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)