Wednesday, 30 September 2009

High Speed Rail - Our Position After Monday's Discussion

The topic of High Speed Rail has been much in the media recently and this Monday a group of Birmingham Friends of the Earth's campaigners got together to have a wide-ranging discussion on this issue. We looked at the advantages, disadvantages, possible routes and alternatives to creating a network of High Speed Rail lines in the UK.

In the media the impression is being given that HSR is undoubtedly the greenest option for getting people around quickly and that by building this network we will be saving huge amounts of carbon from flights. Green groups have generally given qualified support to plans, but in most of the articles I've seen in the press, there hasn't been much real discussion of certain aspects of the plan that should be key.

In terms of carbon emissions (reducing them is often given as a major reason for building HSR), there should be a full independent analysis of the impact of building and running this network compared to other scenarios before it is given the go-ahead. If this doesn't show an overall cut in greenhouse gases emitted as a result of having High Speed Rail, there is no point in spending all that money and using all that carbon doing it.

We must ensure that we use the most energy efficient models possible. Apparently, the Japanese bullet trains have the same energy efficiency as Pendolinos, but travel twice as quickly. Speed should not be seen as the only factor in what choices people make when they travel. This can be seen in the numbers of people who currently take coach or slower trains to London rather than the 85-minute Virgin service, which is prohibitively expensive for many.

In terms of social and environmental justice, we must ensure that when public money is invested, it is beneficial for all members of society, not just the affluent few and that those who live in areas near the proposed sites of the lines will also not suffer. Just because it is a rail rather than a road-building project doesn't mean we will apply any less rigour in assessing its environmental impact.

£50 billion is an awful lot of money to spend when there are many other projects that could make a significant difference to the everyday lives of people in their travelling to and from work, study or social events. Currently the carbon costs of transport are not properly reflected in what the consumer has to pay, with large increases in rail and bus fares, but decreases in the costs of air fares and driving in real terms. This should be addressed and would possibly have just as big an impact on the choices of transport modes people make.

As you can see from this map, Europe has some good coverage by High Speed Rail and getting people to these destinations by rail rather than air should be the main focus. That means having a hub that connects the UK to the continent easily and conveniently (London Stratford was designed for this) and not stations at Heathrow or other airports. A station at Birmingham International would also put more pressure on greenbelt land being used for development in the M42 corridor rather than encouraging regeneration of areas in central Birmingham.

In the UK the biggest carbon savings could be made from longer routes, such as up to Scotland, where air has the largest market share. However, all development of transport should be done as part of an integrated strategy, not as a stand-alone project. If we do not consider door-to-door journeys, people will still either travel by car to stations or be forced to rely on unreliable public transport (which rather defeats the object of High Speed Rail) and stations without proper cycling facilities.

Overall, we should be encouraging less travel (as it all uses carbon) not more, so HSR should only be used to shift people from more polluting modes, not create new journeys. That means we also need to encourage more investment in economic development of places outside the South East, so that less commuting is necessary. Providing jobs in places such as the Black Country, Stoke and the more deprived areas of Birmingham through economic development and planning measures would ensure that existing infrastructure can be utilised more effectively and local transport networks will work more efficiently and profitably. Video conferencing should be the preferred option to travelling whenever possible as it has a much lower carbon footprint.

There is an existing network that is being and can be further improved, so there must be conclusive proof of the need for new lines over and above what is already available. Also, if new conventional rather than high speed lines are built, will this not result in just as much benefit at a much lower cost.

So, while High Speed Rail has been shown to work well in reducing the need for air travel on the continent, we have many reservations as to whether it is the best use of resources now. All of the above points need to be looked at very carefully before committing to such a scheme.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

My Opinions on Sustainable Food Production

DEFRA's Food Policy Unit is inviting comments on sustainable food production (at

I have replied that the British government's initiatives include a number of useful developments – but also one seriously flawed assumption: namely, that ‘we must increase food production in order to meet increasing demand’.

We already produce more than enough food to feed the world; our failure has been one of distribution, not technology. The essential task is for the ‘rich’ world to release some of its grip of the world’s food resources, and enable local communities worldwide to be in control of feeding themselves.

The growth in human population will of course mean that there will be more mouths to feed (a trend which itself would be better controlled via greater equality), but unless we achieve much greater equality regarding access to food, we will always be plagued by the inefficiencies of our current economic system, and no amount of technological innovation (as with the supposed ‘green revolution’ of the 1970s) will solve it.
Your thoughts?

Aldo Mussi

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

In Town Without My Car Day 2009

Every year we moan about the council not doing anything about In Town Without My Car Day and then leave it too late to organise a big event. But leaving your car at home shouldn't be such a big deal, should it?

Tens of thousands of people travel to work every day without using a car and over 30% of households in Birmingham don't actually own a car so are reliant on other means of transport to get around.

So, what happened when Birmingham Friends of the Earth challenged the 50 most powerful and influential people in the region (according to the Birmingham Post) to give up their cars for the day?

What did we expect? Polite refusals? To be completely ignored? For everyone to say yes?

I was not sure what would happen, but I thought that, in the current climate of individuals being seen to take a lead on being greener, it might just work. Over the past few weeks I have been collecting responses, prompting those who didn't reply, contacting the press and other media about the story and the interest has grown and grown to the extent that Birmingham City Council actually put up a message of support for it on their website.

If you want to know what the results of this challenge were person by person, then read on.

1)Paul Thandi: NEC Group – No reply, other than acknowledgements from his PA that she had passed on my emails to him.
2)Paul Kehoe: BIA – I was informed by his PA that as he was away on leave until just before it he could not do it.
3)Lord Digby Jones – I was informed by his PA that he is out of town and not able to participate.
4)David Bintley: Birmingham Royal Ballet – No response received at all.
5)Gary Taylor: Argent Group – Informed us that he cycles at least once a week to work now and will be away on Tuesday, but will cycle the day before.
6)Neil Rami: Marketing Birmingham – Will also be away on the day, but the rest of his company will be doing it, apparently.
7)Clive Dutton: Birmingham City Council Planning and Regeneration – Said he would certainly do it.
8)Professor David Bailey: Coventry University – Said he would be taking bus and/or train as usual.
9)Andris Nelsons: CBSO conductor – Is in Vienna on the day, so unable to take part.
10)Mike Whiby; Leader of Birmingham City Council – Has “long-standing commitments on the day in question which make it difficult to honour if he could not use a car”, although he will try to walk between meetings.
11)Christine Braddock: Birmingham Metropolitan College – No response
12)Julie Moore: CEO of local NHS – No response.
13)Andrew Mitchell: MP for Sutton Coldfield – Will be in London cycling to work as every day.
14)Glynn Purnell: Celebrity Chef – Unable to do it for “personal reasons”.
15)Paul Tylsley: Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council – Not in Birmingham on the day.
16)Liam Byrne: MP for Hodge Hill and cabinet member – No response.
17)Stephen Hughes: Chief Executive, Birmingham City Council – Will catch a train to the airport, which, unfortunately, is unavoidable to keep commitments. Always walks to work when in the city.
18)Suzie Norton: Screen West Midlands – Is on maternity leave.
19)Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya: Warwick Manufacturing Group – No response.
20)Ravi Kant: Head of Tata – Didn't attempt to contact him.
21)Randy Lerner: CEO, Aston Villa – Not in town on the day. I requested someone else high profile from the club, but got no response.
22)Anthony McCourt: Birmingham Development Company – Walks to work every day.
23)Jason Wouhra: East End Foods – No response.
24)Salma Yaqoob: Councillor – Will walk or use public transport instead of car for the day.
25)Stuart Griffiths: CEO, Birmingham Hippodrome – No response.
26)Phillip Singleton: City Design, Birmingham City Council – Will take the bus.
27)Professor Nick James: University of Birmingham – Cycles at least once a week and takes the train from Longbridge other days.
28)David Smith: Jaguar-Land Rover - Didn't attempt to contact him.
29)Dr Waldemar Bujalski: University of Birmingham – No response.
30)Justice Williams: Inner City Creative Media Group – Unable to contact.
31)Clare Edwards: Gigbeth – Works from home most days and says she'll take public transport if needed on the day.
32)Trevor Foster: Bigwood/Lockton – No response.
33)Paul Bassi: Bonde Wolfe – Unable to contact.
34)Tom Lawes: The Electric Cinema – No response.
35)Andeep Mangel: ICAEW – Unable to contact.
36)Paul Bradshaw: BCU – May well be working from home, but doesn't own a car for environmental reasons, anyway.
37)Helga Henry: Fierce Earth – No response.
38)Simon Wales: THSH – Was supportive and often takes the bus to work, but has to take equipment to the NEC for a stall on the day in his car.
39)James Yarker: Stan's Cafe Director – Always cycles around the city and takes the train when travelling to other towns.
40)Professor Julia King: Vice Chancellor, Aston University – Out of town on the day, but encouraged all staff at Aston to take part and leave their cars at home.
41)Kerry Thomas: Fused Magazine – Very supportive and would have done it if in town, but away on the day.
42)Steve Dyson: Editor, Birmingham Mail – Unable to do it due to meetings and commitments in several parts of the city.
43)Bennie Gray: Custard Factory – No response.
44)Mick Laverty: AWM – Unable to contact.
45)Stuart Rogers: Birmingham Rep – Happy to do it and will take the bus.
46)Paul Hadley – Rhubarb Radio – Works from home and says he always takes the train when travelling in and out of Birmingham.
47)Adrian Goldberg: The Stirrer – Will be in London on the day, where he will use public transport for all his journeys. Wishes the same was possible in this area.
48)Jerry Blackett: Birmingham Chamber of Commerce – Will take train and folding bike, as he often does.
49)Ian Austin: MP, Dudley North and regional minister – No response.
50)Martin Mullaney: Cabinet member, Birmingham City Council – Will be taking his scooter.

So, what can we see from this?

Well, apart from the lack of responses from 14 people – about a third, I was encouraged by the number of people who are very much aware of the issue and already use other forms of transport on a regular basis. Almost half of the “power 50” gave us such positive responses about their travelling habits and I would suggest that this means a minority of these people take their cars into town every day.

What about being without a car every day?

This is, of course, the most important point to be made. It's all very well doing a one-off attempt to be more sustainable, but if we're going to cut transport emissions and congestion and deal with the related health issues in this city we need to get more people out of cars and onto public transport, bikes or walking as a matter of course. This would enable us all to use the space we have in this city more usefully.
We are working hard on campaigns such as “20's plenty for Birmingham”, “Re-open Our Stations” and “Better Buses for Birmingham” to tackle the issues that prevent people feeling that they can get around the city without using a car. If you want to help us with any of the campaigns, please contact us on to find out how.

Future events

By next year I sincerely hope that steps will have been made to improve the experience for people using public transport, walking or cycling in the city and that when the council launches its own In Town Without Your Car Day events, we'll see streets filled not with cars, but with people out there talking to one another and enjoying sharing the space together.
Does anyone else agree that it would be a good idea?

Monday, 21 September 2009

The First Climate Flash Mob in Brum

This afternoon at 12.17 a group of environmental activists gathered in Victoria square with a couple of Polar bears to give a wake up call to politicians that the Copenhagen Climate talks in December are the most important ever and that they must be there to ensure a proper deal is reached.

I have heard of flash mobs before, but this was the first time I'd actually been on one. Monday lunchtime seems a pretty inauspicious time for a demonstration, but a decent crowd gathered, some of them in pyjamas or other nightwear, but most not, and the "tick-tock" countdown worked really well, even if it was a bit shorter than advertised.

After the countdown and the alarm bells ringing, it was time to try and ring the prime-minister or other senior ministers and give them messages about how important the talks are. Most people were not able to get through, as there were similar events taking place in cities all over the UK, but I spoke to a very grumpy switchboard operator in David Miliband's office who had obviously been talking to other similar people non-stop and Tim spoke to someone quite high up in Ed Miliband's office and left a message.

Overall a fun way to spend a lunchtime and it's good to go out and try different things. There was some good press and media coverage of the event, which means it will reach further than the people who were there on the day. Well done to Oxfam for organising it and thanks to all the people who came along to make it such a good crowd.

Joe Peacock

Pets in the credit crunch

Thinking about the economic shadow that has fallen across the land, reminded me of one class of victim that is becoming increasingly vulnerable, the domestic pet.

Being around animals is established as good for health, so it is sad when such access declines, as is inevitable when there is not enough income to feed the family. One alternative is to think about having a working pet. As with any other pet, the trick is to have a collective of willing friends and family to share the care. A working pet is one that partly or wholly pays its way, so an egg-laying bird comes to mind.

First thought might be a prolific egg-laying duck, the Khaki Campbell, until one thinks of the noise and how the neighbours might take to that. From that, I arrived at hens and fed ‘rescue battery hens’ into the computer. It turns out that there are a host of people thinking that after a short lifetime of indoor existence, a future of greenery can be offered.

Amongst the search results is one for a TV programme that was trying to coax supermarkets to only sell chicken meat from farmers offering a happy life (one shop remains obstinate There is also an answer to ‘Where can we get chickens to keep at home? That suggests rescuing an ex-battery hen giving the Battery Hen Welfare Trust website : (address: BHWT, North Parks, Chumleigh, Devon, EX18 7EJ).

Keeping an animal is a serious business and having contact with local organisations who can advise on vets, such as an Urban Farm, is a good idea.

However, wouldn’t you rather have fowl in a fox proof henhouse than a competition indoors for sofa space with a leg polishing moggie?

Friday, 18 September 2009

In Town Without My Car Day Birmingham Style

September 22nd is a day when all over Europe cities are holding events to promote sustainable forms of transport and the benefits of streets being car-free.

Birmingham, as usual, is not, but never fear your inventive campaigners at Birmingham Friends of the Earth have come up with a plan to try and get it on the agenda. We have challenged the Birmingham Post's Power 50 to participate on the day and not use their cars in order to show some leadership in the issue of environmental transport.

This has actually been well received by most and the responses from many of these influential people have been very positive. Unsurprisingly, the media have also been very interested in the story and the reaction of these high profile people to a challenge from environmentalists.

With three days to go before the day, there is still time for a few more to accept our challenge, so we won't be publishing the full results until then.

The big hope is that it will get enough attention for the council to put on a proper event themselves next year and show a real commitment to providing an integrated public transport system for all the people of Birmingham to be able to get around without a car every day.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Moseley Folk Festival

Giant chickens arrived at Moseley folk festival after it being overwhelming landslide victory after asking on Facebook and twitter that Mary Horesh, Birmingham Friends of the Earth campaigner should wear it at the festival and was even caught on camera. Also, we had bunting and a fabric cow blowing in the wind to give the stall a real country fair feel.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth were lucky enough to have a stall at Moseley Folk Festival and had an enjoyable time, listening to the music but also getting the public to get involved in our campaigns. One festival goer came congratulated the team and thanked us, encouraging us to keep up the good work.

Over the weekend we collected around 250 postcards for the fix the food chain campaign and around 200 for the reopening Moseley and Kings Heath station.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

High Speed Rail - White Elephant or Bees Knees?

High Speed Rail is an issue which is very often in the news at the moment. There seems to be at least one article on it in the local papers every day. Here, for example, is the one today.

For an environmental group, this is obviously a very important issue to discuss and arrive at our own conclusions on whether it is worth the money, energy and resources to complete the project, or whether there are better ways of providing good transport links and a boost to the economy in a way that is sustainable and low carbon.

On Monday September 28th we will hold a meeting to talk about these questions at 19.30 in our meeting room 54-57 Allison Street, Digbeth. Everyone is welcome to come along, contribute or just listen to the arguments and find out more.

If you have any questions about this meeting or just want to get involved in our transport campaigns in general, email or ring (0121) 632 6909

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Memories of cycling in the 1950's around the Midlands

Here is an account of what it was like to cycle around the Midlands with the cycling touring club (CTC) and how from Sutton Coldfield you could explore the Midlands and beyond

Black Hill tales of cycling

One day this will be possible again...