Thursday, 27 November 2014

All growth is good???

Economic growth has been the most important socio-economic performance measure for over 70 yrs. All political colours except the Greens have increasing growth as their aim and leaders at the recent G20 summit made pledges centred on it. Yet this statistic takes no account whatsoever of the costs of achieving growth and counts anything that causes a flow of money as a positive whether its good for society or not. What's not included in growth figures reveals this measure as a very poor indication indeed of general prosperity and progress. 

Economic growth is most commonly defined as the rate at which GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is increasing. GDP is the total value of the output of goods and services of a country, calculated either by adding up the value of all goods and services produced, or the expenditure on goods and services at the time of sale, or producers incomes from the sale of goods and services (see Office for National Statistics guide). GDP captures and communicates trends through quantification and serves as the main way of getting feedback on what is happening in the economy and society. It is central to economic policy and decision making. It serves to frame public policy and market behaviour. In short its a pointer and so its vital that it points in the right direction - but it doesn't. The graph (top left) of world GDP growth (green line) compared with the Genuine Progress Indicator (purple line) shows that things are progressing throughout the time period according to GDP but since the mid to late 1970s genuine progress has been static. Here are the details.   

GDP takes no account at all of the depletion of resources. When the economy grows, resources which are in finite supply like land are consumed and renewable resources are often used at a rate faster than they are naturally replenished. As a result irreplaceable parts of the capital stock are used up and are unavailable to help meet needs and give people reasonable economic opportunities on into the future. Its a fundamental matter of fairness that we should not run down, waste or squander resources but our main economic indicator tells us nothing about these costs - in fact it in effect assumes that this running down is a good thing because it causes a money flow, growing the economy. Related to this is the fact that GDP takes no account of resource reuse through second-hand transactions, such as selling a used car, or intermediate transactions such as materials that may be sold and resold several times.

GDP does not reflect the distribution of growth. It therefore does not reflect inequality. Who is benefitting from the proceeds of growth and how much is a key issue of fairness. If politicians, civil servants, the media and so on thought of reducing inequality as one part of economic progress then perhaps policies and priorities would be different. Countries that are less unequal suffer far fewer health and social problems (see here).

GDP figures don't show any difference between production that is clean and green and that which is polluting. The environmental costs of growth are thus not accounted for. Yet environmental quality is a very important public health and wellbeing issue. Its an ecological issue too because polluting industries undermine ecosystem capabilities to provide essentials such as clean water, fertile soil, relatively stable climatic conditions, and biodiversity. Related to this is the fact the GDP takes no account of changes in quality through technological improvements or the sustaining of output whilst creating more leisure time.

GDP does not measure any unpaid family, community or social activities. If you tend your garden, clean your house, walk your dog, cook food for your family, grow allotment vegetables or paint your house these are productive positives, many of which underpin the productive capacity of the economy in the GDP sense. Yet they would be included if you paid someone to do them for you. Transactions through barter, if you exchanged your allotment spuds for your neighbour electrican skills for instance, are not counted. Non-profit services like the police and army are valued according to salaries paid and equipment used, yet their value in a market place would be very different. Service is undervalued in GDP.

Adjustments are sometimes made to what is included in GDP. For instance the UK's statisticians this year began including estimates of the value of sex-work and illegal drug dealing (see here). However, they did not of course subtract these negatives from the value of GDP, they added them - because unlike what we usually think of as accounts the accounting process to produce GDP only adds! The £10 billion that was added for sex-work and illegal drug dealing  is approximately the value of Bristol's GDP - and later there was a political row when on the basis of the recalculated figures the EU asked the UK to increase its contribution to the budget (see here). No wonder that my dissertation on this topic in 1998/9 was subtitled 'Is it wiser to subtract as well as add when doing national accounts?' Give me alternatives to GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) anyday.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Breath of fresh air?

Air is polluted when substances, energy or effects with the potential to harm are released into what you breathe. Air pollutants cause you harm such as loss of health, comfort, stability and amenity - and may poison you due to their toxicity. They can harm species growth and damage food chains/webs in ecosystems. In the UK 29,000 a year people die prematurely because of air pollution, according to Government statistics, including hundreds of people in Bristol.

Examples of common air pollutants include: carbon dioxide; carbon monoxide; nitrogen oxide; nitrogen dioxide; ground level ozone; a range of hydrocarbons; sulphur dioxide; and particulate matter (see image above) from the microscopic through to easily visible dust.  

These air pollutants originate from sources, follow certain routes, pathways, and spend extended periods in locations, sinks.  Consider: carbon dioxide from Bristol homes, shops, factories and traffic building up in the atmosphere and causing climate change; radioactive substances in nuclear waste flasks from Hinkley Nuclear Power Station accumulating in Bridgewater soils; sooty particulate matter (PM10s) from vehicle exhausts penetrating deep into all our lungs. We now know more about which pollutants are where and why but still dont gather enough data and make it freely, frequently and easily available.

Rain and winds will move pollutants around and affect concentrations – and substances sometimes settle out of the air onto buildings, into soil, onto food. The mobility of a substance causing harm, or having the potential to do so, affects where it will be, when and how long it might be present. Strong sunlight can cause new pollutants to form from the cocktail pollutant mixture. 

Every day too many vehicles are trying to use local roads: each weekday, half a million vehicles cross into and out of Bristol’s city centre. Bristol’s resulting traffic congestion generates serious, health damaging air pollution: in Old Market the annual mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide recorded was 63µgm3, compared to the EU limit of 40µgm3; and in St Pauls ground level ozone concentrations were 124µgm3 compared with the EU limit of  80µgm3. Traffic emissions contribute significantly to an ecological footprint 2.9 times Bristol's land area.

With respect to the pathways pollutants take we need to consider: problems of sourcing (point sources; diffuse sources); distance from source; change in pollutants during their journey; interactions between pollutants; modes of travel; modes of action and effect; and changes in environmental conditions. We need to ask questions such as: what is the pollutant like; how much is present; how long will it stay present; where will it go; where can it go; how harmful can it be? 

Pollutant persistence is an important factor as substance stability determines the time it takes to break down and so reduce in harm. Pesticides you may use in the garden to kill weeds or in the home to control bugs and certain industrial wastes tend to be persistent and so hang around to cause ongoing problems. Heavy metals may be ingested and once in our bodies they bind to enzymes producing toxic effects. 

Time to breakdown and mechanism of pollutant breakdown are important. Pollutants will naturally degrade but may change or break down in ways that cause harm in itself.

Toxic pollutants are those that interfere with physiological or neurological processes causing loss of health or even death. Toxins may influence enzyme function, reacting with them, stopping normal action. Pollutants may combine with cell constituents, as carbon monoxide does with haemoglobin thus affecting oxygen transport in the body. Secondary actions such as an asthma attack or heart beat irregularity may be caused.

With respect to toxicity, factors to consider are: pollutant concentration; length of exposure; frequency of exposure; age of person; activity (level of exertion); health of the exposed person, population, system; whether inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Children are particularly vulnerable as they get a bigger dose per unit of body mass and are still developing key organs such as lungs. Those already suffering ill-health eg from asthma, bronchitis, heart problems or obesity and so on are at particular risk. Air pollution can cause coughing, chest pains and lung irritation in everyone.

Some air pollutants are carcinogens. These cause uncontrolled cell division (cancer). Examples include some pesticides, asbestos, some hydrocarbons such as are present on particulate pollution (see image at start). There is no carcinogenic air pollution level at which there is no effect. This is because cancer development results from an accumulation of irreversible cell damage. This contrasts with toxic substances, where damaging doses can be clearly established. Some carcinogens are also mutagens (chemicals or radiation that alters chromosomes) or teratogens (substances that can cause birth defects). The problem is the time lag between contact and effects.

The combined effect or two or more air pollutants is often greater than the sum of the separate effects (synergism). Smoke with sulphur dioxide and particulate matter with hydrocarbons (see image at start), are examples where the pairing causes much more harm than each individual substance. Carcinogenic hydrocarbons on microscopic particulates are delivered to the exact place they can do most harm, deep in human lungs.

Bristol allowed the building of the M32, which penetrates right into the city, between 1965 and 1975, adding to air pollution. Conventional transport planning is still very much in evidence here, with planning permission granted for the South Bristol Link (Road) and before that Cabot Circus shopping centre with its large, centrally located car park. Little wonder that air pollution problems are still very much with us. We need to tackle many different aspects: need/demand for all transport to begin with; shifting from high impact means of transport to lower impact; reducing the impact severity of high impact means of travel; harmonising planning policies and practices with sustainable transport so that one doesn't contradict the other; establishing a truly strategic, integrated Greater Bristol approach; bringing back the public service ethos of public transport; making the price of methods of travel fairly reflect their actual total costs....All this - and more - needs good democratic leadership, time, and serious money.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The air that I breathe

The recent air pollution event in Bristol on 28 and 29 October highlighted the very serious health effects. Each year the official figures show that 29,000 people die prematurely in our country because of air pollution, equating to hundreds of people in Bristol. Second only to smoking as an environmental cause of death. More details from the Word Health organisation here.

Up to one in five of all lung cancers are caused by air pollution. Children are particularly vulnerable as they get a bigger dose per unit of body mass. Children need clean air to develop and flourish (more here). Those already suffering ill-health eg from asthma, bronchitis, heart problems or obesity and so on are at particular risk - though air pollution causes coughing, chest pains and lung irritation in everyone.

It’s a stark reminder that people are an integral part of the environment and that their health and wellbeing are dependent upon it. Decision makers like Bristol's Mayor, Councillors, MPs, MEPs, Ministers and Secretaries of State need to make connections between: patterns and types of development, such as large supermarkets; car dependency and congestion; poor public transport, walking and cycling options; air pollution; poor health; reduced wellbeing and quality of life; and earlier death. They need to act in accordance with the seriousness, scale and persistence of the problems (see articles on transport here).

Greens haven’t campaigned against air pollution just because its an environmental issue – its also a development, transport, planning, economic, health and social issue (more details here). It needs to be tackled by joined up thinking (systems thinking), which we so clearly have not done if we just look around our neighbourhoods, the city and the country.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Earning a living

Wages that can be lived on doesn't sound like too much to ask for does it. However, millions in the UK don't receive pay that covers the cost of living - whilst the very rich are getting even richer. The Living Wage Foundation which promotes the adoption of a living wage states that its value is now £8.80 per hour in London and £7.65 elsewhere in the UK. In comparison the legally set national minimum wage is £6.50 for those over 21 yrs, £5.31 for 18-20 yrs, £3.79 if under 18 yrs and £2.73 for apprentices of 16-18 yrs (19 yrs if in the first yr).

The significant difference between the living wage and the minimum wage leaves many people unable to meet their needs, dependent on benefits on which there is a squeeze, taking on dodgy loans, getting into debt - with growing numbers using food banks.  Unlike the living wage, the minimum wage does not tackle poverty. The living wage-minimum wage differential is not fair because being fair means meeting needs now and into the future - being decent, caring and honest in giving dues. Meeting needs now and into the future is at the core of sustainability.

Political leaders on the whole sign up to the principle of the living wage. However, current and previous governments have presided over the development of a large pool of labour which is paid poverty wages. Tony Dyer puts it well, observing in the Autumn 2014 Bristol Green News that under a Labour Government in 2004 Bristol South had two of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in the city - and by 2010 it had eight. He describes how this is not just due to unemployment, given that Bristol South has an employment rate of 79%, above both the city and UK average. He concludes that the deprivation is significantly due to Bristol South wages being well below the UK average with more than 20% earning below the living wage. Tony advocates turning the minimum wage into a genuine living wage, thus enabling people to meet the cost of living and lead decent lives.

We need to aspire to widening what is included in the assessment of a living wage and to reducing the difference between the minimum and maximum wages earned. Needs are those factors required to enable people not just to survive but to thrive, flourish and prosper. They go beyond the basics of food, water, warmth, shelter to the range of wider physical, mental and social factors that produce wellbeing. The promotion of wellbeing and  the ability to meet present and future needs is a key feature of the green aim of sustainability.

BBC article on the living wage.

Living Wage Foundation homepage.

Living Wage Wikipedia entry.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Power for your pound

The costly deal between the UK Government and EDF Energy to subsidise the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station may be close to gaining approval from EU competition authorities (see here). Nuclear has failed to keep its promise of providing cheap electricity even though at one point it was claimed it would be too cheap to meter. To make the Hinkley C nuclear deal happen EDF have been guaranteed almost double the current market rate for electricity and UK households look set to pay over the odds bills as a result.

Everyone acknowledges the very high capital costs of nuclear power and nobody yet knows for sure what decommissioning costs will finally be because we have insufficient experience of it. Nuclear is a very large drain on both public and private resources that we should be directing into options consistent with sustainability such as energy efficiency and renewable energy generation. However, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia supports approving of public funding for building Hinkley C. The imminent decision is taken not by one but by a college of all the EU Commissioners but Almunia’s view obviously carries weight.

A letter has been sent by a group of over 20 academics, politicians and renewable energy companies to EU Competition Commissioner Almunia, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and his successor Jean-Claude Juncker urging them to take due time to consider this crucial decision properly. The letter, whose signatories include Molly Scott Cato Green MEP for the South West, warns of legal action in the event of a rushed decision.

EU Commissioners will rule on whether the deal amounts to illegal state aid. Nuclear opponents say the two proposed reactors at Hinkley Point infringe EU single market rules on the internal energy market, if the £16 billion development proceeds as currently agreed. Alternative developments to perform the same function have not been set against the nuclear proposal. 

Debates on UK energy policy focus almost exclusively on energy generation/production and often neglect even to mention energy saving and energy efficiency. It’s much cheaper to save energy and be efficient than it is to generate it - not only does it cut household bills and increase the profitability of businesses by reducing their outgoings, it also cuts pollution rapidly, is a very good job creator, can increase comfort, cut noise levels, and can sometimes be done using materials normally thrown away.

According to the National Insulation Association Britain has 7 million homes with lofts that need to be insulated. It has 5 million homes with cavity walls that need to be filled and 7 million with uninsulated solid walls. If it proceeds unchanged the deal between the UK Government and EDF Energy would lock consumers into paying well above the going rate for electricity for decades ahead while the cost of renewable energy falls rapidly.  A very bad deal for consumers – and one that won’t help tackle climate change because the Government's own [former] advisors at the SustainableDevelopment Commission produced figures to show that even doubling nuclear capacity would cut the UK's carbon emissions by just 8% and then not until 2035. 

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Kill culling not badgers

With the failure this week of the legal bid to stop this years badger culling without independent monitoring, the shooting is set to go ahead. Government still believes culling badgers will curb TB in cattle. Natural England, ironically the arm of the government responsible for ensuring that England's natural environment, including its wildlife, is protected and improved, has recently authorised the killing of a minimum of 615 badgers in Gloucestershire and 316 badgers in Somerset. The Government has refused to rule out the future gassing of badgers (banned over 20 yrs ago in England) and has begun field trials into the gassing of setts using carbon monoxide.  

Our Government continues with its error on this issue despite the consistent warnings given and despite that fact that the pilot badger culls this time last year ended in failure to meet targets and resulted in many badgers taking a long time to die after shooting. Killing badgers is both wrong and unlikely to be effective in fighting TB.

Many countries in the European Union are officially free of bovine TB. Many of these countries have not controlled TB in wildlife to be bovine TB free. Vaccination as a realistic alternative to culling has not been adequately acted on. Injectable badger vaccine trials were scaled back by the then new Coalition Government in 2010.

Lab studies with captive badgers have shown that vaccination by injection with BCG significantly helps in tackling infection. This indicates that vaccination alone could reduce bovine TB in badgers significantly and over a similar time to that suggested for shooting. Vaccination may also be cheaper than shooting. The Government position is not based on the scientific evidence. Non-lethal approaches are enough to tackle bovine TB in badgers.

Humane free-shooting of wild badgers - if there can be such a thing - would need to be successful. Even with people shooting well they are highly unlikely to be 100% 'successful'. Where they are not 'successful' then the chance of inaccurately shot badgers being in pain and suffering increases. This means that shooting cannot be free of cruelty ie humane.

The RSPCA say there are severe welfare concerns about shooting. It has consistently warned of  a high risk of wounding and the small margin for error. It describes the anatomical and behavioural features of badgers that make cruelty free shooting highly unlikely. The Independent Expert Panel report on last years failed badger culling pilot said that 7.4% to 22.8% of badgers shot during pilots were still alive after five minutes.

This Government continues the trend of successive Governments in not basing policy on the scientific evidence and taking action of the type, scale and speed that it suggests. In addition to the badger culling there is also: drugs and their classification; climate change; and over-fishing for instance. The grasp of science, scientific issues and their interrelationship with socio-economic and environmental factors in Parliament, in political circles generally and in the media is, with some exceptions, pretty poor.

More on badger culling here:

Friday, 30 May 2014

Why concentrate on cities?

Why is there such a focus on cities when it comes to living more sustainably? See this contribution to the debate here for instance.

Why are cities so important? What might be their role(s)? What actions are they taking?

Cities are built environments with large numbers of people living and working in them. In England or the USA population centres may be granted certain status & powers by Royal or State Charter and thus become cities. City status and power may become established for historic reasons too. Cities are not limited to the physical boundaries reached by their built environment however since they are interconnected with other places via flows of people, materials, energy, services, information, ideas…This reminds us that boundaries are what people impose upon any complex perceived reality in order to form a more understandable system(s) and to perform some task(s). 

Cities are complex combinations of interacting ecological, social, economic and other systems, often growing (sometimes very rapidly). They are centres of: people; production; pollution; & power. The image (below, left) of Los Angeles shows both the built up and polluted aspects of cities.

Large populations accumulate in cities by the process of urbanisation. Since 2008 over half the world’s population live in cities (in more economically developed countries 75% of people live in cities). By 2050 70% of global population may live in cities. So, cities get such attention in the sustainability debate because that’s where most people are.

Just 600 urban centres generate 60% of global economic growth as measured by GDP. Cities physically cover 3% of global land area but use up 75% of global energy. As centres of production, as measured by money flow, cities are very important (more here).

Cities are responsible for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the megacities making a particularly large contribution (see image below, left; more information here). They are thus a major cause of climate change - and arguably are well placed to tackle the problem, given appropriate powers and money. Cities have major air, water and land pollution problems and have an eco-footprint several times their land area (three times in Bristol’s case; details here).

Cities are seats of power & influence and may have money, for example the C40 CitiesClimate Leadership Group is a network of the world’s megacities which says it is committed to addressing climate change. Cities can lead by example, for instance Bristol as European Green Capital 2015 (and before Bristol: Copenhagen; Nantes; Vitoria-Gasteiz; Hamburg; & Stockholm) has to demonstrate: a consistent record of achieving high environmental standards; commitment to ongoing and ambitious goals for further environmental improvement and sustainable development; that it can act as a role model to inspire other cities and promote best practices (more here).

Cities such as Bristol (City Hall pictured below, left) may be able to finance sustainability moves &/or coordinate the generation of finances (& other resources). They can offer leadership, giving direction, coordinating & engaging stakeholders from all levels, setting a good example. They have knowledge, skills, personnel…& can design, plan & maintain. They can inform, educate & involve, encouraging combined behavioural & technical change.

Engagement is vital for organisational effectiveness & the creation of sustainable cities because it is an essential part of on-going and broad-based social learning which addresses wider forces and institutions, complementing community activities with political and economic insights and action on macro, meso and micro levels - a paradigm for engaging in institutional and social dilemmas such as sustainable development vs. market forces. Engagement is also crucial because it: helps to ensure that individuals, communities & organisations get their dues; helps to empower local communities; involves mutual give & take; helps in getting governance right & is thus crucial to effective, shared leadership, power & responsibility; helps to enhance general wellbeing; boosts ownership of changes needed to move towards sustainability.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Looking at life-cycle analysis

Life-cycle analysis (LCA) is an effort to assess the environmental impacts of a product or service from its very beginnings to its very end. It is a powerful tool for analysing aspects of systems that can be measured and compared according to a common standard. The aim is to enable a total, whole system overview.

LCA has significant strengths and can contribute much to environmental management and the achievement of sustainability, as evidenced by the achievements of Hewlett Packard and Kyocera (here) via work on remanufacturing and design for disassembly. It has weaknesses that need to be kept in mind too. To get a total view of a system one needs to account for every factor and all interactions – but there us much that cannot be reduced to a number and inserted into a model. Additionally a single, common unit for all varying impact types cannot be established. Social implications of products are generally lacking in LCAs in part because of measurement issues.

Rigid system boundaries make accounting for changes in systems difficult. Accuracy and availability of data can also contribute to misleading conclusions (data from generic processes may be based on averages, unrepresentative sampling, or outdated results). Comparative LCA is criticised because of these considerations.

LCA can provide a lot of room for the researcher to decide what is important, how the product is typically manufactured, and how it is typically used. There has been a lack of consistency in the methods and assumptions used to track carbon during a product life cycle for instance. The wider the variety of methods and assumptions used the more different and potentially contrary conclusions can be.

Many of these weaknesses can be and are being minimised however. Best practice life cycle interpretation is performed with great care, determines the level of confidence in the final results and communicates them in a fair, complete, and accurate way. There are guidelines/standards to help reduce conflicts in results, such as ISO 14040:2006 on basic principles and ISO 14044 on compliance with standards.

Third-party certification plays a major role in today's industry. Independent certification can show a company's dedication to higher quality products to customers and NGOs.

Comparative LCA is now more often used to determine a better process or product to use. LCA is increasingly used to support business strategy, inform research and development, input to product or process design, support and inform education and inform labelling or product declarations.

All over the globe major corporations are either conducting LCA in house or getting others to do it for them - and governments are facilitating the development of national databases to support LCA. When it comes to environmental impact assessment, integrated waste management and pollution studies LCA is now playing a major role.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Forests for the future

With UN International Day of Forests (21 March) trying to raise awareness of the importance of forests, here are my reasons for wanting to see forests protected and for more forests of the right sort in the right places to be established (or re-established).

Meeting Needs: Sustainable use value is enormous (and ongoing!); Huge numbers of non-timber forest products can be available forever, if sustainably harvested; Sustainable forestry provides a very valuable resource forever; Eco-tourism provides jobs and income; Forests help avoid the costs and extremes of climate change; A properly functioning and stable water cycle is vital to agriculture (see details of 22 March World Water Day).

Beauty: The wonder of forest systems, non-human animals, plants, people; Deep feelings of connectedness and joy that forests can bring; Delighting the senses and pleasing the mind (see the details of 20 March International Day of Happiness).

Morality: Whether we think of morality in terms of rights, responsibilities, human character, duties, the common good, or consequences...the appropriate action is forest protection; Raising issues such as future generations, global citizenship, local peoples, traditions, the right to existence for species and systems, ability to meet needs, ability to maintain functioning life systems...

Natural Cycles: Take just two, the carbon cycle and the water cycle, forests play a huge role in both; They take carbon from the air and store it away; Burning or logging forests  to farm beef, soya or fuel crops is disastrous; Forests moderate and stabilise the water cycle, intercepting rain, binding soil, temporarily storing and gradually releasing water (see World Water Day).

Learning: We have huge amounts to learn about and from forest systems; Many, many species are yet to be discovered could disappear if we don’t protect areas; Forests help us learn about ourselves and our history; Potential to inspire designs and technologies; Learning from and with biochemicals and genes

Health and Wellbeing: Forests shade us, shelter us from rain; They take harmful pollutants from the air; They help us relax and provide recreational opportunities; They provide healthy food; They are sources of cures, treatments... (See the details of International Day of Happiness).

Biodiversity: A massive store of biochemicals and genes, both number and range, vital stuff of life; Who knows what potential is there for plant breeders, for drugs researchers; Essential for stable, secure, functioning ecosystems and natural cycles...; The intrinsic right to exist...

Humanity: Forests make a huge contribution to the human species as a whole; They are a resource in the widest sense for the whole globe; Loss of forest is a loss to us all.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Safer Streets for Bristol

Large groups of us used to kick or throw a ball around or race our bikes and scooters around the block or skip or play hopscotch on the streets in 1960’s and 70’s Knowle, Bristol. Kids playing in the street is a much rarer sight now, not least because our roads are much busier. The UKs current default speed limit of 30mph in areas where people live was set in 1934 when there were 1.5 million motor vehicles. Now there are a massive 34.5 million!! 

Adopting the principle of residential roads having a 20mph speed limit and implementing this in stages across the city, with monitoring and public consultations is one of the best actions Bristol City Council has taken (see here). Here's why I hold this view so strongly.

Road traffic in the UK is the single biggest cause of premature deaths for boys and the second biggest cause for girls age 5 -15. Every year in Bristol hundreds of people are killed or seriously injured on the roads (see here), the burden falling hardest on the poorest, with 24 of every 100 child pedestrian casualties being in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to 1 in 100 in the least deprived. At 20mph a pedestrian knocked over stands a 90% chance of surviving. At 40mph they stand a 90% chance of dying. 20mph in residential areas is clearly fast enough, and the "20's Plenty For Us" initiative is excellent.

Compare our residential street default speed limit of 30mph with the speed limit in Northern European towns. Our limit is 60% higher than the 18.5 mph (30 kph) limits that they have for streets where people live. No wonder perhaps that 92% of pedestrian deaths are on urban roads in the UK and at 21% we have a higher proportion of pedestrian deaths on the roads than any of our European neighbours.

In Hilden, Germany, the setting of their 18.5 mph (30 kph) limit in the early 90's was the foundation of them encouraging cycling and walking. In fact now 23% of in-town trips are made by children and adults using bikes instead of cars.

Something has to change to bring the UK into the 21st century. Adults lead more sedentary lives in part because they spend more time in their cars. Children lead less active lives in part because we worry about the dangers posed by road traffic. The growth of physically inactive lifestyles in industrialised countries has led to what many are calling a major public health crisis. Preventable illnesses associated with inactivity and obesity include stroke, heart attack, certain cancers, diabetes, and depression.

Around 40% of people in the UK report being bothered by noise from traffic, nearly double the figure from the 1970’s. Children living near busy roads suffer significantly higher rates of asthma and West of England Partnership figures show that over 100,000 Bristolians live in areas where air quality is considered to be potentially damaging to health.

Cars travelling too fast in residential areas have helped to create social degradation. Neighbours across the road from each other don't talk to each as often as they used when I was kicking a ball about with mates, because a gulf is created by cars speeding past. As far back as 1969 Prof David Appleyard found that community was eroded on San Francisco streets with busier traffic.

A study by Kevin Leyden in 2003 found that people living in walkable, mixed use neighbourhoods were more likely to know their neighbours, participate politically, trust others and be socially engaged, compared with those living in car-oriented suburbs’.

Research on Bristol’s streets by Josh Hart at UWE showed that motor vehicle traffic is responsible for a considerable deterioration in residential community, measured by average number of social contacts, extent of perceived ‘home territory’, and reported street-based social activity. Several studies show that people whose homes had windows facing busy streets were more often depressed.

20's Plenty For Us was formed in order to work for the implementation of 20 mph as the default speed limit on residential roads in the UK, in place of 30mph. The balance is shifting towards roads and streets as public spaces for people rather than just motors – safer, cleaner, healthier and more civil. Quality of life is better with a 20mph limit, with less noise, lower pollution, greater child mobility, more walking, more cycling and more talking encouraged, leading to better general wellbeing.

The Bristol 20’s Plenty group was launched in 2009 to help build improved quality of life in local communities. Dozens of neighbourhood champions were then put in place, including myself in Knowle - and its been great to see Bristol City Council's and the Mayor's efforts bringing in 20mph areas since then.

20mph is an idea whose time has come, with growing numbers of cities doing it, including Portsmouth, Oxford, Norwich, Leicester, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Islington decided to become the first London Borough to implement an authority-wide 20mph limit where people live. Transport for London made funds available for all London Boroughs to set a 20mph default. Bristol is proposing to roll out 20mph limits in more residential streets after beginning in the south and east of the city some years back.

Research has shown that the vast majority of the public, over 80% in polls, would like 20 mph on residential roads. After all its where people live!! The Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety found that 70% of drivers want it too. Changes in Dept of Transport guidelines have relaxed recommendations and in many residential areas 20 mph limits may be set without any physical measures at all – which means the cost of the change is small.

Portsmouth City Council created over a thousand streets with 20 mph – and they did it with only 6 traffic orders, in just nine months without any speed bumps at a cost of £475,000, the cost of about two sets of traffic lights. Speeds reduced by an average of 3mph and the whole community has a collective commitment to sharing the roads better. The cost of 20mph in Bristol is greater as we are bigger than Portsmouth but its a tiny amount considering that if a person is unfortunate enough to be hit by a car at 30mph they are likely to die whereas at 20mph they are likely to live! Further information, facts and figures and references: and

Monday, 10 February 2014

Judge Dredge

Eric Pickles, Conservative Secretary of State for Communities apparently knows best (see here). Was he giving advice on politics, on which he has a good deal of experience? Or on being a local councillor or running a city council, which he can claim to know a good deal about? Or on the city of Bradford due to his Yorkshire roots? Or on Brentwood and Ongar, his constituency in Essex? Or even on law, given that he has at least, some time ago, studied that at Leeds Polytechnic? None of these! Eric Pickles (pictured 'in action' top left) knows best about the management of water catchments (drainage basins; watersheds), including what's best to do to prevent flooding in Somerset, Berkshire and elsewhere in pretty unprecedented wet weather circumstances. He said,
"We perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency's advice.

"I think we recognise now that we should have dredged and I think it's important now that we get on with the process of getting people back into their houses, and really do some serious pumping."

He added: "I apologise unreservedly and I'm really sorry that we took the advice, we thought we were dealing with experts." 

He's wrong not only because he failed to give very good reasons and evidence to reject the best available scientific advice but also because now is not the time to criticise the key agency fighting the floods. He needs help sort the current situation out as best as possible, working with the Environment Agency. However, he appears to be blinded by his need to appeal to what he thinks is popular.

Unprecedented weather, most likely part of a climate change trend, combined with land management and agricultural and building practices that have encouraged increasingly rapid flow of water and solids into rivers, instead of soaking in and being released more gradually, are the causes of this prolonged flooding. A comprehensive, well funded approach is called for not just dredging. There probably will be some dredging on the Somerset Levels but they will have to look at the effects throughout the whole water system. They need to consider/reconsider future plans too because the rivers they may dredge are above sea level and prone to rapid silting up.

UK Governments of late have a history of rejecting the best available scientific advice: criticising the Environment Agency on dredging/flood management; rejecting scientific advice that badger culling would not be an effective way to fight Bovine TB; sacking drugs expert Prof David Nutt (here); failing repeatedly to cut carbon emissions and fight climate change at the rate and scale advised by the UNs IPCC. The political trumps the rational it seems.
More here.