The battle to save Bristol’s blue finger strip

A new transport scheme is putting council against community.

Travel a few miles north of Bristol city centre and you’ll find yourself standing in a group of allotments and food-growing projects known as Feed Bristol, the hum of the M32 road audible close by. This community-driven collective is part of the Avon Wildlife Trust and enables a broad range of local people to grow food using non-destructive, wildlife-friendly methods.

Walking around the eight acres, the sense of community spirit here is clear. Since opening in 2012, Feed Bristol has supported 5,500 disadvantaged people, 4,000 school children from 38 schools, and over 110 different groups. A total of 23,000 people have engaged in activities on site with the support of 453 volunteers who have given almost 22,000 hours of their time.

Rain is dripping down from grey skies on the day I visit, but it’s this kind of temperamental weather that makes the soil here so important. Classified as Grade One, Feed Bristol’s location — known as the Blue Finger strip — is some of the highest quality growing land found in the UK. Just 3% of this grade exists nationally. In practice, this means that produce can grow well in any weather, rain or shine, which is what makes it so valuable.

Maddy Longhurst is coordinator of The Blue Finger Alliance, the collective voice of those working together to prevent Grade One soil like the Blue Finger strip from falling victim to damaging and unnecessary development. “The projects on this land depend on the richness and adaptability of the soil for dependable harvests. The Blue Finger and these ‘better than organic’ projects provide a benchmark of soil quality and soil care which all urban growers can follow,” she says. “Decision makers need to recognise that poorer quality soil produces harvests less reliably and with less nutritional richness in the food. We need both reliability and nutritional richness at the core of our food system.”

The individuals, organisations and businesses that make up The Blue Finger Alliance have come together over the past year in community action against MetroBus, a joint government and council scheme to introduce a new bus-only junction over the North Fringe to Hengrove section of the M32. The idea of this 50 km public transport network is to better connect parts of Bristol, which MetroBus says will create better access to education and employment. But Feed Bristol, as well as Stapleton Allotments next door, will suffer as a result of this development.

“MetroBus is devastating the landscape, biodiversity and soil structure on the allotments and smallholding of the Blue Finger which it affects,” Maddy explains. “It is reducing Feed Bristol’s land area by a third and adversely affecting over a third of Stapleton Allotments, which are being relocated to what was a wild flower meadow - an area that has been scraped off and the hedgerows ripped out. This new allotment site will essentially make the Allotments into a roundabout, surrounded by traffic on all sides, and the new land is reportedly contaminated by lead.”

“The MetroBus scheme has highlighted the urgency of the need to make significant changes in the city to ensure something like this never happens again. It has played a part, I believe, in the Green Party successes in Bristol. We now have 14 councillors,” she continues. “It has also raised awareness of the problems we face with a planning system which is adversarial and exclusive, which delivers business interests to the exclusion of public interests.”

In contrast, Councillor Brian Allinson, Chair of the West of England Joint Transport Executive Committee responsible for the scheme, argues that MetroBus is a positive move for the city. “MetroBus will play a significant role in providing greener, more sustainable public transport in the area that will encourage people out of their cars, reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality,” he says. “We are standing fast to this big-picture commitment and working together to make it happen.

”Mike Ginger of the Alliance to Rethink MetroBus campaign group doesn’t agree. He believes that the scheme’s plans are detrimental in terms of both environmental impact and sensible city development. “Given the £200m price tag, this does not amount to an integrated transport policy. We have done work to highlight the impact of MetroBus on green spaces. More than 25 green sites will be damaged including open common, ancient woodland, urban edge countryside and greenways, as well as Feed Bristol and Stapleton Allotments,” he explains.

“The three MetroBus routes are predicted by the authorities to attract an additional 277 passengers during the morning peak hour, which will not have a noticeable effect on congestion and air quality,” he says. “In fact, most of their use will come from existing bus services, which themselves may become threatened financially. People living close to the M32 have called for improved bus services, but MetroBus will largely bypass them.”

As of January 2015, all necessary permissions have been granted for the MetroBus development plan to go ahead, and work has already begun. This has resulted in grassroots campaigning with the aim of stopping MetroBus in its tracks. In February 2015, a dozen campaigners set up camp in trees bordering the Feed Bristol and Stapleton Allotment sites in protest against the MetroBus scheme. This community action has proven a huge embarrassment for the city council, given that Bristol was granted the title of European Green Capital for 2015, and had just begun 12 months of events and initiatives to celebrate its new status at the beginning of the year.

Belinda Faulkes, a spokesperson for community group Rising Up, was one of those involved in the treetop protest. “We believe in the need to resist and respond to this development — to try and stop it, but also to demonstrate and exhibit our deep-felt convictions,” she says. “We were and are [in our protests] standing up for the rights of the local community, democratic justice and the wildlife and environment that are inextricably linked to our wellbeing as a community and as individuals.”

“There were serious flaws in the supposedly democratic processes and decisions involved in allowing this development to take place. The justifications for carrying out this destruction and development were unfounded and at times untrue. Every other official channel and action we had tried had been blocked and met with silence or resistance,” she adds.

When I approached MetroBus for information on the project and comment on the protests, the result was a confrontational email exchange, in which campaigners’ concerns were dismissed and played down. After providing some contradictory figures and a lot of information about the success of another unrelated transport scheme in Cambridge, I was provided with the following statement from George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol, which originally appeared in a 2015 press release:

“I have some real sympathy with the genuine objectors but these [additional eviction] costs were largely caused by the involvement of a number of protestors using extreme measures. It is most frustrating that this action should have continued at a very real cost to local taxpayers despite all that I have done to engage directly and to explain the history and inevitability of the situation as well as the measures I have taken to protect the majority of the land for food growing for all time. The MetroBus works at Stapleton have full legal and planning approval and these very significant costs are deeply regrettable. They could so easily have been avoided if protestors had complied with the court ruling or chosen to make their points in a lawful way.

”In short, Mayor Ferguson’s not too impressed with democracy, public input or direct action in this instance; it’s all been quite inconvenient for him and other public figures involved in the MetroBus scheme. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive a reply to my email asking for clarification on the difference between genuine and disingenuous objectors, and whether there was an acceptance at MetroBus that lawful, democratic means of expression had on this occasion failed the Blue Finger community.

MetroBus also told me that no Grade One land would be lost as a result of the scheme, that affected allotment holders would be compensated, and that they would benefit from improved facilities like parking and storage at the new allotment site. MetroBus also pointed out that over 17,500 hedgerow plants, shrubs and trees will be planted in the M32 area.

What MetroBus fails to mention is that despite some minor efforts to mitigate the environmental and community impact, the scheme will still result in the loss of almost five acres of the best and most versatile quality agricultural land in the country. This loss was revealed in an August 2014 report, then quickly dismissed as trivial compared to the promise of new transport infrastructure and potential economic benefits for the city.

The biggest problem that the Blue Finger issue highlights is a lack of consideration for communities in the pursuit of economic growth on a local level. Democracy and decision-making should work in the interests of the public, rather than directly against those affected by political action.

With no infrastructure for protecting high-grade land in the UK, Bristol’s battle to save the Blue Finger strip is unlikely to be the last we hear of economic benefit winning out over environmental protection during the next five years. But Maddy is hopeful that her city will set a precedent for governments and local authorities to pay more attention to citizens on community matters: “If Bristol seizes the opportunity to turn a corner and create some new policy to protect its soils I believe it can have a national and even European or international impact.”

Originally published by Contributoria. Image above courtesy of The Blue Finger Alliance.

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