Democracy theatre

I’m not sure where to begin. On Monday night I attended a meeting of Berkhamsted Town Council as a member of the public. They were due to discuss the planning application for an eight-storey car park in the centre of our town and I wanted to be there, to see the process for myself and raise my concerns. The council had given people a week in December last year to formally review and comment on the proposal and this had passed me by in the pre-Christmas rush.

In case you aren’t aware of the proposed multi-storey car park (MSCP)—and I think a lot of people aren’t—here are a impressions by an urban designer of what it will look like:

There were about 25 members of the public at the meeting, seated around the outside of the room. The town councillors sat in the middle around a table. We were each given a programme of business and asked whether we wanted to speak at the appropriate time. When I turned up I had no intention of talking but while waiting for the meeting to begin and reflecting on what was happening I raised my hand and said that I too would like to speak. I had little idea of what I was going to say.

First up was a planning application for 19 flats on a site by an existing residential area near Bank Mill. It turned out that a large number of people had come to the meeting specifically to raise concerns about this. The proceedings were suspended to allow people to speak, two local residents read their written speeches and the council thanked them. The application was quickly dismissed with the council members citing the numerous policy violations that the development would make. “This is great!” I thought. “The council seem to know exactly what they are talking about and are clear on the policies.” From the extensive work that people had done looking into the numerous policies that the MSCP would conflict with—including Dacorum Borough Council’s own transport and parking policies—I knew that the objections stood up and hoped that the council would be just as diligent in dismissing the application on similar grounds.

Dacorum Borough Council have spent over £350k on putting the application together. Despite spending all of this money, the application is deeply flawed. By deeply, I don’t just mean that there is some controversy over the technical details of impact to traffic flow and air quality (although there is that too!), I mean that it has basic issues such as saying that no trees will be impacted where in fact there are many across the whole of the site and multiple conflicting messages about what the core purpose of the car park is. Many people have written to DBC, Berkhamsted Town Council or commented on the proposal with their objections based on these issues and many are more eloquent or detailed than me.

Everyone agrees that parking in Berkhamsted is a total pain. So much so that there is a local parking forum that meets to discuss the issues. Anecdotally, you only need to drive down Lower King’s Road on a Saturday to experience the cars queuing back from the entrance to Waitrose onto the road itself. However, the ‘solution’ of a MSCP is short-sighted—even the representative of the parking forum said so at the meeting! We are very fortunate to have an independent traffic consultant in the town as well as a number of volunteers who contributed to an independent traffic survey. From the data they collected and the professional model that they used it is clear that there would be additional traffic in the area as well as significant pollution.

Here’s the thing for me—I don’t see how the MSCP will be good for the town whether it is full or not. If it is a ‘success’ and gets filled up with cars as is intended then we will have the added pollution and traffic—the main junction at the high street and Lower King’s Road will both become more of a nightmare than they are today. If it is unsuccessful and people don’t use it then we have spent £3.5m of public money on something that will have changed the character of our town centre for a very long time, with no payback.

Five members of the public spoke against the car park, including me, one after the other. Numerous policy violations were cited as well as yet another recent survey where local residents object to it. The representative of the town’s parking forum expressed disappointment at the lack of engagement from the Council. One final person then spoke in support of it. I learned later that this was Julie Laws, an ex-town councillor and former Mayor of Berkhamsted, who had been significantly involved in putting the original proposal together and was at the DBC Cabinet meeting where this was approved and the money allocated. She asked the room not to listen to the negative voices as they “always speak the loudest.”

Proceedings reconvened and I assumed it was an open and shut case. To my dismay, the councillors then started to give their own speeches in support of the work. First up was Tom Richie, our current Mayor. Incidentally, Mayor Ritchie is also an elected official of Dacorum Borough Council and sits on their Development Control Committee. DBC are the applicants in the planning process and are also have the final say in terms of whether it should be approved. So, Mayor Richie played a part in submitting it, was speaking (and had a vote) in supporting it at the Town Council level and will then assess it when it goes through DBC. Not only was this not declared at the start of the meeting when conflicts of interest were requested, it seems perfectly normal to everyone that this is the way of things! In my role as Chair of Governors at a local primary school I am often thinking about the seven principles of public life that came out of the Nolan report and making sure I ask myself how my actions look; at the very least, this participation as submitter and adjudicator seems to be at odds with the spirit of the principles, if not the letter of them. It feels like democracy theatre. Mayor Ritchie acknowledged that the application was flawed but effectively said that we should not turn down this opportunity to have £3.5m invested in Berkhamsted as the opportunity would not come around again—and we wouldn’t get the money for anything else if we turned it down.

Ian Reay, another former mayor, then spoke. His words reflected that of the Mayor in that we should be taking this forward. He said that we should approve it ‘with concerns’ and try to engage Dacorum Borough Council on the issues. I am not sure what this means in practice.

Councillor Garrick Stevens sat through this, shaking his head at what he was hearing—as did a large number of the public attendees, including people who had come along for the Bank Mill application. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Councillor Stevens made an impassioned plea to his fellow councillors not to approve this due to all of the factors that have been highlighted, however two more councillors spoke in support of the application.

The chair, Julian Ashbourn, then proposed that the Committee vote on the proposal. He offered a choice of rejecting it outright or approving it ‘with strong concerns’. Only one person, Councillor Stevens, voted against it. Everyone around the room was confused as to what this meant and Councillor Stevens himself had to ask for clarification as to what they had all just agreed on. Is ‘approved with strong concerns’ appropriate for a planning application of this magnitude? Councillor Stevens finished by saying “Right. You’ve sold yourselves down the river,” and this is exactly how we felt.

Where can we go from here? I get the impression that the majority of the councillors are keen to do something rather than the thing that is best for Berkhamsted. I do not see why there is such a rush to get this through. For example, could we test the impact of a temporary two-storey structure such as the one that was erected at the train station? These can be hired (for a lot less than £3.5m I assume) and would surely give a good insight into what would happen with an additional six storeys?

The Conservative councillors had the car park in their manifesto and I assume that they feel they are delivering on what they have promised, leaving a legacy for all of us. Many of us believe that we should be pressing pause and thinking again, but no matter how loudly we speak or clear our arguments, it doesn’t seem that we are being heard.

A windy day in London

Broken tree, Finsbury Square, LondonIt’s been one hell of a windy day here in the UK. The photo to the right is a shot I took this evening in Finsbury Square, London, of a humongous branch that had been ripped off of a tree. It was so big that instead of it being moved, a small fence had been put up around it.

Earlier in the day, looking out of my office window I had seen birds being completely batted away as they tried to fly into the gusts of wind. Newspaper was flying high up into the sky and the fence around the building site opposite my office had come down. One of my colleagues told me that he had nearly been hit by a flying hard-hat that had been blown off of a site workman (which would have been quite an ironic tale to tell for years to come, I think.)

The journey home was a bit of a mess – lots of tube lines were experiencing delays and it took me a while to feed myself into the crowd slowly flowing into Moorgate. I’d been warned by a text message from Mat that the Silverlink trains at Euston had scrapped their timetable and were just waiting for trains to fill up before sending them on their way so I knew what to expect. The staff at Euston seemed to be prepared and have everything under control – as I descended the ramp to the usual Silverlink platforms there were a bunch of British Transport Police and Silverlink staff keeping everybody back from the platforms and only letting people through when trains arrived. I misheard what they said and wandered through with a crowd heading for a Watford local service so waited at the barriers and took a short film of the goings-on:

I’m sure tomorrow’s newspapers will be filled with pictures of the aftermath of the storm but if you want to see more, somebody has just set up a Flickr group to collect photos.

Hopefully things will be back to normal tomorrow!

Not flying short haul

TrainAs the months and years roll by I find myself questioning more and more things that I do. I’ve been asked to go to Zürich for some meetings in a couple of weeks; a little while ago I would have been looking forward to a business class flight and eating out on expenses for a few nights but now the first thing that pops into my head is how bad the trip will be for the environment. There are stories appearing every day about the Siberian permafrost melting and revealing loads of woolly mammoth tusks as it does so (if that doesn’t mean much then take a look at the definition of permafrost) and the polar ice dramatically disappearing. I don’t really want to contribute to that more than I do already.

Yes, I know that I can carbon offset my flights but what good does that really do? The Carbon Trust aren’t a charity and to quote Rob Newman I can’t see them funding a project to put Bangladesh on stilts any time soon. Who they are, where they come from, who regulates them and how they came up with their pricing scheme is a bit of a mystery.

So, I’ve taken the step of looking into how to get from London to Zürich by rail. As soon as I did so I came across a splendid website which not only explains exactly how to do it but much more besides. If you’re off to Europe and enjoy travelling or simply hate flying then I seriously suggest you check it out. There are suggested routes, tips on how to get the best fares and information and pictures on the different types of carriage you can expect to encounter. The site also makes the point that a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted from a plane does 2.7 times the damage of it being emitted at ground level.

Basically, a trip to Zürich via Paris will take the best part of a day. I figured I could probably travel on a Monday and then get a sleeper service back to Paris through Friday night/ Saturday morning. I raised the thought with a few people at work today and can report that 80% think I’m nuts to even consider it. For example, when I called the travel desk to enquire whether they handled train bookings and said that I wanted to go to Zürich I was asked “Why on earth would you want to do that?” I lamely responded “Green reasons…” and started to feel a little bit nuts myself – hopefully she didn’t think that I had an obsessive colour preference or some kind of nasal condition. My boss called me “Swampy.” More seriously, he made the point that the time wouldn’t be as productive as time spent in the office – this is true, but during the whole office/ airport/ queue for security/ departure lounge/ short haul flight with food/ passport control-taxi rigmarole there is no opportunity to get a lot done whereas on a train I could at least work offline for a few hours. I might even catch up with all the emails and documents I’ve been meaning to read and get one or two of my own written.

In terms of cost, there isn’t that much of a difference between a first-class train fare and return business class flights; the train fares just seem a bit more random depending on what website, currency and method you choose to buy them.

I must admit that I do have utopian dreams of setting an example that the whole company begins to follow but in reality I know that I’d just be doing it because I believe it’s right. Plus, it would be great to see a bit of where I’m travelling to on the way.

What do you think? Have I lost the plot or am I right to be pursuing this?

Rob Newman’s History of Oil

I’ve just watched this show on Google Video and urge you to view it. If you’re in the UK you may remember Rob Newman as one half of the Newman and Baddiel TV comedy duo from the early 1990s. I used to watch them with my friends on a Saturday night and we’d all emulate the phrases of their History Today characters of “you know that <something horrible>…that’s you that is” etc ad infinitum. Well, Baddiel went on to work with Frank Skinner on their various football-related shows whereas Newman disappeared from my radar.

That was until I found myself listening to a fascinating interview with him on a Guardian podcast. He is still a comedian but since moving on from his partnership with Baddiel he has got much more involved with being what I guess you could call a ‘climate change activist’. He makes some fantastic points – I’ve mentioned them here before – but his video, originally shown on More4 articulates them in a much slicker way. For example, he makes the argument that World War I was originally a land-grab for oil (the British and Americans did not want the Germans to have access to oil from Baghdad via the Berlin-Baghdad railway that was under construction) and that the British and Americans have always had control of oil fields as military objectives ever since we started to use it as a fuel. There’s so much stuff of interest here – I had no idea, for example, that OPEC decided in 1971 that all oil transactions would need to be undertaken in US dollars; Iraq decided a few years ago to switch to the Euro and that must have frightened the pants off of the Federal Reserve who would have started to see the demand for dollars (and therefore its price) decreasing…

Watch it!

Lights out in Essex

It was great to read that Essex County Council are looking at stopping the practice of keeping street lighting on all night long. It’s such a waste when you think about it – why do we need the streets lit all night? I know that the first thing people think about is how safe the streets will be without light at night and I think that’s a genuine concern; it’s great that they are just looking at switching off the lights in “places where it feels it is appropriate”.

The City of London should surely be a candidate for this as well. If you’ve ever wandered around the City at the weekend you’ll know what I mean – the place is almost completely deserted with all the bars, shops etc shut down. If there isn’t anyone there, and there’s already enough light coming from commercial buildings, why do we need the lights on?

Rob Newman made the point about excessive street lighting in his excellent podcast on the Guardian website. He says that a lot of the energy conversations that we have are all focused on ‘how can we meet our energy needs in the future?’ – the demand side – whereas he says that we should be looking at the supply-side of ‘why do we need so much energy in the future?’. I completely agree.

Excessive packaging

Dabs.com packaging - some idea of a jokeI couldn’t quite believe what I saw when this landed on my desk. I recently ordered tiny pack of 10 Shure wax guards for my headphones from Dabs.com and they turned up today. In a plastic wrapper. Inside a jiffy bag. Inside another plastic wrapper attached to a piece of cardboard. Inside a frickin’ humungous cardboard box. What a waste! I won’t be ordering from Dabs.com again in a hurry. Grrrr!

Solar panels on wind turbines

Wind turbineDriving back from Stansted Airport the other week after one of the stag weekends I spotted the wind turbine at King’s Langley. They fascinate me with their gigantic size and the speed at which the blades rotate; whenever I see them I always feel like I’m living in some kind of futuristic vision. It occurred to me – why don’t they build wind turbines out of solar panels? Surely this would be a good idea – if you have a wind turbine you already have the equipment to channel electricity being generated by the apparatus onto the national grid. Solar panels would mean that you would still have some supply during the day even if there was no wind. Am I missing something here?