By Cai Dodds and Tim Lawrence

You may have seen ‘Bristol 2015’ with a green circle logo around town - the brand name for Bristol being European Green Capital this year - but what does this mean? Bristol 2015 states it is committed to celebrating and improving the city’s life in terms of nature, resources, transport, energy and food. At a glance, it treats these five green themes equally and emphasizes getting everyone involved. This sounds great, yet in practice what is being given priority? And who is deciding this?

Let’s take a closer look.

Green Capital Rhetoric

For its year as European Green Capital, Bristol 2015 is working towards three key goals :

  1. Local empowerment: to work with existing initiatives, networks and local communities to ensure that the value of sustainable living is delivered across Bristol’s neighbourhoods, businesses and the voluntary sector, resulting in attitude and behaviour change.

  2. International reach: To build Bristol’s global profile as the UK’s most pioneering, sustainable city and region, to encourage exports, investment, tourism and economic growth.

  3. Sustainability leadership For Bristol to become the leading forum for UK, European and global exchange in sustainability expertise, in the lead up to the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change.

The European Green Capital Award, which Bristol was awarded, is part of the European Union’s Environmental Action Programme (EU EAP), which in turn identifies three key objectives:

  • to protect, conserve and enhance the Union’s natural capital

  • to turn the Union into a resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy

  • to safeguard the Union's citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and wellbeing

In our experience the reality and the rhetoric don’t match. Although the above may seem clear, in reality;

  • The key goals and objectives contradict and conflict with one another, and

  • Priority is given to international reach/competitive economy over local empowerment/natural capital.

 

Although the above may seem clear, in our experience the reality and the rhetoric don’t match: the key goals and objectives contradict and conflict with one another; and priority is given to international reach/competitive economy over local empowerment/natural capital.

Green Capital Reality - a case study.

To consider the difference between the rhetoric above and the reality on the ground, let us consider the Blue Finger and Metrobus controversy as a case in point.

The Blue Finger

A prime piece of Bristol’s natural capital is the high grade soil for food growing running alongside the M32 and out toward Winterbourne, dubbed the ‘Blue Finger’. This natural asset has been in decline since the rise of supermarkets and imported food.  Historically it employed hundreds of people as market gardens, growing fruit and vegetables for Bristol.

 

Local Empowerment

Local initiatives such as Sims Hill Shared Harvest, Feed Bristol, Edible Futures and the Blue Finger Alliance have been working hard in the last few years to reclaim, rejuvenate, and restore the area’s soil, ecology, economy and the local communities’ relationships with the land.

Sims Hill now grows vegetables all year round which feeds its 100 member households. Feed Bristol sees thousands of people visit and volunteer each year learning about the symbiotic relationship between wildlife and food growing. In addition, every year core volunteers are learning the skills and going on to establish other community growing projects around the city. Together these groups and others are working to conserve and enhance Bristol’s food growing capacity and wildlife habitats.

These groups have been embodying the primary goal of Bristol 2015 – local empowerment – long before the European Commission ‘awarded’ Bristol the Green Capital status for 2015.

These organisations and local allotments have recently come under threat by a West of England Partnership ‘rapid’ transport programme, Metrobus. On the surface, this could be seen as a conflict between two different green initiatives: food vs transport.  However, this is a distraction from the deeper conflict that exists within the EU EAP and Bristol 2015 alike - the conflict between global green capitalism and local sustenance.

In reality, Bristol, Europe’s Green Capital, has chosen - and looks set to continue prioritizing - international reach (export, investment, and economic growth) over local empowerment (resulting in attitude and behavior change).

Contradiction and Conflict

The West of England Partnership is made up primarily of business interests and the four local Councils. It has a strong transport for business emphasis but no obvious food action plan. The Metrobus plans to connect people in South Bristol to jobs and shopping in North Bristol, namely: UWE, Cribbs Causeway, the Bristol & Bath Science Park, the Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems/AirBus, and Rolls Royce etc. The Stapleton Junction is said to save only three minutes of journey time.

The high grade soil of the Blue Finger is not adequately protected by policy or legislation. The local food growing and wildlife initiatives seeking to conserve, protect and enhance this area have received some small grants in terms of investment (tens of thousands of pounds). The Metrobus junction affecting the Blue Finger will, however, cost an estimated 20 million pounds alone.

Local campaigns and attempts to contest planning consent to the Metrobus developments have been ignored, and the legitimacy of the planning process questioned. To give another Blue Finger example, on the neighbouring Frenchay smallholdings, the Council’s Allotment and Smallholding Department did what they could to accommodate community food growing projects whilst the Property Department sold half off the holding to a property developer, UWE, no contest. This is despite the fact that the land in question in both cases was entrusted to Bristol City Council in perpetuity (forever) as green space for the benefit of the citizens of Bristol, suggesting a prioritization in the conflict of interests and a breach of responsibility.

After exhausting diplomatic channels to contest the Metrobus development, local people rose up and exerted their democratic right to protest by occupying the site and physically resisting its desecration. Ironically, the Council were willing to spend the equivalent of the entire green Capital grants fund on evicting the Rising Up protesters, which could have been used to invest in the green spaces they were intent on protecting.

When challenged face to face by the Rising Up collective to stop the Metrobus junction in Stapleton, the mayor, George Ferguson, said he had inherited the scheme and that his hands were tied. Believe him or not, it is important to note that a lot of big decisions are made by the Council(s) in partnership (cahoots?) with big business interests - they aren’t going to change their priorities just because we ask nicely or a few of us protest.

Community empowerment indeed.

Mockery

The reality on the ground makes a mockery of Bristol’s claim to green capital status. It is evident we are talking ‘green’ global capitalism that is contrary to and in conflict with local empowerment, which enhances and protects our habitat and safeguards its’ inhabitants health and wellbeing.

If we want the Council’s priorities and behaviour of big businesses to change, we need to make that happen.

Unless more of us get involved adopting different strategies and methods, Bristol will only be as green as the tarmac it is buried under.


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