Saturday, 24 April 2021

City Council should take back control of the buses

Alongside Climate Action Leicester and Leicestershire, we have today written to the City Mayor urging him to take back control of the buses. You can read our letter below. We think we need a radical improvement in our public transport in the city and the bus companies are never going to provide it of their own accord. 

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Dear City Mayor, 

We are writing to you as transport activists. In some cases, we have spent many years campaigning for better public transport in Leicester. 

We have read the Draft Bus Plan and we are pleased to see the level of ambition for improving bus services and increasing patronage. When we are facing a climate emergency, we need a radical improvement in the bus services to persuade people to make the necessary change in their transport habits.
 
We know that you have decided to pursue an Enhanced Partnership. However, we have no faith that the Enhanced Partnership mechanism will enable these ambitions. It is our experience that the bus companies in Leicester are not really interested in improving their services as long as they maintain their profits. 

The National Bus Strategy states, ‘We will support any LTA which wishes to access franchising powers, and which has the capability and intention to use them at pace to deliver improvements for passengers’ (p.10). We understand that there are difficulties associated with franchising and finding the capacity within the Council to manage that system. However, we believe it is necessary for the Council to take that level of control if there is to be a significant improvement in the bus services. We know that you have always wanted better control of the city’s public transport and we hope that you will lead the way for UK cities in seeking this.

We urge you to work with other cities and the County to seek joint agreement that franchising is the only realistic means of achieving networks and services commensurate with the government’s decarbonisation requirements, and then to do everything you can together to win the government’s support for that approach. We would be happy to do whatever we can to help, and look forward to hearing your reaction to this proposal. 

Yours sincerely,

The members of:
Leicester Friends of the Earth 
Climate Action Leicester and Leicestershire’s Transport Action Group
Climate Action Leicester and Leicestershire’s Low Carbon Planning and Housing Group

Monday, 5 April 2021

Peat-free gardening concerns and peat-free posters

Since starting the ‘Leicester is no place for peat’ campaign, we’ve heard a few concerns about gardening without using peat. I wanted to take this opportunity to respond to those. 

Quite a few of us in Leicester Friends of the Earth are keen gardeners so we can talk from experience. I’ve got a garden and an allotment. I’ve had my allotment for just over 10 years and I grow vegetables and soft fruit there. In my garden, I grow herbs and flowers in the borders and salad leaves in containers. 

My sister helping with re-potting

Plants grown in peat-free compost at my allotment

Here are my responses to the concerns we’ve heard: 

“It's difficult to find peat-free compost / plants in shops”

You do have to shop carefully if you’re trying to avoid peat because compost and plants grown using peat won’t usually be labelled. You have to look for products specifically labelled ‘peat-free’. There is a handy list of peat-free compost brands to look out for and nurseries that sell plants grown in peat-free compost on the DogwoodDays blog – you might want to bookmark it! Unfortunately, none of the nurseries are close to Leicester but most sell online. If you visit a garden centre and you can’t tell whether plants are grown in peat-free compost, ask! It will help garden centres to move towards being peat-free if they understand that there is a demand for it. 

“Peat-free compost is expensive”

The price of compost does vary but the peat-free compost I buy from my local hardware shop is the same price as the high-peat brand. I think it might be a complete myth that peat-free is more expensive. Peat does of course also have an enormous environmental cost; extracting it destroys valuable wildlife habitat and contributes to climate change. So if ever you’re tempted by a cheap peat-based compost, remember that you’re not paying the real price! The cheapest compost of all, of course, is garden compost, so make sure that you’re composting your green waste at home – the RHS have useful advice about how to start composting. 

“Peat-free compost is too coarse for seeds”

I grow nearly all of my plants (vegetables, flowers and herbs) from seed in shop-bought peat-free compost mixed with garden compost. I tend to use the same brand (New Horizon), because that seems to be most widely available near to where I live. However, there are several different brands and I’ve spoken to friends who use other brands with similar results. I never have any problems growing seeds. There are sometimes small pieces of woody material in peat-free compost, just as there are in my garden compost. I pick out any larger pieces as I’m sowing seeds but the smaller pieces don’t seem to cause any problems. I think the idea that seed compost has to be very fine comes from old gardening books – in my experience, it isn’t true! 

The other thing to remember is that peat itself does not contain the nutrients that growing plants need – it has to be added artificially to peat-based composts. Whereas garden compost and peat-free compost you buy in the shops is full of plant nutrients, just as nature intended. 

If you have any other concerns about gardening without peat, please leave a comment below or get in touch – we’d be happy to talk about this further.

 

If you’ve gone peat-free and you’re trying to persuade friends and neighbours to join you, we now have peat-free posters available! Please feel free to download and print. The two hand-drawn posters were designed by pupils at Brooke House Day School in Cosby, who have been learning about peat in their climate literacy lessons.

 

 

 

Monday, 8 March 2021

Rewilding book reviews

During lockdown, a few of us have turned to reading books about wildlife while we haven’t been able to visit wild places. There has been a spate of books about rewilding over the last few years, as interest grows in the idea of restoring nature rather than just conserving what is left. Here are some of the books we have enjoyed.

 

FERAL

By George Monbiot 

All across the world nature is in retreat and there are few countries where that process is as far advanced as in the UK. Our environment is shorn of a large proportion of the species that used to thrive here. Feral catalogues and mourns what we have lost, but it also presents a vision of what we might have again. George Monbiot points out that in this country even landscapes that are seen as wild and natural are in fact mainly unnatural ecological deserts. He advocates allowing nature to reclaim a lot of the UK’s deforested uplands, which are currently maintained as barren deserts by management for grouse shooting, deer stalking or only very marginally productive sheep farming.  In part this would be about simply allowing regeneration of natural tree cover, but to establish truly thriving natural ecosystems it would also need to include active reintroduction of key species, particularly larger predators and large herbivores. Rewilding the UK’s uplands in this way would help to combat climate change, by sequestering a lot of carbon and would also help to prevent flooding in more populated areas, by slowing run off. I found the book inspiring.  I believe that protecting and restoring woodland and peat bog has an important role to play in helping to combat climate change, but like Monbiot I also long for a return of some real wildness to my world.  

 

WILDING

The Return of Nature to a British Farm

By Isabella Tree 

This book tells the story of an unproductive farm, whose owners take the decision to stop farming in any traditional sense and instead let nature return. They make some interventions, like sowing areas of wildflowers and filling ecological niches long left empty in our wild spaces by introducing small herds of large herbivores. But their most radical action is to choose to do nothing most of the time. They stop cutting the hedges; the hedgerows spread into wide corridors and nightingales move in. They stop draining a wet field; it turns into a boggy area with wildlife they have never seen there before. If you’ve ever read the reports of what is happening to our biodiversity and despaired, this book is for you. It left me quite emotional and I think the main emotion was relief. Maybe we haven’t broken everything beyond repair after all. Maybe nature can come back.

 

REBIRDING     

Restoring Britain's Wildlife

By Benedict Macdonald 

Benedict Macdonald uses the current fortunes of the British bird population to analyse the current state of our countryside and land use and investigate why we are doing so badly in contrast to our neighbours across the Channel and in Eastern Europe. He uses the evidence from Wilding by Isabella Tree about the success of the Knepp estate in increasing biodiversity, to advocate a bolder use of our outdoor spaces including national parks, with better control of deer populations, introduction of beavers and reductions in sheep and cow herds. He suggests that conservation bodies must change their priorities to buying larger areas of land which will give bird populations, currently at unsustainable levels, a better chance of recovery. The reintroduction of pelicans to a greatly enlarged wetland in Somerset is an appealing vision.

 

NATURE'S ARCHITECT 

The Beaver's Return to our Wild Landscapes

By Jim Crumley 

Jim Crumley is one of Scotland's foremost nature writers and one of the earliest advocates of beaver re-introduction. He describes the earliest personal sighting of beavers in the river Tay who had unofficially reintroduced themselves and visits other sites in Scotland where controlled introduction of beavers has been allowed, such as

an historical experiment on the Isle of Bute and a contemporary release at the Aigas Field Centre. He discusses some of the benefits to river management which might occur as a result and reviews literature from Canada about the role of beavers in their landscape. At regular intervals he returns to the river bank to watch beavers at work and play.

 

BRINGING BACK THE BEAVER

The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways

By Derek Gow 

In Isabella Tree’s review of this book, she describes the author as ‘a wry, profane truth teller who is equal parts yeoman farmer, historical ecologist, and pirate’. I can’t improve on that description! This book helped me to understand the role of the beavers in our ecosystems, which I hadn’t properly understood before. It made me hopping mad that the UK government is so ridiculously averse to change and that large landowners still have so much power in this country. But most of all, it really made me laugh. Look out for the explanation of how to sex a beaver – I laughed until I cried.

 

By Malcolm Hunter, Alison Skinner and Hannah Wakley

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Leicester is No Place for Peat

At our last meeting, we decided to run a 'Peat Free' campaign. We discussed peat being used as a growing medium in bags of compost sold at garden centres and the lesser known facts about peat locking away carbon and keeping it out of our atmosphere. 

Over the last 10,000 years, UK peatlands have sequestered 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon - nearly 40 times the amount of carbon stored in our woodlands. Peatlands contain about half of the UK's stored carbon. Globally, peatlands store about half a trillion tonnes of carbon, trapping organic matter underwater. Unfortunately, digging up the peat enables oxygen to get to it, so the organic matter starts to decay, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The environmental damage caused by extracting peat for compost is immense. It releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Peat bogs are also excellent areas of biodiversity, so peat extraction contributes to habitat and species loss. 

In 2011 the government published a White Paper with targets for the end of peat use in horticulture. The aim of this was for all compost available to amateur gardeners to be peat-free by 2020. Unfortunately, the targets were voluntary and most garden centres chose to ignore the issue and still sell bags of compost containing peat. 

So, we are asking garden centres to reconsider selling peat.  Our ask is that people visit their local garden centre and see what they are selling, then send them a letter (as we cannot face to face campaign at the moment), requesting them to reconsider their position. A copy of a standard letter is available on Google Docs.  If you do send a letter perhaps you can let us know in the comments below so that we can keep a record. 

There is also another letter for people to send to schools to ask them to go peat free if they buy compost for any gardening projects. We have already had one positive response from a school. Let us know if you get any more - then we can add their name onto our list. Here is the link to Google docs.

Also, we are asking people to pledge to buy peat free themselves. The pledge can be found at  https://actionnetwork.org/forms/pledge-to-use-peat-free-compost. Facebook users can also sign up to our Facebook group to share information about peat-free gardening.

This is the beginning of our campaign, as, hopefully, COVID restrictions get lifted we hope to step up the 'Leicester is No Place for Peat' campaign.  Watch this space......! 

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Who pays for parking?

Many organisations in Leicester provide free car parking for their employees. Most do not provide a benefit of the same value for employees who do not drive to work (e.g., a free bus pass), so they effectively subsidise travel costs only for the car drivers[1]. The lowest-paid in any organisation are the least likely to own a car and benefit from this subsidy. One organisation I used to work for provided car parking spaces for the CEO and directors (who were of course paid the most) and everyone else had to choose another form of transport or pay for street parking. This just compounded the inequality created by free parking. And any incentive to drive has a cost for everyone in terms of air pollution and carbon emissions. 

There is a way to address this issue and it was introduced in Nottingham several years ago. Local authorities can charge a workplace parking levy (WPL) so that organisations have to pay for every parking space they provide. The levy is charged to employers but most pass it on to the employees who use the car parking spaces. The money generated can then be used to fund sustainable transport initiatives that benefit everyone. In Nottingham, it goes towards their tram system[2]

Leicester City Council are now considering introducing a WPL. They are meeting employers and working with De Montfort University to gauge whether it would work in Leicester. They are hoping to launch the public consultation later this year. If it goes ahead, they would have continuous funding for transport improvement works, instead of relying on government funding schemes as they do at the moment. 

The way that the government forces local authorities to bid for funding has always seemed ridiculous to me. Council officers spend enormous amounts of time preparing bids for specific funding schemes, in competition with other councils, only to be unsuccessful and have to shelve their plans on a regular basis. If the government funded local authorities properly, councillors and officers would be able to look at their area, decide what is most needed and make it happen. Instead, they are dependent on the vagaries of whatever the government feels like funding that week. This is just another way for the government to take away local control. Although the government has provided funding for various sustainable transport initiatives over the past few years (e.g., cycle lanes and electric buses), it is always piecemeal and never allows local authorities to confidently plan an ongoing strategy. The WPL could change all of that. 

In a pre-consultation meeting we had with Leicester City Council recently, they explained that they are planning to link all revenue to work on climate change action, with three investment priorities:

·       Rail station transformation - to allow for increased capacity

·       Rapid mass transit network - electric tram quality buses

·       Active travel everywhere - expanding the walking and cycling network

These all have the potential to make it easier for people to choose sustainable transport. 

In Nottingham, the WPL has also given the council an excuse to talk to employers about travel demand. These conversations have led to the adjustment of bus routes to better serve employment locations and created a scheme where employers can bulk buy bus season tickets at a discount. Along with the disincentive of paying for parking, these schemes will help to discourage people from driving to work. 

Although we will want to look at the details carefully, to make sure the proposals do not unfairly disadvantage the lowest-paid (as the current situation does), it is clear to me that environmental groups should support the introduction of a WPL in Leicester. We are looking forward to the consultation.



[1] This point was recently made by Professor Donald Shoup in an online lecture called, ‘The High Cost of Free Parking’, hosted by Queens University Belfast.

[2] Nick Ruxton Boyle’s article in Air Quality News has more about Nottingham’s WPL scheme: Workplace Parking Levy - the second coming - Air Quality News

Saturday, 5 December 2020

Climate Crisis Film Festival

A few members of Leicester Friends of the Earth signed up for the online Climate Crisis Film Festival in November and we’ve written brief reviews of the films we watched in case you are looking for an environmental film to show to your community group.

 

Zero Waste Living

This was a very short upbeat film. It was about a guy who was a ‘dyslexic school drop-out’ (his words), who went to work in the food industry and realised that it had some major problems with food waste.

He went on to open his own restaurant, which was to be a zero-waste restaurant – he didn’t even have a bin!

He said the early years of setting up ‘Zilo’, his restaurant, was the hardest thing he had ever done. He began by having a failure, then another failure, then another failure – for three years he wondered if he had been crazy to even begin.

But then the fog began to clear, he had a success, then another, then another – he got some recipes sorted and began to get lots of customers – who loved his idealistic approach to food and waste management.

Today, ‘Zilo’ is Britain’s most ethical restaurant – he opened it in Brighton – creating change and he is now opening a restaurant in London.

The amazing quote from the film was ‘Waste is a failure of the imagination’.

Well worth watching!

 

Just Eat

This film was about food wastage.  Apparently 40% of our food is wasted.

A couple on the film set themselves a challenge:  To only eat food that would otherwise be wasted. So, they collected food from supermarkets.  Food that the supermarkets were going to throw away – this was usually vegetables and fruit that was the wrong shape. The couple were amazed at how much food is wasted.

People look for food that is aesthetically appealing. Farmers say that a lot of good crops won’t sell as they are the wrong shape. Consumers drive waste into the system by wanting to buy only perfect vegetables.

Supermarkets usually state the standards which they want and won’t even take food that is the wrong shape or size. This waste is as high as 70% of fruit and vegetables that is thrown away – perfectly good fruit but there is no market for it.

It showed celery being cut in the field and being chopped down in size before it even leaves the field as it is too big to fit in the supermarket bag.

The film showed the journey of food – to grow the food, you begin with the soil, sunlight, water – energy needed to produce the crop. Then it is picked, sorted and packed and (if it is the right size and shape) it is transported to the supermarket. Then it is bought but still not always eaten.  They discussed the energy of the production but sometimes it is just wasted when the food goes mouldy and is thrown away.

All rich countries are wasting food. This is causing huge environmental problems. If you look at the Earth from the sky you can see a huge number of fields producing food. This is where we are having a massive impact on the world.  We produce too much and waste too much.

Preventing food waste is a good way to fight climate change.

The film ended by saying: ‘Buy what you need. Make meals with what you buy. Just eat it!’

 

The Need to Grow

This film began with information about soil that will be familiar to many of us. We have an estimated 60 years of farmable soil left on the planet and the extraction mentality of industrial agriculture is leading to dramatic soil loss. Vandana Shiva refers to industrial agriculture as a ‘war against the Earth’.

We then follow the stories of a child food activist petitioning Girl Scouts to remove GMOs from their cookies, an urban farmer trying to re-localise the food system and an inventor who creates a system for rapidly rebuilding soil using algae and biochar. Each faces setbacks and in the middle of the film, their efforts to change a destructive system all felt a little futile. However, things start to improve and they all make some progress in what they are trying to do. The final image, with the child activist now a teenager, standing looking over the inventor’s pool of algae, left me with a feeling of hope that we will be able to learn how to grow food without destroying our environment.

 

How We Live: A Journey Towards a Just Transition

This short film is freely available on Vimeo and it is well worth 7 minutes of your time. It explains what an economy actually is (which is something that has always puzzled me!) and how it needs to change in the face of climate change. Go and watch it now!


System Error

I think this is the film that I struggled with most during the film festival – the inner workings of capitalism are pretty nightmarish.

An economics professor starts by pointing out that we recognise all growth has limits until we get to economic growth and we somehow expect that to be different. The only type of growth that does not have limits invariably ends up killing its host. The Club of Rome recognised the limits of economic growth in the 1970s but their revelation that growth was destroying the planet was promptly dismissed as fearmongering.

We move on to those pushing for more economic growth. Farmers in the Amazon basin surrounded by endless fields of soy or tightly packed cows, pigs and chickens are lobbying to reduce environmental laws that protect the forest.  A young Donald Trump in the early 80s explains how he is making money by buying derelict apartment buildings and getting tax breaks to do them up – he says he has never found a limit to growth but he hopes he will know when he reaches his limits (ha!) The director of Airbus in China boasts that 15 – 20 new airports are built in the country every year and there is an enormous ‘opportunity’ in the expansion of air travel.

However, at the core of all this economic activity seems to be a lie that I couldn’t quite understand. The trading centres in New York are now mostly empty as the financial markets are run by algorithms rather than people. Share prices are no longer linked to companies’ profits. In 2010, there was a ‘flash crash’ caused by a positive feedback loop in the algorithms that had to be resolved by shutting down computers. Robots now seem to be creating economic growth with little input from humans.

The film ends with the economics professor instructing us that optimism is a choice that we have to make. However, I just wanted to retreat to my allotment and get really good at growing my own food after seeing behind that particular curtain!

 

Anthropocene

This film reminded me of Home, which I saw years ago at the Phoenix. It presents the impact that humans are having on the planet without judging or offering solutions.

Geologists say that we have now entered a new geological age, in which the impact of humans on the Earth outweighs that of natural systems. We see a pile of elephant tusks in Kenya, rescued from the black market, the iron smelting factory in Norilsk, the most polluted city in Russia, Lithium mining in the Atacama desert in Chile, which supplies a battery plant in the USA. In Germany, a town called Immerath is being destroyed to make way for a coal mine. We watch as a bulldozer crunches up a church and hear that two towns have already been destroyed for the mine and four more are in its path.

85% of the Earth’s forests have been cleared, fragmented or degraded for human use and we see deforestation in British Colombia in Canada and Lagos in Nigeria. On their days off, the Nigerian workers attend a church like a warehouse, built to hold 1 million people. In Gudong in China, workers build a sea wall to protect an oil refinery from the rising sea levels.

Off the shores of Indonesia and Australia, the coral reefs are bleaching. In London Zoo, the highly endangered species are highlighted to the public with signs: tigers, gibbons, okapi, oryx a strange-looking fish and a tiny frog. Back in Kenya, they burn the ivory. A woman conservation worker says that she could not save the elephants but at least she can save their tusks from degradation.

I felt like I was acting as witness to a crime.

 

How to Let Go of the World and Love all the Things Climate Can’t Change

This was part of the ‘Fear and Hope’ theme at the festival, alongside a short film and a talk on climate anxiety by a member of Extinction Rebellion. If you ever suffer from despair about climate change (and I imagine most activists do), I really recommend this film. It won’t tell you that everything is going to be okay (because everything is already not okay), but it might show you a way through the despair that makes it possible to keep campaigning for change.

It starts with the director dancing as the Delaware River Basin in New York state is protected from fracking in 2011 after a long campaign. He then retreats to his local woods to enjoy the victory and discovers that a Hemlock tree he planted as a boy is dying – the victim of a parasite that spreads farther north every year with the warmer winters. He had helped prevent oil and gas extraction on his doorstep but he was still losing what he loved to climate change. Hiding in the woods was not going to be possible.

We are then taken on a journey through the effects of climate change and fossil fuel extraction and we meet those trying to stop it. We see the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in New York city in 2012, an oil spill in the Amazon that is poisoning the fish and the indigenous people who eat the fish, Pacific climate warriors blockading an Australian coal port, chanting ‘We are not drowning, we are fighting’, people in Beijing trapped in their apartments by the thick air pollution outside. Climate scientists recite facts and the director repeats, ‘Overwhelmed’. That feeling was entirely familiar to me.

But then we start to hear how others are dealing with this despair. An activist in the USA, arrested for disrupting an auction of federal lands (and later sentenced to two years in prison) tells us that there is no point in trying to avoid despair – we must learn to carry it with us. He explains that carrying a heavy weight in stormy times can help to keep you anchored. A woman in China trying to set up solar cooperatives asks ‘What do you want from your own humanity?’ and talks about ‘moral imagination’ that leads people to try and create a different world. In Vanuatu, communities discuss climate change at their daily council and dance together as a way of supporting community links. Perhaps the most moving for me was the climate warrior in Samoa who goes to visit the tree under which his father’s placenta was buried (a tradition to anchor people to the land) and discovers that it has been claimed by the sea. He stands and cries for a few minutes, totally overcome. But then he wipes his eyes, smiles and tells the director that he is not depressed because ‘we have a choice’.

These people completely inspired me. If they can make peace with their despair and keep going, surely those of us less immediately affected by climate change can do the same. The film ends with two girls brought together by the Hurricane Sandy devastation, now best friends, practising their ballet together on a beach as the director dances between them. 

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Launch of the Alternative Local Plan

We have spent months during lockdown re-writing the City Council’s Local Plan, after we discovered that the draft was missing many key policies needed to address climate change. Leicester City Council declared a climate emergency in February 2019 but in spite of this, the draft Local Plan that they published in March this year contains little detail on reducing Leicester’s carbon footprint. The Local Plan is the most important planning policy document for the city and will affect all planning decisions for the next 16 years. 

Members of Leicester Friends of the Earth and Climate Action Leicester and Leicestershire were dismayed to find so much missing from the City Council’s draft Local Plan and decided to take action. Four of us took a course in planning policy run by national Friends of the Earth (conducted over Zoom) to learn more about how planning works. We then worked with other local campaigners and set ourselves a timetable to read one or two chapters of the draft Local Plan each fortnight, discuss them in Zoom meetings and then write our own versions, with a strong emphasis on sustainability. We began in May and finished editing our Alternative Local Plan seven months later, in November. We will be submitting the full document, which stands at 63 pages, as our response to the City Council’s consultation and you can download it here

People tend to dismiss planning as boring but actually it is an incredibly important part of responding to climate change. How and where we build has enormous implications for energy use and biodiversity. Re-writing the Local Plan has been a massive project but we wanted to show the City Council what a really sustainable Local Plan could look like. It needs to include policies to improve energy efficiency of buildings, increase renewable energy generation, make it easier to walk, cycle and take the bus, protect green spaces and create more habitat for wildlife within the city. 

We hope that the City Council will be able to take inspiration from our version of the Local Plan.

To mark the launch of their Local Plan and to demonstrate that we are asking the City Council to make Leicester a model of sustainability, we created a cardboard model of a sustainable Leicester. A few of us worked on the models and then we collected them together for a photo. The model Leicester includes houses, flats, shops and public buildings with solar panels on their roofs. There are also green spaces, street trees and community gardens.

Climate Action Leicester and Leicestershire are encouraging as many people as possible to submit their own response to the consultation. They have prepared 12 key points that people might want to mention; these are published on their website along with a 40-minute talk that anyone can watch and even a song about the Local Plan! If you haven't responded to the consultation yet, please do so before the deadline - 7th December.