Sunday, February 10, 2008

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

1 comment:
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:

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.