Friday, 15 February 2008

Technology: best to take a broad view and account for interactions

For many Greens applying knowledge to useful ends is a pretty good definition of technology. Contrary to what some would have you believe, most greens are not generally anti-technology (think of modern wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, effiency and pollution control systems, electric trams...). Take this report ‘Robots could reduce animal tests’ on a technology whose ‘ultimate goal is to develop non-animal based testing methods that are rigorous enough to be submitted for regulatory approval’ in the news today for example – Greens are likely to welcome such a development, subject to applying a process of technological assessment to it (see later description).

I hold to a particular view of technology though – and it does not accord with the widely-held view, expressed in any dictionary, that technology is the application of science, in particular to industry or commerce (a view which became firmly established during nineteenth century industrialisation and the development of capitalism and consumer societies). The dictionary definition only tells part of the story, for there is a lot more to technology than applied science or technical considerations – in addition to the hardware (scientific, technical, machines, tools) there is also software (people - and some other animals, organisation, social processes)! In any case technology (eg as ‘tool use’ or all practical knowledge) clearly predates science by a very, very long way (think of a chimp catching termites with a stick!).

My view is broader and focussed on interactions, a key consideration for Greens. It is not centred on any one type of knowledge, even though scientific knowledge is of course of great value. The broad approach to technology is much more likely to achieve lasting and appropriate solutions to problems because it tries to account for responses to technical change - it does not just argue for a technofix but considers the network of linkages between all the relevant factors: technical; economic; social; psychological; environmental… The scale and social context of technical change are very important. My definition of technology acknowledges the role of science but also acknowledges that key technological processes and concepts such as design, systems, modelling and management, involve craft and people skills. To apply knowledge practically requires people to be organised as well as machines to be used.

This broad approach does mean always trying to take account of subjective human beings and their values! This means a thorough, comprehensive approach to assessing technology: its technical capabilities and limitations; its current and future cost-effectiveness; its impact on the quantity and quality of work; its impact on the natural environment and various systems environments, and other relevant dimensions, as well as the interactions between these factors. We should not simply ‘surrender’ unconditionally to inventions and ‘novelties’ just because they are offered but should instead direct and control technological change towards justly and rationally determined social goals. We have to do this if we are to achieve a sustainable society in any case.

A purely technical ‘solution’ may often result in changes in other key factors which reduce, undermine or reverse any progress made. Examples: increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles means less fuel used, saving people money, which they may then spend on travelling further, consuming more fuel.; installing low energy lighting may mean people are happy to leave them on for longer; cars with many safety features may be driven faster…it’s a kind of rebound effect. Taking a broad view of technology and assessing it in the round, may predict potential behavioural (and indeed ecological) changes and allow a better solution to be designed. Any solution is highly likely to have both advantages and disadvantages in varying proportions, what some call the dual nature of technology. Fitting catalytic converters to cars cuts emissions of toxic gases like nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, but all else being equal results in higher fuel consumption due to lower efficiency, and along with it higher emissions of carbon dioxide – massive growth in car use (perhaps encouraged a bit by making cars less toxic) has in any case severely cut the benefits of the catalytic converter!

Some technologies may have inherent qualities which make them inconsistent with building a sustainable society. Nuclear technologies would be put in this category by many Greens, due to fact that future generations continue to have to keep watch over its wastes. Even then one could argue (though I would not) for short term use of it as a minority in the green movement have.

Bigger schools? Isn't a more human scale better both for children, the community and the environment?

Greens have long fought for 'human-scale' approaches to life, not least in education and thus my concern when I read the details of the so-called 'shake-up' of Bristol's primary schools ('Primary schools closure plan', Bristol Evening Post, 15 Feb 2008). Closures, mergers and cuts are likely to be proposed, especially since Councillor Derek Pickup, cabinet councillor for children has said,

"There is a case for a smaller number of schools, each serving larger numbers of children...'

This is a very worrying statement. There is a danger of pupil-adult relationships, vital to learning, suffering in a more impersonal environment. And what about the role played by schools in local community life? And what of the environmental impacts and the road safety aspects of having to travel further to more remote schools, if they are set up? I suspect there are very dubious motives behind wanting to build fewer, bigger schools. Credit to Bristol's first Green Councillor, Southville's Charlie Bolton for questioning the need for and value of bigger schools.

The former head teacher of two large secondary schools, including Cotham, James Wetz, now a researcher and visiting fellow at the University of Bristol's Graduate School of Education, is carrying out a feasibility study on the concept of 'Urban Village Schools'. He was recently quoted in the Evening Post ('School system is failing our children', Feb 11 2008) as saying this of secondary schools,

"If big schools are such a good idea, why are private schools comparatively small in size and why don't they expand - it's because they realise that smaller schools are better."

The same argument certainly applies to primary schools, possibly more so. I dont agree that often with Tory pronouncements on education but on this occasion I think the Conservative Parliamentry Candidate for Bristol North West, Charlotte Leslie, is spot on in her letter 'Super-sized schools are failing our children..' (Bristol Evening Post, Feedback, 15 Feb 2008). Its worth quoting some of it. She says,

'The Government talks a lot about personalised learning. But at the same time, its intent on building supr-size schools which dwarf the individual. And worryingly Bristol City Council wants to make primary schools larger. If we really are to personalise learning we must make schools small enough to be manageable.'

Could not have put it better myself!

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Ongoing and secure funding for neighbourhood projects in Bristol is needed for effectiveness Chancellor

It cant be very often that the Chancellor of the Exchequer can be found in Knowle West but here he is ('Chancellor visits Knowle West', Bristol Evening Post, 14 Feb 2008). Mr Darling talked about making effective use of funding in response to the fact that Neighbourhood Renewal Funds for Bristol are being phased out and will not be replaced with money from the new source. Withdrawl of funds is potentially very destabilising as its far from certain that money will now come from regional or arts sources . For example, if the Knowle West Media Centre he visited cant rely on funds being available year to year (it has a £50,000 shortfall at present according to media reports) is this not making it harder for the project to be effective? He needs to acknowledge that there is fully justified need here, and elsewhere in Bristol, and account for the fact that there are very big wealth differences between different areas of the city.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Unwanted and undesirable sounds and their health impact

That we need a noise strategy for Bristol and the surrounding area is backed by scientific research reported on the Science Daily site today that aircraft noise raises blood pressure even while people are sleeping. There have been very good arguments in favour of a local noise strategy for quite some time now, as I described last April when calling for one. Traffic growth, night flying and the rapid growth in flying, and intense development pressures cutting our open, green spaces all tend to worsen noise pollution problems, so something must be done.

Interesting links to more on noise and health from this BBC report.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

'Valentine card' for my MP

I'm a supporter of the I Count campaign of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition that is calling on the government to:

*Take a lead on the global stage, working for an international agreement to cut climate pollution.
World-wide this must be in decline by 2015.

*Cut the UK's emissions by at least 3% year on year.

*Help the poorest countries get access to clean energy, help them cut out poverty and deal with the climate disasters they are already facing.

Periodically I take part in an activity they suggest. Today I sent the 'Valentine card' I Count put together to my MP (see below). Cheesy it may be - but our MPs cant be given enough reminders to strengthen the Climate Change Bill now going through Parliament.

A message from the heart

Hello ,

The time has come to make a commitment and call for emissions cuts of at least 80% now - 60% will be too little, too late. Don't make me wait, be my hero and save our planet from climate chaos.

Call me a flirt but I'd also like you to vote for annual milestones to keep us on track, and ensure aviation and shipping emissions are included in the Climate Change Bill targets too.

Please show your commitment to stopping climate chaos by signing EDM 736 (opens in a new window) now.

Thank you

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Bristol's green and pleasant spaces and the council plans to flog them to developers

A Green’s view on the value of open, green spaces -
Many locals have lived in Bristol for a long time and have valued its open, green spaces very highly. Many have experienced the disappearance of areas they and their friends and family once roamed around and played in. There are self-evident leisure, tourism, recreational, entertainment, sporting and health benefits in open, green spaces. Green spaces also help attract and keep businesses and help them to attract and retain the staff they need. To these can be added key ecological and environmental function benefits. There is storm water drainage and thus flood protection, as the land soaks up, temporarily stores and then gradually releases rain. Green spaces take carbon dioxide from the air and thus help fight climate change (losing open space is thus as good as adding carbon to the air!). There is the provision of wildlife habitat and food supply, which aids biodiversity. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

In an urban area open, green spaces are vital to the quality of our lives, offering relief from the all too common congestion and other negative effects of development. They are a way of connecting with and appreciating the natural world – vital to wellbeing and to encouraging respect for nature. We sorely need this respect in order to build the green attitudes needed to fight extremely serious environmental (and thus security) threats. We would do well to remember that even the scrubbiest, scruffiest bit of land (called poor quality, low productivity, marginal or ‘surplus’ by Bristol City Council) will absorb, store and gradually release rain, absorb carbon and other pollutants, grow wildflowers, provide a perch and perhaps some food for birds, and provide people with a feeling of space.

Council spin on land classification -
How convenient for an organisation that wants to flog off 90 acres (2.4%) of our city’s green spaces to decide now, to describe the land that would be lost forever under developers concrete and tarmac as ‘marginal’, ‘surplus’ and of ‘low recreational value’. This is the, very highly subjective, view of Bristol City Council. The real truth here is not the type of land involved - that’s just the city council spin – it is that when land is, so say, ‘needed’ for development it is then made available! We would do well to remember that there is green belt land in Greater Bristol that is being made available to developers too by a number of councils run by different political parties. All are of course being pushed along by the Government's, and their unelected quango friends, policies. To sign the e-petition opposing the loss of acre after acre of green space in Bristol go to: http://epetitions.bristol.gov.uk/petition.php?id=166

Which land will be flogged? -
Bristol City Council has not yet given any idea which particular areas of green space and parkland will be flogged, so we are all unable to decide for ourselves, by direct consideration, whether we’d agree with their classification of it. The council have decided, so presumably they must know the candidate areas – so why don’t they tell us where they are so that we can look at it square metre by square metre? I suspect the earmarked land wont be in the wealthier parts of Bristol! If they don’t know the areas then how can they have made even the highly subjective classification?

The fact that discussions between the city council and the Bristol Parks Forum resulted in a drop in green space to be flogged is a clear indication of the rather arbitrary nature of the ‘low value’ classification. Originally it was reported that 200 acres would be sold, which dropped to 90 acres after talks, so did 110 acres of land suddenly ‘improve’ in value via negotiations ? If it has not improved in quality then what is the basis of this decision?

Judging by past reports and councillor pronouncements its likely that South Bristol’s open spaces are the most threatened. For instance the large Evening Post report ‘There’s room for hope in the south’ (March 17 2006) described how large areas of South Bristol are ripe for growth and development, including thousands of houses plus associated roads and infrastructure. The then Liberal Democrat Bristol City Council Cabinet member Councillor Anne White was quoted as saying ‘We have lots of open spaces in South Bristol which are not of great benefit to the local community…’. What a depressing lack of appreciation of the value of open spaces this comment shows. Are they of ‘benefit only when covered with brick, concrete and tarmac? What does the term ‘sustainable communities’, frequently used by Government and councils, mean in the face of what seems to be unbridled development pressure?

Council’s own words on the value of green spaces! -
We should not forget that land the council has now chosen to portray as ‘low value’ was until recently all counted as part of what the city website itself boastfully but correctly described as ‘450 parks and green spaces totaling over 1300 hectares, proportionately more than any other English city. 24 million visits are made to the city's parks and green spaces annually and, according to the city council's Citizens Panel, they are the third best thing about living in Bristol.’ The parks and open spaces section of the council website rightly waxes lyrical about the value of green spaces, saying ‘Parks are places to relax and enjoy the natural environment away from the stresses of city life. They are the ideal setting for healthy exercise, play, sport and recreation, and for enjoying the city's renowned events programme. You can also join in lots of fun outdoor activities to help you stay fit and healthy all year round!’ Fine council words, but not backed by actions as they hypocritically plan to cut the amount of what they praise.

Thin end of the wedge -
The original figure of 200 acres of green space loss seems to have gone down to 90 acres. Many will welcome the reduction, if it turns out to be actual as time passes, but it cannot be considered a U-turn as was reported because that would have to be a reversal of direction, that is, no loss. It’s more of an apparent and politically expedient slow down in loss. Still, there goes our ‘90 acres’ unless we act. The thin end of the wedge argument springs to mind – and the wedge is well and truly in, as the city continues the pattern of year on year loss of open space established in the past.

It would not surprise me to be told in the not-so-distant future that there is an unexpected funding shortfall meaning more parkland (or should I say more marginal/low recreational value/surplus land !) therefore needs to be sold. All this is clearly not the mark of an aspiring ‘UK green capital’.


How much green space might ultimately be lost? -
We just cant go on flogging Bristol’s green spaces to raise money and accommodate developers, though figures from the recent consultation documents sadly hint otherwise. So how much land could ultimately be flogged in the coming century if we don’t stop the year on year loss – what is the maximum scope? Bristolians have on average 38 square meters per person of green space, though the distribution is of course not uniform. Despite this relatively high average the council itself states that Bristol falls short of the National Playing Fields Association figure of 2.4 hectares per 1000 people of playing fields (Bristol has 1.6 hectares per 1000 people). The ‘Bristol Quantity Standard’ states that 27.8 sq m of green space would be sufficient. So the arithmetic shows that around 10 sq m per person could ultimately be made available to developers. With Bristol’s population currently at 411,000 this means 4.11 million sq m of land that could ultimately be flogged to developers. That’s 1015 acres or 411 hectares!

Land is of course needed if we are to build a sustainable society and so not all types of green space development under all circumstances should be opposed. Greens are much more likely to support and sometimes advocate, the development of land if that development clearly contributes to building the quality of life and sustainability of our neighbourhoods, communities and society (such as everything needed for local energy generation, food production, reuse, recycling, composting, skills development and small-scale local manufacturing). New green spaces should created to compensate for those taken and the land take should be relatively small-scale. There is growing evidence to show that having more green spaces is the best economic policy since it heavily influences crucial investment, productivity and organisational effectiveness issues such as whether businesses can attract and retain the best staff. We should for many, many reasons, therefore, try to avoid net loss of green space and indeed make the city greener if possible.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Empower local communities - dont 'streamline/modernise/speed-away' democracy

Had a reply today from my MP Kerry McCarthy. I wrote to her on Jan 19 asking her to support the Planning and Energy Private Members Bill (see this previous post). She said '...I am not minded to support the Planning and Energy Bill. I believe the Government's Planning Reform Bill...which will streamline, modernise and speed up the planning system will address the concerns itself.' This is a great pity but does indicate a pattern in both my MP and the Labour Government, both of whom resisted the Sustainable Communities Bill - they do not seem to want to truly empower local communities!

The Planning and Energy Private Members Bill enables local decision-making for new developments eg allowing: the setting of high energy efficiency standards; and enabling requirement of local, on-site energy generation by green methods such as solar and photovoltaic panels, heat pumps and small-scale combined heat and power plants - really needed for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, cutting fuel bills, creating jobs in neighbourhoods and building local sustainability.

A further concern is her support for the Government's Planning Reform Bill. For a start this Bill is not aimed at local community empowerment, quite the opposite in fact (its those words, streamline, modernise and speed up the planning system that give it away, for they mean take away some democracy). Avon Wildlife Trust recently expressed real concerns about the Bill ('We must protect birds and wildife', Bristol Evening Post, 7 Feb 2008) Greens have expressed strong concerns about it too, saying:

"The current proposals for a separate planning system for major infrastructure projects mean undermining democracy in favour of an increasingly centralised and authoritarian government.

"The Green Party believes that a healthy democracy should encourage public participation in decision making."

"Consulting with local people for disruptive, polluting projects like airports is essential, and any attempt to 'streamline' these processes to save money, or to hand them over to appointed yes-men is a scandalous affront to the rights of ordinary people ..."

Allotment and sensory garden vs housing development

I wish good luck to Fishponds Local Action Group and all those campaigning for the proposed allotment and sensory garden site and against plans to build houses on the land instead (see 'Homes blow for sensory garden site', Bristol Evening Post, 8 February, 2008). I fear that the city council has far too little appreciation of the true value of all open, green spaces (which this site now is, due to all the work the community there has done) and may not take enough notice of the campaigners. Its shameful that the council who previously handed over the site to locals to work on, dont see the social and educational value of the non-housing use. The council change of mind after yrs of work has been done is particularly galling, and they have not even suggested a compromise (perhaps a 50:50 use of the site?). This council action is a sign of things to come though, now that they have decided to sell off 90 acres of city green space.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Still a long way to go on equality, justice and democracy for women

Really interesting photos and associated notes on the Guardian site entitled: Suffragettes: 90th anniversary of right to vote (on 6 February 2008)...though wikipedia describes how then there was certainly no male-female equality on voting and we were very far from voting justice for both men and women :

Representation of the People Act 1918 - the consequences of World War I convinced the government to expand the right to vote, not only for the many men who fought in the war who were disenfranchised, but also for the women who helped in the factories and elsewhere as part of the war effort. Property restrictions for voting were lifted for men, who could vote at 21; however women's votes were given with these property restrictions, and were limited to those over 30 years old. This raised the electorate from 7.7 million to 21.4 million with women making up 40% of the electorate. Seven percent of the electorate had more than one vote. The first election with this system was the United Kingdom general election, 1918
Representation of the People Act 1928 - this made women's voting rights equal with men, with voting possible at 21 with no property restrictions

The pay gap between men and women is still very large in the UK and too little is being done. Discrimination and sexism is still rife here and around the world. Men in all key positions of power and influence far outweigh numbers of women. Violence against women is all too common....the list goes on. There is still a very long way to go on equality, justice and democracy for women. See this list of Green work on this issue.

Dont develop green spaces by covering them in houses, invest in them and create more because its best economics

Really interesting post by Nick Harrison, who amongst many other things is on the steering group of Transition Bristol (http://www.transitionbristol.org/), on the Bristol Sustainability Network site, copied below:

EVIDENCE THAT INVESTING IN GREENSPACE IS BETTER ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT POLICY

Counter to the now (very dated) approach to economic development which demands land be made available for housing and commercial development above all other needs, there is now a burgeoning evidence base that investing more in greenspaces and quality landscape design is a crucial factor influencing inward investment decision-making. See: www.environment-investment.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view...

The benefits of quality greenspace to the attractiveness of an area has been shown repeatedly to influence crucial investment, productivity and organisational effectiveness issues such as whether businesses can attract and retain the best staff.

If Bristol is to attract and retain the best businesses and employees then investing in good quality urban landscape and greenspace doesn't 'hamper' economic development (as those who stand to make ££ from developing such land would have you believe), far from it, the evidence now suggests that far from being an obstacle, it is an essential pre-requisite for strong, sustainable economic growth.

Mind you ideas like the 'best businesses and employees' and 'sustainable economic growth' deserve some examination, and possibly qualification, to remain consistent with sustainability thinking. And there is an issue with regard to the source(s) of funds to invest in green spaces of course (though to raise funds, as is now planned in Bristol, by flogging green space to invest - only partly - in green space, seems seems bizarre given Nick Harrison's words and of course the ineffective, inefficient spending of Bristol City Council).

Evidence shows then that 'greening up' Bristol, rather than cutting green space, is best economics.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Launch of my pledge to create a local group called the Campaign for Achievement of a Sustainable Knowle (CASK)

Readers living locally may be interested in my pledge to 'start a group called the Campaign for the Achievement of a Sustainable Knowle (CASK) in my area of Bristol'.

Simply by clicking http://www.pledgebank.com/yesCASK (or texting ‘pledge yesCASK’ to 60022 - UK only - or by signing this pledge in Facebook ) you can show that you're ready to start making a difference, along with other like-minded people. My pledge will close on 6th February 2009 and it only needs the support of 10 people before it succeeds and goes into action.

More details on what the group is all about:

CASK would aim to assess the local area and establish exactly what changes are needed to make Knowle environmentally and socially sustainable. It would then campaign to find effective and practical ways to achieve those changes in the interest of the security, stability and quality of life. Lobbying for far better, cheaper public transport; much better cycling and pedestrian provision; protecting, enhancing and if possible increasing Knowle's open, green, natural spaces; pushing for the retention and improvement of locally available facilities, services, and jobs; education for sustainable living; promoting local energy saving and the micro-generation of energy; arguing for more local, ethical and organic food availability; encouraging home and allotment grown food; people taking personal responsibility to be more environmentally-friendly; and promoting broad based public participation in community life, are all likely areas of work.

http://www.pledgebank.com/ is a site set up to give power to YOU, by allowing you to ensure that others will support your actions. If you have ever wanted to make a difference, but haven't known where to start and who will join you, visit PledgeBank now: http://www.pledgebank.com/

Thank you for your support!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Citizen Focussed Policing

I recommend reading this blog entry from Chief Inspector Andy Bennett about Citizen Focussed Policing:

http://www.avonandsomerset.police.uk/newsroom/blog/Display.aspx?bid=42

He defines it so:

Citizen Focus is: ‘A way of working in which an in-depth understanding of the needs and expectations of individuals and local communities is routinely reflected in the decision making, service delivery and practice.’

This quote equally applies to all public services including our local council, local education and NHS.

In policing terms what does it really mean?

It is a style of policing whereby there is active collaboration between the police, our partners and the public when delivering our service. We have to move away from always ‘doing policing to people’ where there is little or no choice and create an environment where local communities have some genuine opportunities to shape and contribute towards local policing.

This is more like the kind of approach we need. I like the sound of it and will watch with interest to see what happens with regard to putting it into practice.