Changing Newcastle 1960s-2010s

Below is a Powerpoint presentation of how Newcastle in the NE of England has physically changed from the 1960s to the 2010s. Next to it is a commentary in PDF format that hopefully will provide background so viewers can make better sense of the slide

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse?

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse? notes

Newcastle from air from south

The first part uses the narrative structure of a route I took when I first visited the city in early 1968 for an interview at Newcastle upon Tyne University where I had applied to study Town and Country Planning (I was accepted).

I walked from Newcastle Central station through the city centre to the Claremont Tower on the campus.  Pictures from around that time are compared to roughly the same scene in recent years. Ones featuring trolley buses or trolley bus wires will, however,  be pre-1966 when the last service ran.

The second part spotlights some other changes, with a few slides at the end exploring changes already in the pipeline or being touted by the council and other forces in the city. Some issues are posed about the nature of change, its goals and related decision-making structures. Although Newcastle got off lightly compared to many Brtish cities in terms of  ‘civic vandalism’, many of the changes were steps away from the sustainable common good, sometimes making the city even less resilient in terms of coming ecological challenges. Too often the needs of the private car dominated all else, for example.

Current plans and projections also tend to ignore the ecological ‘facts of life’ and how the future will be very different to what is widely assumed by leading decision-makers and indeed the general public. We need a radically different vision if civilised living is to be sustained and a viable home created by other forms of life with whom we share both our local ‘patch’ and the Earth as a whole.

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Green vision for North East England

The North East England region of the Green Party, through its regional council, produced the manifesto below for 2014 European Parliament Elections. We hope to broaden and enrich it for future use.  Exchanges would be welcome with anyone engaged on similar work.

NE Green Party 2014 Euro Manifesto

 

Regionalism, devolution and subsidiarity

See here for two explorations of the green ‘take’ on regionalism, devolution and subsidiarity:

Bioregionalism v. Borderline bankruptcy (Irvine)

Devolution and Regional Powerhouses Debate

These issues are becoming more and more critical. Within the rather disunited UK, for example, there are the struggles over the future of Scotland and Wales. Within England there are parallel arguments about the devolution to the regions and a new generation of powerful city bosses (‘mayors’), often presiding over new combined authorities. Then the is the whole ‘Northern Powerhouse’ scheme, very much an inherently flawed attempt to replicate mini-Londons in other parts of the country. There is, of course, widespread and justified resentment of London-centrism.

Outside the UK, there are struggles for regional autonomy if not separation. In  2017 it was Catalonia that, in Europe, provided the focal point but such movements could erup in many places around the world, from Quebec to West Papua. Yet most just look for a different division of the same economic cake and associated lifestyles. Yet ‘business-as-usual’ is simply not sustainable (eg https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/bix125/4605229) We need, then, to look afresh at these matters and tease out a ‘sustainable regionalism’.

Looming over these matters back in Brtain is the push to take the UK out of the EU. In both Brexit and Remain camps, quite obsolete models of governance predominate. Manistream Brexiteers seem to entertain some fantasdy about a new Britannia that once again will rule the waves. Remainers, including some leading Greens such as Caroline Lucas MP and Jean Lambert MEP, have largely abandoned traditional (and valid) criticism and the EU, not least the Single Market customs union and associated free movement of people. Yet the flaws of the EU remain and indeed politicians such as Emmanuel Macron are pushing for even more political centralisation. Again we need to go back to green basic and develop fresh idea.

 

Newcastle Blue House roundabout monster plan

Blue House plan aerial view

The proposed Blue House roundabout is being called locally the ‘Gosforth suppository’ (it is lozenge-shaped and the planners intend to shove it at the bottom end of Gosforth). Perhaps it is no accident that the ‘consultations’ are taking place at the start of the school holidays. At these events the public is being told that nothing is set in stone but clearly the plans are well advanced so unless there are strong protests this wretched scheme will be bulldozed through by our Labour council.

Blue House plan-map

The giant roundabout planned for the Blue House to the north of Newcastle city centre, just south of the first houses in Gosforth. It is part of a package costing some £60 million now being spent on roads in Newcastle. The highway planner in charge of the scheme apparently told an enquirer that the scheme is designed to increase traffic. Growth is indeed the mantra of the city council. Already, more traffic is set to be pumped onto these roads by new housing at Whitehouse Farm to the NE of the area.

But that extra traffic is not all. Past experience suggests that the widened roads and speedier roundabouts will, by themselves, attract more vehicles anyway (the ‘rebound effect’). Thus the problems of congestion, air pollution and accidents will return sooner or later, while nearby housing will be blighted and great green space lost. None of this is evident on the visualisation below which shows just a few cars using the verdant new roundabout. 

Blue House plan

 

Council rhetoric can distract attention for what is a huge land grab, gouging out big chunks of the Town Moor (Dukes Moor and Little Moor sections). However, no figures were available at the consultation regarding the scale of the loss. None of the fancy computer visualisation showed the site as it is in comparison what is planned. However, the designers had managed to cover the visualisation with lots of mature trees (perhaps not surprisingly, there were no figures for the number of trees to be cut down)

Also lacking in the maps, visualisations and other material at the consultation on the two schemes was any mention of the severe ‘pinch points’ between the two sites, especially to the east of the T-junction with Osborne Road. Presumably, at some stage, the council planners will be back demanding more land for more roadways. For the time being, they have another trick up their sleeves, one buried in the details. It  is the stopping of the turn right into Jesmond’s Osborne Road for traffic coming eastwards from the new roundabout.

In the planners’ tunnel vision, the only way to keep a higher volume of traffic moving smoothly on this stretch of road is to remove the turn right lane. That will stop the 33 bus route that goes from Gosforth to the city centre via Jesmond.This road alteration will also force traffic coming from Gosforth to Jesmond to head south and enter Jesmond via Clayton Road or Forsyth Road. Both are highly unsuitable in terms of greater vehicle usage.

The current problems at the existing Blue House roundabout are largely caused by bad drivers. The emphasis should be on that. There may be several options, perhaps installing traffic lights (at least for part of the day), perhaps reducing the size of the roundabout’s centre (its size forces drivers to swing outwards), perhaps removing the two lane right turn (whose existence seems to confuse some drivers who dangerously cross lanes whilst turning right).

No amount of cosmetics can guise the destructiveness of the scheme nor its long-term ineffectiveness. The only sustainable plan is one that reduces the number of cars and lorries on the roads. In particular, it has to be made easier, cheaper and quicker to not use a car than to use one. That message might not be popular in many quarters. But it is the only way forward. All else is at best gimmickry and this plan is far worse.

Newcastle’s Town Moor: Green It!

Town Moor path

The Town Moor is one of Newcastle’s most noted landmarks. It also demonstrates some of the difficulties in developing sustainable land usage to replace present day degradation and waste. The Moor is certainly a sizeable area. When the Nun’s Moor extension is taken into account, it is bigger than London’s Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park combined. Few British cities have such an open area so close to their centre.

Yet from an ecological point of view, the Town Moor is a badly degraded space. Large parts of it are the remnants of an open cast site. The ‘hill’ in the NW corner is largely the product of spoil dumped from the construction of the dual carriageway which not only devoured a large area of land but also divided the remainder of the original Moor into two quite separate sections.

The land itself now provides rough grazing for cattle. It might be compared to the British uplands, large parts of which were described by the great ecologist and land reformer Sir Frank Fraser Darling as “man-made wet deserts”. The pioneer conservationist John Muir was even moved to call sheep four-legged locusts. The uplands are kept in their impoverished condition largely by a combination of overgrazing and excessive muirburn.[i]

From the perspective of biodiversity, the Moor is something of a wasteland. But its potential for human fulfilment is rather restricted too. It comes out poorly in comparison to similar sites in other countries. Think of Paris and the Bois de Boulogne or Vancouver and Stanley Park. New York’s Central Park is both more beautiful and more useful than the Town Moor. Even what are tiny sites by comparison have been developed to provide a richer and more varied experience (e.g. the exquisite Chinese park in Vancouver). Developments such as the Eden Project in Cornwall display more vision too.[ii]

Objectively the Town Moor might, then, leave much to be desired. Subjectively, however, it is immensely popular with many thousands of people. It also hosts the Hoppings fair. It might not be the destination of choice for many Greens, but it certainly entertains an awful lot of local folk. There may well be many individuals who might object to dense planting of new trees and other vegetation on the grounds that it would provide cover for muggers and rapists.

Such conflicts of perception and valuation are replicated elsewhere in the NE of England. Many visitors flock to sites like Rothbury’s Cragside House and gardens, for instance. The acres of rhododendron there are particularly popular. Yet the plant is a virulently invasive alien, which is now requiring expensive eradication programmes in areas such as NW Scotland. More generally, organisations like the Ramblers Association fight to preserve what they see as the open vistas of areas like the North Pennines and Cheviots, yet such uplands would be largely covered in woodland were it not for human deforestation, followed by the herding of excessive stocks of sheep and deer (often subsidised at public expense) plus further blows from pollution.

Alternative Land Use for the Moor

So there may be a strong case for new land use initiatives on the Town Moor. Its very size and location provides much scope for positive change, to act as a model of a more sustainable land use, and to enhance its status in terms of landscape, recreation and nature conservation. Every bit of land is need in the fight to reverse biodiversity losses and habitat decline[iii] as well as respond to concerns like climate change, food security and the poor state of the nation’s health (e.g. expansion of allotments, more woodland and ponds, trim tracks).

Already there are some good schemes in the locality to build upon such as Scotswood Natural Community Garden and the Exhibition Park lake wildlife and biodiversity project as well as various wildlife gardens and community farms across the region.[iv] The city of Leicester has two good examples of what might developed on the Town Moor: the ‘Ecohouse’ in Western Park and the Brock Hill Environment Centre. Then there is the wonderful little wildlife park just before trains enter the hyper-urban world of London’s King’s Cross railway station.[v]

Yet such a vision for the Town Moor risks popular wrath. Many, many people see the Moor – as it is – as part of their heritage and might react badly against those they perceive to be threatening it. So careful consideration is necessary when it comes to such matters but there are pointers to how best to proceed.

For a start, it has to be stressed that there is nothing sacred about ‘tradition’ or ‘heritage’. After all, many cruel, oppressive and destructive practices have long roots in history. Of course there are also a good many things worth conserving from the past as well as old skills to be re-learnt. Certainly we should have no truck with the values and priorities that led to large parts of Britain’s townscapes being wantonly destroyed in the name of ‘progress’. Newcastle itself lost many fine buildings to the developers’ bulldozers and wrecking balls.[vi]

A sustainable society will be partly fashioned out of the best of the old. But it would also depend upon radical innovation, guided by the principles of what might be ‘ecodevelopment’. Locations such as redundant factory sites, derelict old warehouses, contaminated former mineral workings, multi-storey car parks and supermarket parking lots would be obvious priority candidates. But given the scale of change needed, sites like the Town Moor might well have be ‘redeveloped’ as well.

Moor Change

Actually the Town Moor is not what it was. Nor is it what was it was once planned. Certainly there is a very long history of pastureland there, perhaps dating back some 800 years, since the previous woodland was cleared. [Of course, in certain past geological era, the land was under the sea or covered by desert and might be again in the extremely distant future… but we can only take responsibility for our own times!]

But subsequent history is quite varied, though it is most certainly a plus that it has not been covered under the normal urban sprawl. Richard Grainger, the famous 19thc. architect, developed a plan for a big park on the Moor but only bits of his scheme were to be realised. In 1966 there was a landscape plan for a big central lake and lots of woodland planting.

town-moor-lake-plan

Over the 20th century, big bites, amounting to roughly 20% of the original area, have been taken out of the Moor: new sections of the RVI, Fenham Barracks, Leazes Halls of Residence, and the dual carriageway. There have been large-scale open-cast workings on the remaining area while old cattle watering ponds have been largely replaced by pipes and some wetland infilled. Activities such as dog-racing have come and gone. Generally biodiversity is much lower than, say, Victorian times.

So much of the Town Moor’s environment has been significantly altered, even if surface appearance might not appear too different to what it was. The real issue is how it might change in the future since nothing ever stands still. Land ownership and use on the Moor is regulated by Acts of Parliament (the last in 1988). In practice, an unrepresentative clique, the Freeman of the City controls usage, though ultimate ownership still rests with the Council. Allotment users on the Moor’s fringes have frequently complained about the Freemen’s attempts to push them out.[vii]

One way forward might be to propose land use changes, as suggested above, on just part of the Moor, leaving the Hoppings undisturbed. In any case, likely increases in oil prices in the not too distant future may put pay to travelling fairs. Groups such as the Freemen presumably would object to the necessary legislation on the grounds that it is some sort of ‘land grab’. Yet the land on which sat working class communities have long been subject to compulsory purchase orders and other such measures to make way for ‘development’. In Newcastle, this has ranged from railways (the Tyne crossing, for example) to the two central university campuses as well as more general schemes to raise property values (and therefore council income, as in the Going for Growth clearances).

Land tenure reform and changed land use on the Town Mooris certainly a more sustainable option than ‘business-as-usual.

[i] For alternatives, see, for example,

http://www.reforestingscotland.org/ and http://www.bordersforesttrust.org/

[ii] http://www.vancouverchinesegarden.com/index.htm) and http://www.edenproject.com/

[iii] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/aug/06/piece-by-piece-conservation

[iv] http://www.farmgarden.org.uk/

[v] http://www.wildlondon.org.uk/naturereserves/camleystreetnaturalpark/tabid/124/default.aspx

[vi] For a sad general history, see Gavin Stamp’s Britain’s Lost Cities (Aurum Press, 2010)

[vii] The world of the Freeman can be sampled here: http://www.freemenofnewcastle.com/news.html

Newcastle: a ‘green’ city?

‘Green City’ Award (Forum for the Future)

There is much talk of ‘sustainable cities’ but sometimes it is little more than a touch of green gloss, camouflaging a very ungreen reality.

Newcastle from air

In 2009, the British organisation Forum for the Future described Newcastle in the NE of England as Britain’s greenest city.[i] Certainly the good work that is being done does deserve recognition yet, in reality, only small progress is being made. In terms of necessary urgency, given the speed and scale of threatening change regarding global warming, peak oil, and many other ecological threats, it is very much a matter of too little, too late. The failure of Newcastle in the EU Green City Award reflected that, with a very damning judges’ report.[ii] All kinds of policies also being pursued by the council that contradict what limited sustainability initiatives it has taken. At the same time, equally unsustainable social inequities within the city remain grievously wide.

There is much that is appealing about the city: the Grainger-Dobson architectural legacy, the Metro system, cutting edge health facilities, some attractive residential areas, parks like Jesmond Dene, the Ouseburn project… Rose-tinted spectacles must, of course, be discarded when viewing the city’s past. The old Quayside was ugly and badly polluted, especially around the old Thomas Hedley factory (later P&G). Its redevelopment had a number of pluses, even if some of the new architecture is a bit like a Legoland construction, designed by Albert Speer. Local air and water quality is generally much better than, say, 100 years ago. For all the talk of ‘yobbery’ and unsafe streets, it might be remembered that, only 40 years ago, local teen gangs such as the ‘Droogs’ swaggered around in search of violent ‘entertainment’.

Some of these qualities are rightly spotlighted in the Forum for the Future ‘Sustainable City’ assessment. Yet, overall, the indicators it uses are of limited utility. Sometimes it is a bit like comparing oranges and lemons, with little sense of what must come first for overall well being and how the different pieces of the jigsaw fit together. Thus there is a category called ‘ecological footprint’ yet this is separated from ‘climate change’, biodiversity’ and ‘air quality’ (water is omitted) as if the human impact was something separate from these key components of ecological systems.

More seriously, employment is treated as an independent variable. Yet some jobs might be very destructive in ecological terms, even if others may be useful and sustainable. No distinction is made, however. ‘Economy’ is separated from both employment and environment so the opening of a number of highly automated plants making armaments would have boosted Newcastle’s green standing. Such classifications are as meaningless as that grotesque picture of the national economy, Gross Domestic Product, counting, as it does, both ‘goods’ and ‘bads’. [It is estimated that, in the USA, each murder increases the GDP by $1 million, so a more murderous Newcastle would be a more economically ‘successful one’!].

So the yardstick of the number of VAT registrations used in the survey to measure business start-ups will include new lap dancing joints, burger bars, casinos, SUV salesrooms, and so forth. The proliferation of ‘value’ stores (Poundstretcher etc) and pawn brokers tend to suggest a decrease in well-being but all signify “economic vibrancy” according to Forum for the Future’s criteria.

In most cases, the categories beg more questions than they answer. So recycling is used as one indicator. But a high score just based on material collected as a percentage of total waste gives little insight into the actual ecological worth of the activity. If it means an energy-intensive collection system in which collected waste is sent long distances for recycling, then it might do more ecological harm than good. Newcastle’s system seems designed to suit the likes of Biffa and Sita rather than make it as easy as possible for local citizens to minimise the waste they generate. The amount of litter strewn all over the city needs no comment here nor does the level of sheer noise.

Similarly the criterion of ‘green space’ could cover sterile lawns, parks playing fields or wildflower meadows. It says nothing about land use practices on such sites, such as use of synthetic chemicals and cutting regimes. Housing is not given any prominence, so histories like all the unnecessary demolition under the ‘Going for Growth’ programme go ignored. So too does the bias towards cul-de-sac and often quasi-gated ‘executive housing’ developments. [Anna Minton’s Ground Control (Penguin, 2009) has good sections in Newcastle’s record here.]

Education does feature but its assessment is more complicated than suggested. For a start, given problems like grade inflation, pass rates are no longer a good guide to how schools are actually doing. Allowance must also be made for the fact that many Newcastle schools are sited in comparatively poor areas where broad social factors hinder attainment. In such circumstances, a school might still be achieving considerable success even if pass rates look comparatively low. Given that one or two of the city’s ‘best’ schools like Gosforth High are seeking to opt out and gain ‘independent’ academy status, it looks as if educational inequalities are set to widen in the locality.

In terms of sustainability, any judgement would need to study both the curriculum, exploring the extent to which ecological dimensions inform what is taught, and the environmental impact of the schools themselves. Given that one Heaton primary school won several awards for its building – despite the fact it is so dark indoors that lighting has to be left on all the time and that it seriously overheats – a degree of caution may be necessary about some of the claims made for local schools.

Forum for the Future takes such a narrow view of sustainability that it ignores the fact many new developments like Kenton School are funded by the Private Finance Initiative, thereby crippling future generations with unsustainably massive debts. In Jesmond, PFI deals have also created a situation whereby school buildings can no longer be used at night for adult education and the like due to the contracts. In a sustainable society, full use would, of course, be made of buildings to maximise efficient use of resources.

On transport, the measure used is the number of minutes it takes per month per person to travel to four key services: food, GP, Further Education and secondary school. This gives little insight into different modes of transportation and their impact. For instance, pedestrians and cyclists are still ill-served compared to private drivers, while the on-going march of big superstores, welcomed by many councillors, will mean the closure of more easily accessible local shops. At times, as in the case of Percy Street, quite contradictory goals are being pursued, namely road access to two bus stations and two big multi-storey car parks. While the Metro might boost Newcastle’s overall sustainability rating, that would mean little to the west half of the city which, of course, it does not serve. The very high cost of public transport, compared to, say, parking meters, also reflects the unsustainable priorities in traffic management.

Nothing has been said so far about leisure. Again it is a picture of unsustainability and inequality. Facilities like public libraries and swimming pools have tended to contradict, the odd glossy new building notwithstanding, while expensive private fitness clubs and the like have expanded. City centre pubs have been largely lost to ‘vertical drinking’ where there is so little seating and so much noise that the downing of more and more alcohol becomes the main option. Many people, especially older ones, regard the night-time city centre as hostile territory.

Bootprint

Imagine what would happen were a city such as Newcastle to be sealed by some giant bell jar. Its fate would suggest the real meaning of sustainability and ‘greenness’. Would the city’s people suffocate in the accumulating foul air, drown in their wastes, or die first due to a lack of clean water, food, fuel and other resources? Of course cities are not closed systems in real life. But their overall state and future prospects can be judged by the sustainability of the various inputs on which they depend and on the outputs created by their ‘metabolism’. In terms of impacts at distant sources and sinks as well as direct ones on their own patch, cities such as Newcastle have a massively unsustainable footprint.

So the greenness of Newcastle cannot be separated from the impact on far flung farmlands of the food it consumes…of the mines, quarries, open cast sites, oil and gas wells and reservoirs from which fuels, water, and minerals used in the city are derived… of the ‘tree factories’ whence timber and other wood by-products it uses stem… on the wildlife habitats destroyed or shredded to extend or intensify human production systems. Nor can it be separated from the impact of all the solid, gaseous and liquid wastes that flow from Newcastle’s homes, workplaces, transport systems, schools, hospitals, crematoria, leisure facilities, and so forth. Nor the land sterilised under its buildings and other infrastructure.

The Council must redirect much more of its research resources into the field of ecological footprinting (see the pioneering work of people like Bill Rees, Mathis Wackernagel and Herbert Girardet). In the case of London – contrary to the claims that it is the nation’s wealth generator – the ecological footprint of its citizens is roughly 49 million global hectares, 42 times its biocapacity and 293 times its geographical area. This is twice the size of the UK, and roughly the same size as Spain. Ecologically speaking, London is a wealth devourer.

Obviously Newcastle’s footprint is not nearly so great. Nonetheless it is excessive. Newcastle is, of course, not alone. It is part of a country that is in a general state of ecological ‘overshoot’. The ‘footprinting’ approach gives a fuller picture than the methodology of the Sustainability City Index. Forum for the Future may reply that it is only meant to paint a general picture. The accompanying text claims that the award “is intended to encourage healthy competition, stimulating discussion and giving citizens the tools to hold their leaders to account, (and raise) awareness of what it means to be a sustainable city”. That is fair enough at one level but not if it reduces, not increases, proper appreciation of the scale and urgency of ‘green redevelopment’ necessary.

Finally it must be noted that the Sustainable Cities Award says little about the citizens of the cities it ranks. Like so many studies of its kind, it is silent about population levels and local carrying capacity as if numbers don’t count. It also says nothing about values, aspirations and priorities prevalent amongst the local population. They matter! The Council is not only constrained by its budget and by central government directions. It also cannot get too far ahead of general public opinion.

The state of popular beliefs and lifestyle preferences in the city can be judged in many ways. Perhaps the most significant is how people shop and travel. The crammed shopping trolleys being wheeled to parked cars at Kingston Park and such sites gives a good indication how people are ‘voting’ with their wallets against long-term collective well-being. It is symptomatic of an underlying cultural crisis, the fundamental reason why Newcastle is not a sustainable city.

Tourist posters at the airport welcome visitors to a city full, they proclaim, of “passionate people”. Well, a great many may care deeply about, say the future of Newcastle United football team. Somewhat fewer, as yet, seem to care as much about the prospects of Earth United. So the real challenge of building a sustainable city remains the same as ever: persuading people that only way forward for sustainable and humane living is the green one.

 

[i] http://www.forumforthefuture.org/projects/sustainable-cities09

[ii] https://www.newcastle.com/sites/drupalncc.newcastle.gov.uk/files/wwwfileroot/parking-roads-and-transport/cycling/mdr0763rp00011h_technical_assessment_report_newcastle.pdf