Bristol Green Capital 2015 – time for positive thinking?

DSCN0141The launch of Bristol Green Capital (BGC) takes place this weekend, with light shows, circus acts and no little fanfare. It’s a great recognition of all the city has done over many years to push itself forward as a “green” city, at the forefront of environmental agendas, and leading the way on green issues. It’s an opportunity to recognise that we are not there yet and there’s still a long way to go in improving the city from an environmental perspective. But it is also an opportunity to recognise all the hard work that many individuals and organisations have done across the city for several decades. Bristol isn’t green capital because of a small number of projects and ideas incorporated in a series of bids over the last few years, it’s green capital because of the longstanding commitment people in the city have had to improving the environment, providing education on sustainability issues,and leading the way when it comes to projects and activities to support green issues.

As a Bristol city councillor (between 1994 and 2002) I led the council’s work on green initiatives and sustainable development. I was responsible for setting up our work on Local Agenda 21, involving local communities from across the city in the development of ideas to make our city greener and more sustainable. I am partly responsible for things like the CREATE Centre and the Eco Home, both initiatives at the forefront of thinking at the time. I was invited to speak at local government meetings across the country and in Europe to talk about the great work Bristol was doing on environmental issues in the 1990s. We were definitely seen as leading the way, others were jealous of what we had done and wanted to learn from us. I believe that could still be the case if we get things right during BGC year.

I was also the chief executive of the Western Partnership for Sustainable Development (WPSD), set up by the four councils, the chamber of commerce and a number of third sector environmental organisations, to develop environmental initiatives across the West of England. We delivered an environment festival back then, that has continued and grown since. Sadly at the time, apart from Bristol, the other councils were reluctant to provide funding, and keeping the organisation gaining was a real struggle. But it did serve to pave the way for partnership working on environmental issues in a way that was innovative and creative at the time and much of which has held strong to this day – public, private and community sectors working together on a common agenda is undoubtedly the only way real progress can be made.

You might wonder why I am tracking back to history, talking about stuff that is a good 10-15 years ago? Well, mostly because things seems be coming full circle – back then we led the way on environmental issues, now with BGC we’re seen to be leading again and have an opportunity to showcase just what Bristol can do. Whilst I haven’t been involved in BGC I do feel a real affinity with the concept and the idea because of my past involvement in sustainability issues in Bristol. I do believe that, despite a few misgivings, a whole lot of good will come from this year as Green Capital. It really is an opportunity to showcase Bristol on a European stage. I hope all those that have contributed over many years are still involved and will seize the chance to highlight their work and I hope the communities of Bristol continue to engage with the ideas and initiatives as they develop throughout the year. For sure, mistakes have been made along the way and there has been an element of negativity about some of the process to date, but now it’s here perhaps we need to embrace the concept and make it work?

I look forward to a year of serious debate about sustainability issues, and about how we can make Bristol greener, more sustainable and a better place to live. I look forward to seeing progress on improving Bristol’s transport system, reducing car use, and reducing pollution. Above all, I look forward to seeing people engage in the process, from across the city, and to seeing tangible improvements in local neighbourhoods. I’m not sure what the official measures of success are for BGC but no doubt we’ll all judge on the basis of what we believe to be important – I know I will.

Britain – A Land of Opportunity or Despair?

As the Tory Party conference draws to a close and Party conference season ends, what will we remember about any of them in a few weeks time? Did we get memorable announcements or just the same old politics? Could we have predicted much of it? I’m left feeling slightly confused and irritated – the middle ground of politics is well and truly crowded, with all 3 main parties vying for control, trying to appeal to everyone and only minimal differences showing between them.

I was looking for Labour to be more socialist, the Tories to show their true colours and the Liberals to break away from the constraints of coalition politics and show us what they are made of. And to be fair we got some of that, Labour showed they are the only party with an interest in reducing inequalities and providing opportunity for all, but didn’t go far enough on some of the issues that really matter, such as the railways, environmental policy and the Living Wage. The Liberal Democrats were a bit of a let down, with little substance to show us what difference they would make if they were in government for longer (except ban carrier bags!). And as for the Tories, well I guess they did actually show what they are about – penalising people who are out of work and characterising them as lazy scroungers, supporting big business and sticking to Plan A on austerity because it is clearly working!

The Prime Minister talked about Britain as a Land of Opportunity but is that what we really have under the Coalition Government and is it what we would get with Labour in Government? I have my doubts, there are policies across all 3 main parties and those put forward by the Green Party that would get my support but sadly overall no single party goes far enough.

No one made real commitments to adopt a minimum wage that is a Living Wage – why is that? How are people expected to live on a minimum wage that doesn’t cover living costs?How do we achieve a decent standard of living for all if the basic concept of paying people properly for the work they do cannot be implemented and doesn’t have the backing of all the main parties?

I’m no clearer now on how we are going to tackle energy policy to ensure we have both environmentally sustainable and secure energy supply for years to come. There were Tory commitments to fracking and nuclear power, Labour promises on energy price freezes and some talk of renewables, but overall, no convincing energy policy from any of them.

Housing was a key area of policy discussion, which in itself was pleasing, but again not entirely convincing. Promises were made about building more homes and helping people to buy, but I didn’t come away with the view that politicians have actually really understood why we have a housing crisis and what is needed to solve it. The discussions were often single focused, which really doesn’t help. You can’t solve the housing problem by just talking about housing. You have to consider our Industrial Strategy, our business focus, regeneration, regional policy, infrastructure decisions etc. All will contribute to solving the problem that we are not building enough homes in the right place at the right price. The constant focus on either the development industry or the planning system is not the answer – yes these are part of the problem, but so is our regional policy and industrial strategy, so are Government decisions around infrastructure spend. Until all these matters, and more, are brought together in a proper housing strategy the crisis will only get worse.

A land of opportunity or just muddling through? 


Bristol’s forgotten land?

Hengrove Park – South Bristol

A huge opportunity missed, 100 acres owned by the Council, left derelict for years. There are probably more development briefs, consultants reports and plans for Hengrove Park than any other site in the City. Yet still all we have is an initial development of low density “diners”, pubs and a cinema, with a play area added at a later date. And more recently, the Leisure Centre, South Bristol Hospital and a Skills Academy. All developed at different times by different developers with no design concept and no connection between them. What a waste?

Whilst all of these are indeed welcome facilities, the overall concept of a masterplan and any form of comprehensive development has been completely lost in translation. Grand ideas for a “new village” bringing much needed local shops, diversity of housing and quality development to the area never quite made it through the political process. Such a waste!

What Hengrove now needs is vision, innovation and delivery. George Ferguson, the Mayor of Bristol, needs to grab this one with both hands and make it one of his big projects – a sustainable development worthy of Bristol on council owned land, led by the Council, providing much needed quality affordable homes, local facilities and jobs. Be brave enough to get rid of the low density, low quality development on there at the moment, improve the linkages between existing facilities and deliver a coherent concept of a new community.

Why not, what are we waiting for?

Greens to learn from UKIP!

The Green Party conference has now drawn to a close and attention has very definitely turned to the Lib Dems in Glasgow. But what did we learn about the Green Party?

Well, one thing that we learnt was they have some admiration for UKIP! Surprising? Not really when you look at why – as a minority party on the fringes of UK politics, UKIPs approach to campaigning and the successes they achieved at the last local elections are worth a detailed look to see how other less mainstream parties can learn from them, and that’s exactly what the Greens are doing.

But what of policies and direction? The two key speeches, from Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, were both great examples of what the Green Party have to offer. They put themselves over as the main alternative to the three mainstream “neo-liberal” political parties. Indeed anyone listening to their speeches and attending the Green Party conference could have been forgiven for thinking they had walked into the wrong place and instead headed to a Labour Party conference back in the days when Labour were truly socialist! And much of it was refreshingly good to hear. Continue reading

People before Politics?

What can we expect from Party Conference Season?

The next round of Party Conferences are almost upon us and this time the pressure is on as all the main parties are in the process of defining their manifesto policies for the 2015 General Election.  The autumn conferences are a great opportunity to share some of these policies more publicly, as well as get feedback and party buy-in to them.

But what will be the focus of each of the Parties? Continue reading

The South Bristol Link – A Road to Nowhere?

The idea of a completing the Bristol ring road by providing the missing links in South & East Bristol has been around a long time. The route across South Bristol has been protected for decades but somehow to date it has never been delivered. Every time it has reared its ugly head environmental campaigners, politicians and local communities have opposed it and the final decision has never been made to implement.

And so it seems we are going round that very same loop all over again. The ring road, or the South Bristol Link as it is now called, is back on the agenda and planning applications have been submitted to Bristol and North Somerset Councils. The environmental lobby and local people are rachetting up their opposition and the LEP and business groups are pulling together their supporters ready for yet another battle. Continue reading