Friday, 6 March 2009

Sustainable Development Policy and Your Council?

When I had a call from Parks and Gardens today I was still holding out some hope that local government might be paying more than lip service to the UNCED agreements (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development including Local Agenda 21) the spirit of which at least should have filtered down to elected representatives and our civil servants. How wrong I was.

The issue at hand was the planned wildlife pond. We met in the car park on site to discuss it. As you'll remember, my plans for this were featured in blog posts recently, together with a photograph.

Since we were dealing with health and safety issues, as we were walking up to the plot I thought I would take the opportunity of explaining to Parks and Gardens how I had removed around three hundred bags of broken glass and rubble from my plot in the past three years. Single handedly. So I know something about health and safety. When I referred to the history of the plot Parks 'lady' said: 'Did you inspect the plot when you took it on?'. At first I wondered why she was asking this question - then I realised it seemed she was trying to spell it out to me that she felt the council had no liability (or indeed any interest) whatsoever in issues like this.

While this may be true legally (I don't know at this point) - it seems to bypass the issue that with peak oil and food shortages (and given the fact that as Tim Lang said in his video in a previous post - Britain is only growing 5 per cent of it's own fruit) local government should be doing all that it can to encourage people to grow their own. Offering plots which are derelict as mine was (unused for fifteen years at least) does not fit this particular bill.

On the way to my plot Parks 'lady' then proceeds to explain to me what Health and Safety issues are, and what my tenancy agreement means. I nod my head at first but then realise how incredibly patronising she is, and tell her so.

We're walking past a huge water butt which I had always been worried about when my daughter was smaller. It's quite clearly a death trap for small children. The last time I mentioned it to the council they came back with the unhelpful comment that parents were responsible for the safety of their children at all times. Gosh. As if we didn't know that, eh?

Parks lady was taking great pains to emphasise that she was only interested in 'my child's safety'. So I took the opportunity of asking her what she though of above mentioned water butt. I don't think she liked what I was saying so far and labelled me as 'aggressive'. Funny that. My friends call me 'feisty'. I'm assertive, I emphasised. (As soon as you disagree with them they label you as 'aggressive'. A good way of dismissing what you are saying? ASSERTIVE, I said again.

Then she said the death trap water butt was the 'City Council's responsibility'. My first thought at hearing this was 'I thought you WERE the City Council and even if you're not, you're still about passing the message on...?) Then I realised of course they were passing the buck. In 25 days time round here there is a restructuring of the whole thing to create a new unitary authority so the City Council will no longer exist anyway.

So, we get to my plot-and-a-half, I take them round a bit, show them all the small trees, neat beds ready to go. On the way I point out an apparently derelict plot next to ours and the difficulties this will cause us this season as all the seeds on it are going to blow over. According to the council there are no derelict plots right now. What about this one, I say:

Rosebay Willow herb. The lot. More 'non-derelict and used plots in the background'. We have a huge waiting list and I've raised this issue too.

Then we come to my wildlife patch at the front. I explain how I plan to recycle an old paddling pool and edge it with available materials. As you can see from my previous posts it doesn't look amazing at the moment, but that's because it's a WILD LIFE corner. It isn't supposed to be TIDY.

So, it was Parks 'gentlemen' turn to speak. He was wearing a sweatshirt which said 'recycle' on the front and back. I had already explained how I had salvaged the wee paddling pool from a skip. He actually stood there and asked me accusingly (and I felt in a bullying and aggressive tone) 'Why didn't you use pond liner?'

Things went downhill from there, I feel. I proceeded to point out the the basic tenants of sound environmental policy i.e. 1. Reduce 2. Re-use and 3. Recycle. I don't think he liked my highlighting the logo on his sweatshirt either.

Then he challenged my use of 'available' materials (i.e. branches and twigs) - 'Why didn't I use willow? he said' there is plenty of willow growing over there (and pointed). I had to set him straight on allotment policy, I'm afraid and said I wouldn't dream of picking other people's crops without asking, and anyway, I didn't see what was wrong with using materials that had been generated on my plot.

Park gent's next objection was that 'it didn't look very nice'. (I had thought the visit was about health and safety issues and not aesthetics, but there you go). Park gent knew the person who had had the plot before...Yes, I said, so do I - obviously I said, there aren't many flowers to see at this point but explained anyway about the brightly coloured flowers that edged the pile, and the carefully selected copper beech bushes which framed it (bought those at BTCV).

Next, the said pair wanted a 'plan' of the proposed pond. (I've sent the council three emails about it this week - they already had a photograph and measurements - but they still want a 'plan'. Maybe I should think about an architect?

What more do you need? I said, whipping my tape measure out, and measuring up. Shall I draw you one? (searching for the back of an envelope in my bag). There's not much to add, I said. Did a quick drawing and put the measurements on it, in front of them.

We need a 'fence' they said so that your child can't fall in. (Remember what the council said on past occasions about parents taking responsibility for their children at all times and the death trap water butt?). Well I said pointing to the twigs and branches pile - I was planning to sink the small paddling pool into the ground and draw the branches around it as a barrier. Would that be alright? No, they said.

Well then, I said, if I can't do it like that, will you tell me how I CAN do it. Well, said Park lady, picking up a stout twig, if they were sort of bending OVER the pond like this...'Can I take a photograph, I said, so that I will know how to do this). 'No' she said. 'You will only use it against us'. ?

Right, I said, there are some adaptations to be made, and as I said already it is not finished. So I'll finish it, won't fill it with water yet and we'll meet again, shall we, so that you can tell me what you think? They okayed this suggestion reluctantly and are coming again next week. I'll keep readers posted.

The shame of all this is, I wanted to get the frog spawn and plants in soon, otherwise it's going to be another whole year.

As my daughter and I rushed away for an appointment - I was still fuming but felt slightly better after meeting a fellow allotmenteer who said he'd exactly the same experiences (with those two from the council).

The joke of it is, there are loads of people on the site who already have bucket sized ponds not much smaller than the one I have, and even some people's drainage ditches are more of a health and safety risk than our proposal.

When will they realise that they should be enabling and assisting people instead of creating barriers at every opportunity. At the end of the meeting my daughter said: 'I didn't like them very much, mummy'. No, I said. I didn't either.


  1. Great post, butI am fuming after reading this Q. What can you do when those supposed to be working for the community are so completely lacking in insight? Aaarggh!!! You are just the one to sort them out though.

  2. Thanks Jacqui, really appreciate your comments. Definitely some work to be done here.

  3. Reminds me of when I was working in Birmingham and a colleague was told in all sincerity that a school pond should not only have a fence around it (fair enough, protects the kids from the pond and the pond from the kids) but also whenever a class was doing pond-dipping that they should wear life jackets and have an adult holding onto them via a rope. "Must have been a big pond" - no - just the usual few metres across...


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