Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Taking a break

Regular visitors here will notice that I've not blogged for a couple of months now. I simply keep running out of time due to being so busy with ward duties and my 'real life' job. So, rather than constantly kidding myself that "I'll do a blog post tomorrow" every day, I'm putting up this message to say that I'll be out of circulation for a bit longer - rather than it simply looking like I can't be bothered! This is really disappointing for me as I love blogging, but it is time-consuming and my backlog of e-mails (I get up to 100 a day) is always a higher priority. I hope to start again later this month or early in November, but we'll have to see. In the meantime, if you want to get in touch with me about an issue in Cotham, please do e-mail me at neil.harrison@bristol.gov.uk.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Talking the walk...

A very quick plug for a speaking engagement that I'm doing this week.  Click on the picture to the left for the details, but it's Tuesday 31st July at 7.30pm at the Unitarian Meeting Hall on Brunswick Square.

The Civic Society have invited me to talk about the city's Walking Strategy, which I've been working on for the last three years.  This is the document that lays out why walking is as important a form of transport as driving or cycling, and explains what the Council intends to do about it over the next 15 years.

This agenda got a really nice boost recently when the city was awarded £24 million through the Local Sustainable Transport Fund.  This is national money and Bristol got (I think) the second biggest amount of anywhere in the country.  This will be used to fund a wide array of schemes to get people walking, cycling and using public transport more.  It's impossible to tell, but I think that just having the Walking Strategy (with all the work that went into it from council officers, councillors and members of the public) probably helped to secure the cash.

Anyway, do please come along on Tuesday if you want to hear more about what's planned in the short term and what the longer term aspirations are.

Licensing and planning update

A quick round-up of information about the many and various planning and licensing cases that are brewing along at the moment:

  1. Redland police station school site.  This is going to the planning committee on the 6th August.  I am happy with the school design itself, but I still have issues with the road safety around the school.  There are lots of negotiations going on around this, so hopefully I will be able to withdraw the objection that I've made.  In essence, I've been fighting for a zebra crossing on Elgin Park, a safe drop-off zone for those few parents who will drive, some form of one-way system for 'The Shrubberies' and measures to make walking to the school safer and more pleasant.
  2. Old ABC cinema.  I'm happy to report that the old cinema on Whiteladies Road will not be becoming flats and a gym after the planning committee unanimously rejected the latest in a long line of planning applications.  There are now two groups trying to bring this building back into arts/cultural use and this has to be a better option for the community.  Of course, this isn't salient to the planning application, which I opposed on the basis of parking impact, ugliness and noise for the residents (who would be right above a noisy gym).
  3. Former Maskreys shop on Whiteladies Road.  The planning application for this is now in (12/02407/F) and you can see my detailed objection on the Council's website.  In brief, I am objecting on the basis of overintensification (too many flats in a small space) and especially that some of that space will be very noisy due to Sloanes bar beneath.  While this is currently closed, it could reopen at any time with its 2am licence - not a great place to house people!  I'm also worried about parking and waste management.
  4. 60 Ravenswood Road.  This is a small site, but it's quite amusing that this is either the third or fourth application (12/02916/F) for the site in the last year or so - the developer obviously thinks the residents will get bored with objecting sooner or later!  It's a back garden site and it's basically inappropriate for the small house that's planned for it.  I will be objecting again and I'm getting to know some of the residents nearby very well indeed...
  5. Bargain Beers, Zetland Road.  This is a slightly quirky application for a 24hr alcohol delivery service running out of the corner shop.  I've objected on the basis that (a) it'll be noisy for those living nearby, with car doors slamming and engines revving up all night, and (b) I can't see how they'll adequately enforce child protection rules.  Interestingly, the Police made very similar points.  The hearing is on 2nd August.  My over-riding feeling on this one is that the business model is flawed, so it's unlikely to happen even if it gets approved.
  6. Nisa, Chandos Road.  The hearing for this one is 16th August.  It's to have a 24hr alcohol and late night food licence for a supermarket in the middle of a highly residential area.  It's one of the most ludicrous applications I've ever seen and there have been over 100 objections, I believe.  The Police have objected strongly due to the clear scope for nuisance and disorder.
  7. I think that about covers it, but I've probably forgotten one or two!

    UPDATE (30th July): Of course, I did forget one and probably the biggest one...

  8. Costa.  A joint independent inquiry was held over two days last week combining the pending planning appeals over both the Gloucester Road and Whiteladies Road branches.  The former was denied planning permission twice for the conversion from office use to cafe use while the latter is the subject of an enforcement case about the number of tables and chairs allowed, having been denied permission for the numbers that are now in there.  My colleagues Anthony Negus (other Cotham councillor) and Fi Hance (Redland councillor) gave evidence in person (I was away in London) and kudos is due to them for waiting something like four hours to do so!  The result is expected in about six weeks, once the inspector has written their report.

Powering on with school solar

Please accept my now-standard apology for neglecting this blog for a while - it's been a frantically busy couple of months with local issues like the new school (at the old police station), licensing applications and residents parking.  More on those in future posts, hopefully this week.

I was travelling up to London on the train last week and I noticed that two schools in St Werburghs had huge solar arrays.  This shouldn't have come as a particular shock to me as I pushed through the programme that put them there, but the sheer scale took me aback.

The Cabinet signed off the school solar project back in September 2010, laying out what was (and still is) thought to be the country's biggest project to retrofit panels to schools.  We originally planned 80 small installations, but this had to be rethought when take-up from Bristol's 160 schools was less than anticipated - really quite disappointing, in fact.  Only 30 or so schools came forwards, so we went for 30 mega installations instead!

That first phase is now pretty much complete.  It has cost £1.1m, which will be recouped over around 15 years through the feed-in tariff.  The panels will produce 557kW of power and this translates to about 220 tonnes of CO2 per year.  Each school will save an average of £1,500 a year through the free energy that the panels produce, which they can spend on books and generally educating the kids instead!

These have all been retrofit schemes on existing buildings, but I'm happy to report that the new wave of schools being planned and built will all (probably - unless there's good reason not to) have them fitted as standard from the outset.  This is certainly true of the new police station school, so they'll have get the benefit of free electricity from day one.  This is all a direct result of the changes to the city's planning rules that were adopted last year, giving Bristol the toughest green building standards in the UK!

Friday, 1 June 2012

Recycling and black plastic

The new recycling system is pretty much all rolled out across Cotham now.  We got our green box a couple of weeks ago and we had our wheelie bins swapped for smaller ones this week... after a bit of a false start where they took the old ones and forgot to give us new ones!

It's fantastic that people can now recycling plastic and Tetrapaks from the houses without having to travel to one of the recycling points around the city.  This has boosted Bristol's recycling rate over 50% for the first time - a far cry from when the Lib Dems first came to power in the city, when it was languishing around 10%.

There are still a few teething problems locally, so do let me or Anthony know if something's not working properly for you and we'll pass it on to the powers that be.  If you want more info about what can be recycled and how, see the Council's webpages on the topic.

One particular oddity that has come up is that one type of rigid plastic that can't be recycled (thin films can't) is black plastic.  There is a sciency reason for this, which is that the light-based technology that sorts plastics into different colours when it gets to the recycling plant can't spot black!  Weird, isn't it?  This is a known scientific challenge and it's likely to be solved at some point.  In the meantime, please put it in your wheelie bins - it will be composted instead of recycled.

Yellow lines and 20mph

Regular readers will know that Anthony and I have been working for the last couple of years on a project to improve road safety in Cotham - the Cotham Parking Review.

After a series of delays, I'm delighted to report that the yellow lines on junctions and corners are now going in.  The pic to the left shows my own road getting done earlier this week.  It's so much better now - no cars parked across the pavement, sticking out into the road or blocking sight lines for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike.  It's important to remember that this project has not been about removing legitimate parking space, but those areas that fall foul of the Highway Code and shouldn't be being used anyway.

The contractors that are painting the lines are doing it piecemeal as opportunities arise.  They are struggling a little as people keep moving the cones that they've put down.  This means that there are some 'hanging' lines out and about at the moment, but rest assured that they will all be linked up eventually.  And if you're parking in Cotham, please don't move or ignore the cones!

In related news, I'm also happy to report that Cotham is slated to be in the first wave of 20mph areas.  This is something that we've been pushing for over the last few years.  The pilots in Bedminster and Ashley have been successful and so are now being rolled out across the city.  This will be another positive step towards making our residential streets a more human, safe and pleasant place to be.

I don't have an exact timetable for the implementation of the 20mph zone yet, but I think we are looking at the period around the end of 2012 - more information when I have it.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Bristol's BIG Green Week

I've been waiting to find time to put in a full marketing piece about Big Green Week, but, as usual, I'm struggling to do so.  So, I'll stick to putting a short piece up, copying some text from their website and then hopefully come back to it later.

The BIG Green Week festival programme features one hundred events over nine days in Bristol, from Saturday 9th to Sunday 17th June.  All tickets are now on sale for these inspiring comedy, music, film, poetry, art and ideas events - around half the events are free of charge. 

Full detail are available on the Big Green Week website, but there are some really great events to go along to.  I'm already wearing my green bracelet to publicise the event - the UK's largest green festival of ideas and entertainment.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Another six months

Another bulletin from the Annual General Meeting of Full Council...

I have just been confirmed again as the Assistant Executive Member for Sustainability, following my selection by my councillor colleagues last week and the election of Lib Dem Simon Cook as the new Leader of Council. However, now that we (sadly) have an elected mayor coming in November, my term this time will be just six months long.

I've still got plenty to do to improve sustainability in the city, so I'll just have to get a move on!

Welcoming a new Lord Mayor

I am currently sitting in the Council chamber for the creation of Bristol's latest Lord Mayor, Peter Main.  The Lord Mayor is a largely ceremonial post that is shared on an annual basis between all the parties and this time it is the Lib Dems' turn. It's a demanding role, representing the Council and the city at a massive range of community events.

Peter's year marks, I believe, a new step forwards for the role of Lord Mayor. Peter is, in his words, a member of the LGBT community and I think this makes him the first Lord Mayor in Bristol to be gay - out, at least.

I don't believe in reducing individuals to the categories to which they belong, but I do believe in the importance of symbols in marking social change and progress. Therefore, I think it is great for Bristol to have a gay man as its 'first citizen' for the next year - a mark of the diversity, plurality and liberalism of our city.

I wish Peter all the best for the coming year - I hope he enjoys it!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Saying 'No' to a Bristol mayor

Thursday sees the referendum on whether or not Bristol should have a mayor, along with the other large cities who are also being forced into having a vote.  As I'm away from Bristol later this week, I've already voted (my first ever postal vote!) and I've voted 'no'.

There is no Lib Dem line on this issue.  I would say that around 80% of my colleagues are voting 'no', but there are contrary voices too.  The more democratically minded parts of the Labour Party are in the 'no' camp (the 'no' campaign is led by a former Labour councillor and Lord Mayor), along with the Green Party and the large trade unions.  The 'yes' campaign is largely comprised of the Conservatives and New Labour.

There are many reasons why I think mayors as currently configured are a very bad idea, largely as it is such a risky way to run a city.  I could probably write for several pages on this, but I'll stick to a handful of main ones:
  1. I believe that power is best when it is shared.  At the moment, the 70 councillors all have little bits of power in different ways and this means that all voices in the city are heard to a greater or less extent.  Those 70 individuals represent ages from 20s to 70s, men and women, White and BME, rich and poor, gay and straight, left, right and liberal and all parts of the city.  Yes, we have rows from time to time, but ultimately the tide of the Council's decision making follows the mainstream of what the majority of local people think and want.  How can this diversity be vested into one person, who experience from other places suggests is most likely to be a white, middle-aged, rich man?  Diversity and plurality might not always be the most efficient, but they are tried and tested means of running societies since ancient times.
  2. Despite what the 'yes' supporters think, a mayor will be less democratic, not more.  Fundamentally, there is no way of getting rid of him (I'll stick to 'him' - see above).  Once elected, he will serve his term and there is no means of chucking him out if he starts doing things that people don't like.  Have politicians ever said one thing to get elected and then done something different?  Of course they have!  If the Leader of Council were to go off the rails, they would either be removed by their own councillors or all councillors through a 'no confidence' vote.  There is no means to do this with a mayor.  Even worse, there is no realistic means by which the city collectively can get rid of the mayor either.  Those places who've opted for mayors in the past are able to change their minds through a second referendum, but Bristol would be saddled with one forever - only an Act of Parliament could remove the position.  If you want a cautionary tale, Google 'Doncaster Mayor' and see what you get - they are having a referendum to get shot of theirs on the same day as he's been such a disaster.  Stoke already have lost theirs.
  3. There is too much scope for corruption and buying power.  By placing power in the hands of one individual, the doors of corruption are swung wide open.  Firstly, it becomes much easier for big money and vested interests to get their man (see above) to the top - all they have to do is bankroll a campaign on a level beyond that which political parties could afford.  Also, they don't have the worry about having to deal with dozens of different councillors and candidates - nobble one person and you've done the trick.  The mayor will get to replace the current elected Cabinet with their own people, so that their tendrils will reach down to control all aspects of the city.  It's often said that in America at any time, at least 50 mayors are in jail - it's easy to see why!  Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  4. No evidence that it'll do any good.  In some ways, this is the simplest argument of all.  There is absolutely no evidence that mayors are any better than running cities than councillors - none whatsoever.  Look down the list of places with mayors and think about whether they are paragons of excellence in local government.  Maybe they are (two are Lib Dem, after all!), but nobody has ever demonstrated that in any scientific way that I've seen.  One of the delusions that the 'yes' campaign has is that mayors are good for reconnecting people with politics.  There is no evidence for this either.  The mayors that exist now, with the exception of London, have voter turnouts that are generally comparable or less than local councillors.  Here in Cotham, the turnout is 35-40% which is about average for Bristol - just 25% of people chose Watford's mayor.
  5. Too much power, too little power.  While I have argued above that a mayor will have too much power, they will ironically also have too little.  A Bristol mayor will not have any meaningful extra powers over what the current Leader of Council and their Cabinet have. Most importantly, they will have little or no power over buses and trains (private companies), school (governing bodies), neighbouring authorities (obviously, but some people I've spoken to think it'll be a mayor of the old Avon), business rates (national government) or a raft of other things that people often think that the Council controls, but doesn't.  They will be hamstrung as much as the Council currently.  A far more important issue for Bristol is the power that we hold as a city and as citizens.  To the best of my knowledge, no place with a mayor has been given any extra powers with the exception of London - there are vague murmurings from government, but it's a pig in a poke. 
  6. Supermayor - he's everywhere!  Some people I've spoken to have this lovely idea that a mayor will simultaneously be able to run the city more effectively (see above) and also 'speak up for Bristol in London and Europe'... whatever this means!  Is that really what the city needs - a part-time mayor who isn't even in Bristol most of the time?  Speaking up for Bristol is what MPs are elected to do and, in my experience, all four of them (two Labour, one Lib Dem and one Tory) do a pretty good job of it, especially when they work together.  Is there any evidence, again, that Bristol is deficient on the national or international stage?  The last few years have been extremely successful for the city in pulling in external investment - from the top of the head, £40m for new school building, £42m for transport infrastructure, £10m for cycling, £75m (mainly loan) for renewable energy, £5m for sustainable transport etc etc.  I don't want a mayor who's paid through my Council Tax to gladhand their way around the world.
OK - that'll do me for now!  I could add another dozen reasons why a mayor is a bad idea, but I won't as most people have probably already stopped reading.  Ironically, I could support the idea of a mayor if it was configured in a different way, with proper accountability, democratic oversight and checks and balances - one which worked with councillors as local representatives, instead of being above them and able to ignore them and the people they represent.  This isn't it - we're being bullied into a deal that binds our hands for a generation and one that's just too risky to accept.  Think carefully on Thursday and remember that the grass is not always greener.