Wednesday 4 July 2012

Sustainable transport v biodiversity and community food production: case study of a landscape dilemma

An interesting case currently bubbling up on my doorstep in East Bristol that highlights the difficulties created when competing demands, each with their own merits, are placed on the landscape.

For a city that prides itself on being progressively 'green', Bristol has been slow off the mark in addressing car dependency and the city council is seeking to address this with its Bus Rapid Transit Scheme, a major infrastructure project in partnership with adjoining local authorities to connect employment and transport hubs with residential districts via upgraded or new dedicated bus routes. The scheme includes a proposed new 'bus-only' junction at Stapleton giving access to the M32 motorway into the city centre. The council has put the plans out to consultation with a formal planning application later in the year.

This is a worthy and progressive scheme to try and put Bristol's transport infrastructure on a more sustainable footing. The problem is that the site adjacent to the motorway earmarked for the development is part of a 'green finger' of open land that extends well into the urban suburbs of the city. Under threat is a belt of overgrown but well-loved fields and old market-garden allotments, mostly held by local tenants; grade 1 agricultural land under-utilised in recent times but of high value in terms of potential productivity, biodiversity, habitat and the aesthetics of urban open space. Furthermore, the lands premature early retirement into ragged nature has been partially halted by a Lottery-funded Avon Wildlife Trust initiative called Feed Bristol, which has recently seen 7 acres at the heart of the area in question given over to a community food growing project. Many people, myself included, are now advocating that such traditionally overlooked and neglected edgelands should be utilised much more for crop and livestock production through community schemes like this with the multiple social and environmental advantages that accrue, rather than facing incremental loss at the hands of commercial development with often dubious local benefit.

And there is the rub. If this was a rapacious multi-national predator threatening green space then how much more straight-forward the case for opposition would be to construct, albeit not necessarily more likely to succeed. However, if you are concerned with environmental impact both locally and more widely (and there are many who do not see this as a concern, whether due to apathy or the perceived automatic primacy of 'the economy'), where does your support lie in a case like this? In defence of the local green space or the, perhaps, wider social good of the rapid transport scheme?

However, there is a further twist in this case that tilts the council's viewpoint and plans into a less enlightened place. The rather bizarre design for the junction makes more sense when it is realised that the scheme provides the link roads to the motorway for a Park and Ride car park that appears in the draft Core Strategy for South Gloucestershire Council (the boundary between the two local authorities runs through this area). The car park is proposed for a much larger area of land immediately to the north, an area of further allotments with the same market gardening historic land-use. It seems clear that the overall strategy, for which the two councils have been provided with significant funds from central Government, to produce a city-wide transport system overrides any considerations of negative localised environmental impact. Whether by Machiavellian design or, perhaps more likely, an unintended consequence of the illogical division of this part of Bristol into the jurisdiction of two local authorities, the current consultation is only on one element of a clearly larger plan for the Park and Ride scheme.

This last part of the picture was provided at a local meeting that I recently attended, which  included speakers from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), the Avon Wildlife Trust and a geographer from the University of the West of England with a professional and personal interest in the area. The meeting was attended by a mixed and engaged audience of around 50 people: allotment holders, local residents and volunteers from the Feed Bristol project. The aim to provide a platform for a credible campaign in opposition to the Rapid Transport junction and Park and Ride car park, based on multiple but linked factors, including: 
  • Existing and potential use of the market garden allotments and surrounding land for community-based local food production, ticking multiple 'green' and 'localism' boxes and addressing emerging concerns over food security. Tarmacking over one of the few areas of Grade 1 agricultural land in the West of England makes little sense. 
  • The loss of highly valued 'urban' green space, which contributes to Bristol's reputation as a city with a high quality of life, and the long-standing market gardening heritage of the area. 
  • An alternative model that uses the existing motorway/ dual carriageway network to provide the rapid bus routes with a Park and Ride scheme running from the M4/ M32 interchange further out of the city (as much of the traffic originates from outside Bristol and this is a congestion black spot in itself). 
In my view a key issue here is ownership. Much of the land is owned by Bristol City Council who rent allotments of land out to tenants, with other parcels of land in private ownership. There is a local view that the council has deliberately facilitated the running down of the productive use of the land, through restrictive 12 month leases, to clear the way for the development scheme. However, if the Feed Bristol scheme and other more ad-hoc food production carried out on some of the land can really take off and get the local community involved and engaged, how much more difficult it would be for the council to push through the destruction of such activity on their own estate? 

This is one small example of a tension that is being played out in many contexts in which different environmental agenda's are finding themselves in opposition to each other; the most high profile being the growing opposition to the environmental impact of the physical infrastructure of renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines, clashing with the advocates of replacing fossil fuels with a more sustainable energy supply. I think many people, and I would include myself, often have conflicting feelings in these situations: protecting local places and spaces or sacrifices for the greater good?

Personally, I think that this call would be easier to make if we did not have a planning and local decision-making process that had to operate in the chaotic maelstrom of advanced modern capitalism (mystifying referred to as 'the real world', as if it is some kind of inevitable progression in the natural order). In this context we have all seen far too many examples of environmental degradation for, at best, our unthinking desire for more choice and convenience, or at worst craven self-interest and corporate or personal profit. If this was not the case, I think many of us would realise that sometimes, if there are no viable alternatives, then environmental sacrifices have to be made if there is a genuine societal benefit.

Perhaps in the absence of such seemingly Utopian rationality (as advocated in my blog post: Manifesto for a working landscape) it comes down to whether the 'right idea' is in the right place or has been well enough thought through. My opinion is that this is emphatically not the case here and I will be supporting the campaign to try and convince the two local authorities to listen to their local community with some humility and re-think their plans for the benefit of local food production and the landscape. 


  1. Dear Eddie,

    Thanks so much for highlighting this case which is very much alive and kicking right now. I'm involved in the campaign to bring about a rethink of the M32 Park & Ride predominantly because of the urgent need to safeguard our Best and Most Versatile Land for sustainable local food production!
    How did you know about this case? It would be great to link with you and build the campaign.

    Many thanks again

  2. Hi Maddy
    I went to the first campaign meeting but couldn't make the second. I'm in touch with Joe from CPRE and hope to be involved more.


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