Wednesday, 28 July 2010

True Costs

Public transport is always being hit by the government when they need to save money and now is no exception, but if we think of the true costs of this over the past century, all those alleged savings from not keeping railways or bus services going would surely be cancelled out if we calculated the what the alternatives have cost the country.
Let's just think of a few things that are attributable to increased car use over walking, cycling or using public transport:

It is hard to argue that our roads would be congested without lots of people each driving their own private vehicle. According to CBT, "the total cost of congestion is usually estimated at £20 billion a year".

Road accidents
Whilst some proportion of the accidents on our roads may involved buses, the vast majority are caused by cars. Again from CBT's 2008 report, "Last year there were 260,000 casualties on our roads, including 3,172 fatalities [1]. Using Government figures, the cost to the economy of these accidents was £12 billion."

According to the Transport Select Committee, "Government spending on roads has almost doubled in real terms since 1999–2000." In 2005/6 it was £6.6 billion and we know that with all the damage caused by the freezing weather this winter many councils are struggling to keep roads repaired and in decent condition. With fewer cars, we could scrap all new road-building schemes and ensure that those we have suit the needs of buses, cyclists and pedestrians better.

Carbon Emissions
Passenger cars emitted 76.8 million tonnes of CO2 (or 20.9 million tonnes of carbon) in 2007, according to DEFRA. Using Stern’s figure of £190 per tonne of carbon, the carbon caused by these cars cost nearly £4 billion.

The modern disease caused by sedentary lifestyles and over-eating costs the NHS £14 billion a year. It would be unfair to blame all of this on car use over more active forms of transport, but promoting walking and cycling could certainly help to fight it and reduce these costs.

In times when we are being told to look for ways of saving money, we should certainly not see spending money on public transport as anything other than a saving to the country as a whole when we see the costs of ever more cars on the road. It looks as if the distances that people are travelling have now peaked and are no longer going to keep on rising exponentially along with economic growth (although whether that will happen is also up for debate). To save money we need to invest in safer roads for cyclists and pedestrians and taking road space away from cars to make public transport work better. The benefits in savings and quality of life for all could be huge.

Let's start with showing how many cars we can take off the road for In Town Without My Car Day 2010.

Joe Peacock

[1] From Transport Statistics Great Britain 2007, published by the Department for Transport, November 2007
Section Eight, Transport Accidents and Casualties: Table 8.1

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Birmingham's vision

Over the past few months I have been on a training course with Common Purpose about leadership and the Total Place concept for Birmingham, showing how we need to work together to achieve the Birmingham 2026 vision. There have also been seminars and talks where this has been discussed alongside the reality of public service cuts in the offing, such as Monday's event at the MAC.

The vision is a good one as far as we're concerned, with really good aspirations for Birmingham to become a greener, more sustainable city. Birmingham also has a Climate Change Action Plan, which begins to show how the council is going to achieve the ambitious target it has for cutting CO2 emissions by 60% by 2026. Yesterday I went along to the first ever cabinet committee meeting on Climate Change and sustainability, where they talked about this plan and the progress that has been made in moving towards the goals it contains.

All of this sounds very positive and should be cause for celebration, but at the moment, with so many public sector jobs under threat and funding cuts for many really good projects already starting to bite or in the pipeline, it is quite hard to be quite that positive about delivery. Birmingham is a city with many talented and dedicated people who really want to make a difference, but the concern is that if all the regional agencies and support mechanisms for local authorities are removed, a large vacuum will be left and all the energy will disappear into it.

Total Place is potentially a good concept, but most of the talk amongst the participants on the course has been about how many people are losing their jobs. There are inspiring ideas and there is a real desire amongst most of the people there to be recognised as public servants who really are serving the public, not being bashed for doing "non-jobs" by politicians (who probably want public attention deflected away from them after their expenses scandals last year).

The most important thing is that the leadership at the council take on real responsibility for the actions happening and I was encouraged by at least one councillor at the meeting yesterday saying that he would do exactly that. It is also up to all of us to show leadership and to remind the politicians of what we've told them when consulted in the preparation of all these visions.

Policy on the ground has to match up to the visions, meaning local business is supported (while large supermarkets and chainstores aren't given planning permission) and people are given the employment opportunities, independent retail outlets and leisure facilities they need locally to reduce the need to travel. If developments such as Tesco in Yardley Wood or Moseley and Asda in Weoley Castle are granted permission, this sets the city on the wrong course, as does the refusal of planning permission to put solar panels on St Mary's church.

Let's get everything joined up and make sure a vision of a sustainable city does come to life. Cuts are on the way, so are massive challenges to stop the big society becoming hugely disappointed with promises not materialising into action.

Joe Peacock

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Open Farm Sunday - Hungersheath and Fordhall

Last month Birmingham Friends of the Earth went into the countryside to celebrate Open Farm Sunday, an annual event aimed at increasing people’s knowledge and access to farms and farming. Having previously visited an organic farm in Worcestershire, for this day we went into Shropshire to two farms, Hungersheath and Fordhall Farm.

Hungersheath is a small mixed farm with farm shop, tea rooms and 3 acres of pick your own. It has specialised in its asparagus crops for many years and to celebrate this was offering free tastings of a range of asparagus-based dishes. Cream cheese and asparagus terrine, pea and asparagus mousse, and cheese and asparagus muffins were just some of the delights on offer to sample. We picked up some great ideas on interesting things to make with a seasonal, local crop and stocked up on spears from the local shop in order to try out the recipes for ourselves when we got home. We also had a good walk around, saw the animals and had a chat with the farmers there.

Our second visit of the day was to Fordhall Farm – England’s first community owned farm, with over 8000 shareholders. This farm has been organic for over 65 years and is part-owned by some BFOE members. For Open Farm Sunday there was a beer festival on offer with live music as well as a host of fun activities including welly wanging, archery and some birds of prey. There was also a large range of different stalls selling a range of produce offering the opportunity to taste wares, including some particularly memorable brie. The weather had been ominous all day and before we had managed to see everything on offer there was a torrential downpour that saw us sheltering in the farm shop before making a run for it. It was a shame that we didn’t get the chance to learn even more about this exciting venture but we did at least get a cider in before the rain started.

BFOE is very involved in the national Fix the Food Chain campaign and part of this is about building alliances with farmers and trying to promote alternatives to intensive factory farming. It was really interesting to visit these places and learn more about the people and the methods used for planet-friendly farming. With the second reading of the Sustainable Livestock Bill due in November, it is really exciting to think that farms such as these could be supported much more in the future and will hopefully become a more common sight across the country.

Roxanne Green

Monday, 19 July 2010

re appearing bike racks

Very pleased to report the bike racks which were removed from outside the library a fortnight or so ago to make way for scaffolding, are now being re instated a few metres away from their original location.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hamstead Hall CLC goes Green!!

My school in Handsworth Wood, Birmingham, which has 1100 pupils, has made considerable effort in trying to save energy and stop climate change.

Teachers encourage students to switch off lights when they are not needed, in particular during day light. Small things like this save an enormous amount of energy and help cut Hamstead Hall Community Learning Centre’s carbon footprint.

Hamstead Hall provides the local Handsworth Wood community with fantastic facilities, such as weekend sport clubs. These extra clubs allow community members to use the sports hall and astroturf out of school hours. Therefore, keeping up a good image is vital for such a neighbourhood-based school.

Recycling is also considered to be something important within the school. In every classroom there are large paper bags where students are required to recycle paper and plastic bottles.

As part of Personal, Social Health Education days students participate in workshops within the geography department where they learn about the environment and their carbon emissions by calculating their carbon footprint. The head of geography says “the pupils were amazed to see how much energy they use, by going on the internet and playing on their X-box’s!”.

The ICT department of the school ensures that all computers are switched off after use, in fact there are posters on the walls of the classroom that directly inform students to save energy and stop climate change.

How does our school compare to others in Birmingham? I'd be interested to hear.

Rupi Chandla (Hamstead Hall sixth-form student).

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Switching my shopping to fair trade

Teenagers are often associated by some small-minded people with insatiable consumerism and ruthless disregard for the environment in their shopping habits. If I had wanted to become one of these teenagers, I would never have stood much of a chance.

My mother is a ruthless shopper at the opposite end of the scale. She has been known to scare away door-to-door fishmongers with her declarations that “we don’t eat meat, our freezer is full of Quorn and lentils, and we’ve decided not to buy cod or haddock as they are endangered species.” At the time she was wearing a stripy, overtly Fairtrade T-shirt, and holding a canvas bag with ‘ONE LESS PLASTIC BAG’ printed across it.

I think I was about 13 when I decided to give up non-Fairtrade chocolate. A few months later I was joined by my little sister. It is not as hard as it sounds. I’m happy to say that a lot seems to have changed on the Fairtrade front over the last three years, and Cadbury’s and I are now best friends once more. Even before that, there were plenty of Fairtrade options open to us which are just as good as Cadbury’s.

My sister favours the Comic Relief Dubble Bars; my after-exam cravings tend to lean towards Traidcraft chocolate buttons, or else Fair Break (shameless plagiarism from Kit Kat, but Nestle deserve what they get!). It is also helpful to know that the Co-operative, the Rainforest Alliance and Green and Blacks have their own ethical policies concerning treatment of workers (ie they count as Fairtrade!)

Even if you really can’t bear to be parted from that Twix bar, it’s equally important to write to companies and let them know you care. It’s become a family joke that it was my very moody and hormonal letter that got Cadbury’s into the Fairtrade thing. Joking aside, I’m fairly sure those letters are counted up- enough of them will make a difference.

Then there are the clothes. Unfortunately, the phrase ‘parrot fashion’ takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to Fairtrade vestments. If you don’t find yourself flapping with gratuitous bits of fabric which resemble wings, you will almost certainly be transformed into a stripy zebra, usually of the pink and orange variety.

I don’t have an infallible answer to this problem (if you do, email FoE NOW!). There are some good websites: I recently bought my prom dress from Fashion, and I also have some awesome converses from Ethletic. Natural Collection have some nice clothes, but they aren’t the most reliable at delivering orders. Traidcraft T-shirts can be cool, but most of their clothes are not really teen-friendly .

I realise that if your views on shopping are not analogous to mine (hate it!) there is an inherent problem with buying clothes online. Well, M&S has the occasional Fairtrade range, as does Store 21 on Kings Heath High Street. In town there is Shared Earth, if you don’t mind a rainbow of crazy colours ending in a pot of gold to pay. That’s about it really.

I don’t know if it’s possible to dress Fairtrade all the time- I normally aim for one ethical item per outfit. Really it’s about supporting Fairtrade when you can, and likewise trying to avoid sweatshops. While one pair of converses is all very well, the quickest way to promote Fairtrade is to show the companies at the top what we insatiable consumers really want.

Shoshi Stanton

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Mysteriously disappearing cycle racks

Chamberlain Square, location of the disappearing cycle racks...

Wednesday 7 July I went to park my bike at the usual spot I use next to Birmingham Central Library only to find the racks had suddenly disappeared! Replaced by a pair of bollards. Maybe someone at the council wants to really encourage all possible alternative modes of transport and figures these can be used to tether horses. I got chatting with a passerby who had also noticed this and he was as puzzled as I was.
I called Graham Lennard at Birmingham City Council 's Travelwise team who is as much in the dark as I am. He's endeavouring to find out why the racks have been removed and more to the point where and when they will be reinstated.
I will update this blog as soon as I have some news.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Outreach news

This last week I've been busy putting together a funding proposal to transform a piece of unused, contaminated land in the heart of Lozells into a grow site for local residents to produce their own food.
The Heart of Birmingham Primary Care Trust has pioneered GEML, which stands for Grow It, Eat It, Move It, Live It. This is a cross sector partnership operating in Ladywood, Soho, Aston and Nechells with four aspects: growing food, encouraging interest in cooking and healthy eating, active living and reclaiming open spaces. The site in Lozells is now developing this in other parts of the city.
It's remarkable what happens when you get agencies, third sector organisations and individuals working together. I was recently at an environmental forum meeting at which, in the space of fifteen minutes, a decision was taken to transform a piece of land into a grow site. Birmingham Council now has a worker on board who is able to cut through the jungle of red tape and make things happen.
I'm unsure what the exact difference is between a grow site and allotments, I think the essential one being allotments have a permanent status, whereas a grow site implies something more temporary.
I'm finding the research interesting. The site in Lozells is going to use raised containers and I've decided the quickest, easiest and most cost effective to be the builders bags which deliver aggregates. These are cheap, they are a good size for growing a few things, if someone wants to grow more they can have several bags. I'm successfully growing lettuces in one in my garden as an experiment.
I filled one a third full with polystyrene granules to bulk it out and provide drainage, then topped this with a layer of compost. I've found firms on the internet specialising in recycling plastics, and we'll use chips made from post consumer waste for this project.
These are exciting times. There's growing realisation the UK faces food shortages when oil runs out, because we have become so dependent on importing and transporting food. More and more projects are springing up in urban areas. Hackney, in London for example, has Growing Communities, which produces food in the middle of one of Europe's most densely populated cities.
I look around Birmingham and see huge potential. There's land all over the place. Last week I was in Marseille in the South of France. Couchsurfing in an apartment on a suburban housing estate on the city's south side, the grounds of which planted out with all sorts of trees such as fig, plum and olive.
We could do the same here, have a proper garden city, with apples, plums, pears...