That includes, in particular, avoiding any possible charge that they have prejudged the decision.

That was the situation on Wednesday, when Bristol City Council sought the blessing of its own Development Control Comittee to construct the in-city leg of the South Bristol Link Road, attracting heavy traffic through Withywood and across Highridge Common to the A38. There it joins the North Somerset leg, already approved for construction, and primarily a route that opens up green belt for development while clipping as much as a minute off airport journey times. (It will also save busy commuters the embarrassment and inconvenience of running over Barrow Gurney villagers)

On the day, the Bristol councillors voted the Withywood leg through by 8 votes to 2.

One of the dissidents was the Greens' Daniella Radice, who found a host of reasons (reinforced by the transparent failure of officers to offer convincing answers to her questions) to vote against. The other was Labour's Sean Beynon, who could not reconcile the undoubted expense of a very dubious project with a cash-strapped council being forced into harsh austerity measures by a ruthlessly ideological government (my words, not Sean's!). It just doesn't add up.

Helen Holland would surely have joined them – but as a long-standing and very public objector to the project she did the decent thing and stood down from the Committee – only to be replaced by a Labour colleague, Afzhal Shah, who decided to go with the flow and approve the road.

Of course Helen should have invoked Abraham's Empty Heads Law. All she needed was a simple statement saying “But I wish to give an absolute assurance, and that assurance is, that I come to this with a completely open mind. That must be done, and that is what I shall do.” It worked for Peter Abraham on the Ashton Vale Town Green debacle.

At least two previously-declared cheerleaders for the Link Road weren't troubled by any suspicion that they might have formed a view before the meeting. 

Both Claire Campion-Smith and Mark Wright had been part of the LibDem Cabinet that unanimously agreed to bid for government support for the road back in March 2010. Mark Wright had, at that meeting, (and in comments on this blog) rehearsed some of the same pro-road arguments as he repeated on Wednesday before voting in favour of the new road.

Planning applicants..... planning committees...... sometimes they just seem to merge into one.

(more on the nosouthbristollink website)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

HorseWorld fails to convince

HorseWorld's bid to build 125 houses - and a very big visitor centre - on green belt land at Whitchurch village was roundly rejected by BaNES development Control Committee today.

The ailing charity had claimed that it must have the revenue from selling off its current visitor centre for housing if it was to survive. It's Big Idea was to use the development cash to build a bigger better visitor centre. With similar amenities as the old centre, but a bigger shop and and a bigger cafe and (wait for it) a new 250-seater Indoor Arena, it could up the visitor numbers by a third, and get them to stay longer, while paying more per admission, and spending more in the shop and in the cafe. Problem solved.

The BaNES councillors weren't persuaded. The business plan didn't convince them. They didn't like being told that only 10% of the houses could be 'affordable'. The traffic figures suggested much more congestion in an already congested area. The schools didn't have the capacity. An hourly bus diverted to pass the site (except evenings and Sundays) wouldn't make anyone abandon their cars. And the new visitor centre would be a blot on the landscape. All in all, there were no 'very special circumstances' that might make it ok to permanently build over the Green Belt.

The scheme's not dead though. BaNES themselves are looking at releasing local Green Belt for development to meet their housing targets. A proposal's just been floated to release a chunk of HorseWorld land and neighbouring fields for 200 homes. If that's agreed in the Core Strategy, HorseWorld will be back. And if BaNES nominate other space for new homes, the developers will be queueing.

Hoofnote: 1st Dec.

A curious feature of HorseWorld's application to build 125 houses on the greenbelt with a minimum of 'affordable' dwellings among them was the announcement to the BaNES planning committee that Bristol had withdrawn its objection.

Not so. It's true that Bristol's LibDem leader Tim Kent had been lobbied beforehand by HorseWorld chief Mark Owen, who told him that without the planning permission the ailing charity would go belly up. And it's true that Tim, in turn, had lobbied the other south Bristol councilors asking for their support in getting the Bristol objection withdrawn. And it's true that Bristol did put in a surprise 11th hour 'comment' to BaNES about the application.

But it didn't withdraw the objection. The secretive attempt by Tim (and any henchpersons who might have been equally worried that they might be portrayed as 'cruel to horses') to overturn the case made by their own officers didn't withdraw anything, even though the BaNES officers tried to make it look that way.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

A Little Bit Faster. A Whole Lot Worse

Mayor George is busy creating, not to mention advertising,  a thousand 'Calmer Crescents' with the roll-out of 20mph limits on the city's residential streets.

But not in King Georges Road.

That doesn't get the mayoral treatment, it gets an appropriately royal going over from the West of England Partnership, egged on by the motoring and business lobbies. The Madness of King Georges Road .

Today it provides a path for around 500 vehicles a day – and it rarely, if ever, sees a juggernaut. But as soon as the South Bristol Link opens, everything changes – ten thousand 'car equivalents' will pass these front doors each day.

Perhaps a few will come from local businesses, rerouted from current journeys down Hartcliffe Way or along Airport Road. But by far the majority will be the traffic that already flows – or inches from standstill to standstill - along Airport Road, heading for the A38 or for the Cumberland Basin and the M5 at Avonmouth.

They'll save a few seconds too – unless the road is a victim of its own 'success' and attracts enough new traffic to cancel out even that small benefit for the driving public. As tends to happen in real life.

A little bit faster?   A Whole Lot Worse

[The Planning Application for the South Bristol section of the Link is expected to be held on Wednesday27th November at City Hall (6pm).   More on the 'NO to the South Bristol Link Road' pages]

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Controversy at the other football ground

The planning decision had been clear, very popular, and democratically arrived at by the elected members. Twice. But some time later, the unsuccessful party, driven by self interest, chose to go against the will of the majority and challenge the planners to get the decision overturned.

To deal with this dissident minority, the council has to assemble a legal team at great expense, headed by a barrister and drawing on evidence from 'expert' professional witnesses. Likewise, the self-interest group get themselves a QC plus a team of advisers. A venue is hired for the hearing, which will be in public. There's plenty to be said: this will take at least four full days, maybe more.

But the Bristol Post (in whose distribution area all this controversy is happening) ignores it. No headlines about 'spitting in the face of democracy' or 'holding Bristol to ransom'. There's no orchestrated vilification of anyone. This time, it has nothing to do with Sainsburys and only a very tenuous link with Rovers

Yesterday was the first day of the appeal into BaNES' rejection of a bid to build over the green belt between Stockwood and Whitchurch village, and it was held at the Bath City ground, Twerton Park, before a Planning Inspector, Mike Robbins. He'll eventually report his findings to that localisation hero and champion of the Green Belt, Eric Pickles. Expect a final decision sometime in the spring.

At some stage in the hearings, the Inspector will be doing a site visit. He'll find it's been prepared for him... the usual rough grazing and wildlife-rich hedgerows have been harshly cut back in anticipation, so that it looks less like real countryside

The first day saw introductions and explanations, opening statements from the two sides, and an examination of the landscape impacts of the proposed development. It was notable mostly for what his website describes as “the pure theatre of his cross-examinationperformed by the appellants' Anthony Crean QC – a silk who's evidently in high demand, and usually from the rich bad guys. It was uncomfortable theatre, too – he could switch between bullying, patronising, warmth and anger almost within a single sentence, in his efforts to confuse and break down his witness. Not nice.

The hearings will run from 10 till 5 or later for the rest of the week, and maybe stretch into next week.   They won't be looking at the scheme for 295 houses that originally got turned down by BaNES - this is about a revised 'concept plan' with a 'mere' 200 homes, which the developers have introduced since.   It goes straight into the appeal/Pickles stage without first having being tested by local councillors.  

Lunchbreak nostalgia.... Stockwood Pete's first visit to Twerton Park since 1952 (when Southend United lost 3-1 to City in the cup)

[Meanwhile, Horseworld's application to build a new estate and visitor centre has been delayed while BaNES sorts out its housing allocations for the area.  The Bristolian has plenty to say about that one] 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Swings and Roundabouts

Whittock Road green space yesterday. By Christmas there should be a childrens playground here.

About time too. Apparently there used to be, in the wooded area far left, which is part of the Open Space Local Nature Reserve, an Adventure Playground. Very popular it was, by all accounts, with local youngsters and their parents. It even had staff - and a phone line. But that was a long time ago, when Stockwood was still young.

Five years ago, when the council launched its Parks and Green Spaces Strategy, this was one of the sites that a local group of residents wanted to prioritise for a playground. We'd toured exemplar sites round the city, held workshops and dicussions, and finally came up with a string of positive suggestions that somehow didn't materialise.

Three years later, out of the blue, the Cabinet decided it could afford a £3.5 million spend on the parks. No public consultation on this one, though – councillors were invited to suggest what was wanted in their wards. The Stockwood councillors' bid - probably on the back of an envelope - was for:
  • The Whittock Road play area
  • Some signs, bins and access barriers at Holsom Road
  • Benches or seats on the Showering Road hill path
  • More rails and paths at the Coots Meadow.
  • [South Bristol Sports Club wanted half a million, too. Dunno what that was for... to extend the car park, maybe?]
Stockwood got the first of these, the playground – which ticks all the right boxes and, at £100K, looks like a fair share of the £3.5 million split between 35 wards. This will fill a real gap in access to play for younger children in this part of Stockwood. 

I don't know who got Hengrove's share, though. Their councillors didn't even put in a bid.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Every Little Helps

Keeping Money in the City: a local levy on giant supermarkets

“a classic example of trendy politics colliding with reality “ according to Gary Hopkins, but his Evening Post comment was more like a classic case of party point-scoring colliding with reality.  Maybe he feels his role in the LibDem group is being challenged

Gary was dismissing the proposal brought to last Tuesday's council by the Green group – and, on the day, roundly rejected by the other parties .

Had the other councillors accepted it, and if broad support could be shown from other councils and civic groups across the country, it would have strengthened the chances of a request to government to let councils (if they think fit) impose an 8.5% levy on the business rates payable by certain large retailers on their patch – particularly supermarkets. Government could not reject the suggestion out of hand – it must first negotiate with the Local Government Association. All being well, it would ultimately lead to the law makers allowing councils this limited discretion to raise money for public use from some of the most destructive of retailers.

Complicated, that. Clearly too complicated for Gary's LibDems, for Labour, and, of course, for the Tories. Too complicated for the council officers charged with providing an objective report to the council. And far too complicated for the Bristol Post.

Together, they rewrote the story. It became, in their view, a proposal that Bristol should now impose an 8.5% levy on all its big shops. That would send out a message that Bristol is unfriendly to business. It would induce all such shops to abandon their lucrative trade in Bristol. The poor would be then unable to buy cheap food. Even if the shops remained, the poor would pick up the tab at the tills.

Only one small part of this gross distortion did have a rationale of sorts. The council cannot at present distinguish between the 'comparison' retailers like B&Q or Harvey Nichols (not that the poor would find they'd lost much there) and the prime target, the huge and profitable food supermarket businesses.

But anyone who'd looked at the real proposal (and 'Local Works', which had prompted it) would know that legislation would be needed. That's where a distinction between the business types could be written in. It was a non-objection. And the rest was pure invention.

Fortunately, not all councils, or parties, are as blinkered as Bristol's. In Gloucester and in Torbay, it's been the LibDems who are making the running (Gary please note). In Leeds, with an overwhelming Labour majority, a similar proposal was passed with cross-party support. In Liverpool, though, it was Labour who took the supermarkets' side and killed it off

Of course, there's no reason to think that the ill-informed debate at Tuesday's meeting, with councillors voting en bloc along with their parties, reflects public opinion. It doesn't even establish council policy. It's still within the mayor's powers to sound out real public opinion, and if he can show that people would like the option of a levy, he can join other councils in seeking powers from government. That's how the Sustainable Communities Act works – by encouraging initiatives from the grass roots, to complement the usual centralist 'top-down' legislative structures.

But how to show George that Bristolians think councils should be given this power?

Writing to Mayor Ferguson is one option – you can draw on the information on the Local Works pages.

The quickest way, though, is to sign up to Charlie Bolton's petition on the council website.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Artful Dodgers - how to bypass the local planning system.

No, this isn't about the Mem or Sainsburys. Strictly speaking, it's not even about Bristol, because the site is just 'over the border' in BaNES.

It's the three fields that lie between Stockwood and Whitchurch village. Normally used for grazing ponies, and criss-crossed by footpaths, the fields were bought a few years back by Robert Hitchins Ltd, a Cheltenham based developer specialising in commercial business parks.

Hitchins' ambitions for the three fields are a bit different, though. Up to 295 houses, pretty much filling up the remaining Green Belt open space between the two settlements. No shops, no schools, no health centre, no....... anything, really. Just an estate.

Twice they've put in planning applications to Bath and North East Somerset's development control committee. Twice, they've been unequivocally turned down, because their proposals break most of the rules in the planning book.

Now they're trying a new approach. They're appealing to the Planning Inspectorate against the most recent refusal, in the hope that Mr Pickles will override the considered views of local residents and councillors. But at the same time they're introducing a slightly scaled-down alternative version of the original proposal – with 200 houses instead of 295.

We have the opportunity to comment on this 'reduced' scheme – or at least, on the summary diagram that seems to provide the sole documentary foundation for it

But this version will skip the local scrutiny that was enough to see off the original plan. Instead, it will be for the government Planning Inspector to look at the evidence and make a recommendation to the boss – Eric Pickles, Localisation Hero.

Smart, eh?

The Planning Enquiry is expected next month. Deadline for comments is 15th September.

[added 19th Sept]   The public inquiry is scheduled for 22nd October, 10am, at the Bath City F.C. ground, Twerton Park BA2 1DB

Monday, 9 September 2013

Shop Ping at Stockwood

It arrived this morning!  Thanks, April R, for getting us one of the surplus 'Ping' tables up at the shops.   First to use it - StockwoodPete and BarberTom.   For the time being, bats will be available from the barbers or Steve's shop next door, or at the Library.

Friday, 6 September 2013

First Bus and the Wrath of Abraham

On Sunday, workers on behalf of the council were scurrying round the city's bus stops posting the new timetables that First Bus had introduced that very day. In some back office, similar changes had being made to on-line information, like the Travel Plus real-time pages and the Traveline South-West pages

Other essential changes to be made at public expense will be to update the city bus map, though for some considerable time yet passengers will have to make do with the outdated one (published as recently as July) 

First were just as quick to update their own website with the changes, and an explanation

Not too bad for those with web access, then. But a dead loss for those without. First Bus, the architects and decision makers behind the changes, had promised to distribute paper copies of the new timetables, but none were to be seen at the usual outlets – the Bus Station, Temple Meads, and the Tourist Information Centre (the last two checked today, Thursday!)

Most Stockwood bus users will have been surprised to see, instead of the familiar 54 bus, a newcomer with a 2 on the front plying the same route.  (In the 48 hours since, several 54's were spotted – presumably last week's buses running late).   The number change seems to be merely cosmetic, but it does mean quite disproportionate change in travel information services.   The new, more frequent, timetable is billed as providing an evenly spaced 5-minute frequency (together with the 1 Broomhill – Cribbs Causeway service) on the shared route between Temple Meads and the White Tree roundabout on the Downs.   Seeing will be believing.

But these minutiae are as nothing compared with the impact on Sneyd Park  (which is, of course, where Peter Abraham comes in to the story).   There, First have the effrontery to introduce a route change on the outbound no.40 route moving it a street away from its present course along the narrow Julian Road – where, they say, 'inconsiderate parking' affects the punctuality and reliability of services.

Cue outrage from Cllr Abraham, faithfully relayed by the Post.  Consultation on these changes was seriously limited.  (He's right on that).   Never mind that the changes on this particular route will provide late buses between Bristol and Avonmouth (the lack of which Cllr A has complained of volubly – and rightly – before).   Never mind that its purpose is to get buses running to time despite the best efforts of local car drivers to delay them.

Oddly, it's been left to Alderman Brenda Hugill, ex Labour councillor for Lawrence Hill, to try to get the Mayor to explain First's failure to consult the public over the route change at Sneyd Park.   Cllr Abraham has bigger fish to fry at Tuesday's full council meeting; he's moving a motion of no confidence in First.  It reads:
“This Council has ‘no confidence’ in the ability of First to run an affordable, comprehensive and reliable bus service for the benefit of the people of Bristol. Accordingly, as a matter of urgency, we call upon the Mayor and his Cabinet to consider every option available to them to remedy this situation, and finally deliver the kind of quality public transport provision this city deserves.”

Few could disagree with the sentiment, or the evidence – for as long as I can remember, successive council transport bosses have been struggling to get any significant co-operation from First.  But it is, as the BBC's Robin Markwell notes 

“a purely symbolic gesture by Bristol's Tories as the council does not control the buses “

Perhaps if the motion was phrased to put pressure on government to change the law that gives First it's disproportionate and self-serving powers, it would be a bit more relevant to the real problem.  

As it is, it's mere grandstanding, as self-serving as anything that the bus company does.

[The 'golden motion' on Tuesday, to be moved by Tess Green, is much more constructive – it's to make sure council contracts don't go to companies operating employment blacklists.   Might be interesting to see what the Tory line is* on that.....]

(added 10th Sept)
* No surprises there.  Tory councillors, including our two from Stockwood, followed like sheep behind their leader, who opposed the Green motion, dismissing it as a 'rentamotion' but otherwise offering no opinion on the companies who operate illegal blacklists, some of them being Tory funders.  Fortunately the rest of the council were a bit more principled and the motion was carried comfortably.

Meanwhile....The 1/2 timetable is out now on paper.   The delay must have been to get the proofreading  right.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Doubting Tessa

Tessa Coombes, until recently the Director of Marketing, Membership and Policy at Business West, has started her own blog, subtitled "policy & politics blog with a focus on place".  

She kicks off with a nicely balanced piece "The South Bristol Link – A Road to Nowhere?", about a project that, on behalf of her employers, she used to champion. 

In fact the name 'South Bristol Link' is attributable to Tessa, who advised in an internal 2006 briefing (now sadly removed from the Business West website) about what was then called the South Bristol Ring Road:

"Think about a new name for the road – it has a serious image problem! South Bristol Link Road, Bedminster Bypass – anything to get away from the idea of a ring road – “ring roads take people through places, not to them”.

The advice was heeded; even the word 'road' was removed from the project. On the ground, though, the road signs weren't changed. Now, the new road is even named in the North Somerset / Bristol joint working agreement as the 'SOUTH BRISTOL BUS LINK', although well under 1% of its users will be using buses or more sustainable transport.

On its present course, the Ring Road follows a circuitous line by way of the Parson Street gyratory and Winterstoke Road before it releases its load onto the A370, north towards the Portway or southwest into Somerset.   At its eastern end, the options are east on the A4 to Bath or continuing round the Avon Ring Road, or north to the St Philips Causeway for the M32 and the M4.

If the SBL is built, ring road traffic might get through South Bristol a few seconds quicker, and there'll be more of it. But it will still be a Ring Road.

The same Business West briefing acknowledged the lack of evidence for a new road doing anything to improve business development in South Bristol:

"The argument for the ring road suggests it will have a beneficial impact in access to existing employment sites (and may even open up new). If this is the case then these need to be clearly identified. If Cater Road and Hawkfield Business Parks will benefit, where is the evidence? Need facts and figures to support the economic development arguments particularly as more recent evidence on new road provision would not support this case.”

7 years later, and free to express a view outside Business West, Tessa still has doubts on this score:

Only time will tell whether or not such a road will create jobs and encourage business to locate in the area, but all my instincts tell me that providing improved road access to South Bristol is only a very minor part of the problem. Businesses will still not locate there if the office/business space is not attractive, the right skills are not available locally and the local environment doesn’t provide what their staff need. “

Surely, the business lobby should be making that case – the new road is an expensive, damaging, irrelevancy.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

More Pearls from the Link (and a conspiracy theory)

(or...  Why have the figures been drastically changed ?)

There've been some changes made.   Back in 2009, when all the intensive work was being done, consultants Mott MacDonald came up with figures for the likely traffic impacts of the South Bristol Link.

Among all the stats, it was revealed that the road would draw enough traffic onto the new alignment to push up the numbers at both ends.  At Brunel Way, as it passes Bower Ashton, another 6,000 vehicles a day would funnel in with the 35,000 that pack it now;  along Hengrove Way/Airport Road, there'd be an extra 5,000 on top of the 16,500 that we see today.   Frightening, but not really surprising.

Meanwhile, advised Mott MacDonald's experts, the Bus Rapid Transit (sorry, I must learn to call it 'Metrobus') would carry 3,000 people a day along the leg of its journey between Hartcliffe and the A38.

But that was in the olden days.   Planning Committees reading the latest reports will find the goal posts have been adjusted and traffic projections rounded right down – and not directly comparable because daily figures aren't given, only the hourly peak and the 'interpeak average'.   So on Brunel Way, the new road is now claimed to have no significant effect on traffic levels approaching the Cumberland Basin in the morning rush.   Back at Hengrove, the planning committee will be told, morning peak traffic will actually drop (!) once the same road becomes a new ring route through South Bristol.

Just as the traffic numbers are now being played down, it turns out that the SBL Metrobus (you know, the one that's going to be good enough to get people out of their cars) will also carry far less passengers – certainly a tiny number compared with the forecasts on which the scheme was developed.  This link (figs 7-12) shows that for most of the running hours, and much of the route, throughout the 15 year study, hourly passenger numbers won't even reach double figures, let alone the 3,000 a day plus on which the whole SBL project was sold.

Conspiracy or cock-up?   It needed high passenger figures to justify the scheme in the first place.  With that out of the way, and funding secured, low passenger figures can justify dropping the expensive, uneconomic bus element of BRT altogether, leaving just the highway, a new ring road, and a stimulus for developing the Green Belt.  Job done.

Of course, I made that last bit up.   It couldn't possibly be true.  After all, we're going to be European Green Capital.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Badgers and Bikes

For years, badgers have been digging and enlarging their sett on the 'Whitchurch Way' cycle path with a multitude of entrances either side of the tarmac. Now the path has collapsed into one of the interlinking tunnels.

The city council, quite properly, won't fix the path till they get advice about protecting the badgers.  Down the road in Somerset, though, they're preparing to shoot the creatures, healthy or not, in a (probably ineffective) attempt to reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle. There's a good dispassionate summary of the issue in this Science Media Centre briefing

Apart from cattle and badgers, the disease can also be carried and transmitted by deer, horses, cats and dogs.  Bikes too, for all I know.  All of them frequent this stretch of the path, which has direct links into dairy and beef farms. 

So doesn't the logic of the cull suggest that dogs, cats, horses and cyclists should be shot too?

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Pearls from the Link

The mass of documents published as part of the planning application to build the South Bristol Link must baffle most of us who want to submit an informed comment. And every day it's being added to with more letters of support or objection. I've just put my own objection in; they're still being accepted.

To ease the burden, the links below are for the key 'Transport Assessment', which is part of the Environment Assessment and unhelpfully scattered in bits randomly around the official documents list.

Part 1 (there's an index in this one – after that you're on your own)

Especially illuminating are the predicted peak hour traffic flows – demonstrating, for instance, that once the road-builders have gone, residents of quiet, leafy King Georges Road will get over a thousand vehicles passing through in the morning rush. Not to mention those three (yes, THREE) passengers shared between half a dozen spanking new Metrobuses.

Still, every cloud..... Over at Barrow Gurney, they already get a thousand vehicles through in the morning peak, so they're naturally very keen to see the new road built. As one resident says,

"Villages like Barrow Gurney have been severely damaged with both the buildings and the community smashed by increasing traffic levels. In places the carriageway is only 14 feet wide with stone walls and no pavement but cars expect to be able to pass each other irrespective of any villagers trying to access village amenities such as the pub, village hall, playground and shop as well as visit friends. It is an attractive village with most of the houses in the centre listed but this narrow winding road carries around 15,000 cars a day, every day with no respite at weekends and bank holidays. The children and old people in the village need to be able to walk in safety but cars make no concession for pedestrians. The last village appraisal revealed that 15% of residents had been struck by cars in the village centre so it is not surprising that 85% of villagers felt unsafe walking in the village. Such a situation is unacceptable.”

The SBL predictions suggest that the traffic along Barrow Lane will be halved when the new link opens. Only a partial solution, then - maybe only 7.5% of residents will be struck by cars.   Still, there's at least one of the offending drivers who's conscience stricken - and looks forward to a clearer run. He writes:

I write as a North Somerset resident, as a chartered civil engineer and transport planner, and as Chairman of Bristol Chamber of Commerce's Transport Group, which I represent on the Mayor of Bristol's Transport Advisers Panel.

I moved to Bristol in 1984. At the time, the construction of the road that is now known as the South Bristol Link was part of the strategic plan for the area. I believed then, and continue to believe, that the construction of the road will be of major benefit, both by improving access to the communities in South Bristol and by providing a bypass to remove through traffic from Barrow Gurney.

I moved to Wrington in 1987. Since then, for 23 of the intervening years, I have commuted to Bristol via the A38, through Barrow Gurney and along the Long Ashton Bypass. Despite peak period hold ups in Barrow Gurney, this is the quickest route between home and work and takes my journey past fewer homes than any other option, meaning that my commute causes the least nuisance to others. That same route is preferred for many journeys between Bristol Airport and Bristol. Consequently, with increased air travel, it has become steadily busier and the traffic on it must cause significant harm to the quality of life of residents in Barrow Gurney.

I wish to express my wholehearted support for the scheme both because of my self interest, in that it will improve my journey to work, and because it will provide so many wider benefits for North Somerset and south Bristol.

Now there's a saint! Wherever would we be without transport planners like this?