Archive for December, 2006
It feels strange when your life becomes part of the news. The day after the flood I drove up to Pond Cottage to check for damage. As Ray and I had expected the cottage got off lightly but the landscape looked like a jigsaw puzzle that hadn’t been put together properly. Some familiar pieces were in the wrong place – Ray’s boat had been lifted out of the pond and dumped on the bank – and a few strange landmarks had been jammed in willy nilly. So there was a brand new lake in the neighbouring field and several tons of hardcore on the front lawn which is why I drove straight into a crater where the road used to be.
Waiting to be rescued by Jimmy, the local JCB driver, who built the road for us in the first place I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid. (The hole is bigger and deeper than you can see from the photo.) But I guess it was like getting up in the morning expecting your feet will find the floorboards where they left them the night before.
We were lucky. Some people in the village lost their floors and furniture as well. One young couple were faced with the prospect of having to rebuild the house they had only just finished in time for the arrival of their new baby.
I was very pleased to see Jimmy. He is a kind man and as he lay in water hooking a steel rope to my tow bar he even managed to make me feel that anyone could drive into a hole in the road. Then we stood and marvelled at the even bigger holes the flood had gouged out of the pond bank. Jimmy, who is built like a mountain, said almost admiringly, “Amazing, the power of water.”
Our cottage was saved by the wetland that allowed flood waters to spread and a deep channel that carries the stream away from the sluice. Even so the water must have risen five feet creating a forceful new river that overflowed the bridge and ripped through the garden before ploughing on through the field.
BBC and newspaper reports made much of the fact that a new flood prevention scheme had only just been put in place in Milnathort at a cost of £500,000. I did not hear one report mention the new Scottish law that now requires local authorities to promote sustainable flood management (SFM in the trade) which very broadly speaking means restoring natural defences of wetlands and floodplains instead of building concrete walls.
With nice timing, news of the Milnathort flood broke just as I was doing some new work with WWF Scotland on sustainable flood management. It is a fascinating and frustrating story. Scotland is leading the way in trying to implement a European directive which requires all member states to look at rivers as dynamic ecosystems (rather than inconvenient channels running through the floodplain developments we have become so good at building). In fact Scotland is the first UK country to turn the Water Framework Directive into law (see more about that here) with an act requiring local authorities to promote sustainable alternatives to concrete floodwalls which tend to push the problem downstream. With climate change concrete is likely to become an increasingly costly and pointless defence – as Milnathort shows. But policy and practice have yet to catch up with the law. (Look out for WWF Scotland’s two new publications early in the new year).
December 27th, 2006
Yesterday was the shortest day of the year but it was a very long day for politics. Malcolm Chisholm, surely one of the most decent politicians in Scotland, resigned because his rebellion against the Labour party line on Trident was ‘not tenable’ with his role as Minister for Communities. Kenny MacAskill, surely one of the most opportunist, nearly blew a fuse in his Newsnight Scotland rant against the risks and expense of Edinburgh’s proposed tram system. Earlier in the day, while the winter sun was still shining, the city council voted overwhelmingly (with one exception) in favour of a public investment which will bring the capital city into the 21st century. Now only nutters and nationalists are against the trams.
The view from my seat in the public gallery showed exactly why Edinburgh needs trams. Through the big windows of the City Chambers you can see the constant stream of buses and taxis along Princes Street, while cars churn relentlessly up the Mound. It will take an enormous hike in oil prices to prise us motorists off the driving seat and into the buses (or on to our feet) but curiously statistics across Europe show that trams are more likely to do the trick.
I was impressed by the debate when for over an hour, as one LibDem councillor put it, concensus broke out in the City Chamber. Perhaps undue time was allowed to the dissenters – Tina Woolnough of the Blackhall Community Association (whatever that may be) and Councillor Steve Cardownie (Kenny’s new mate) – but then the downside of the democratic process is that it can allow mavericks to punch well above their weight ( in Cardownie’s case that would still be quite a hefty punch).
Ms Woolnough fears for the badgers on the wildlife corridors of North Edinburgh and went on at length in an attempt to rubbish the idea that trams increase access to all parts of the city, that they are cleaner and quicker than buses and that they carry more people. Cardownie just ranted and it occurs to me that the louder and wilder the rant (think Blair on Iraq) the greater the need to silence that inner voice: both Cardownie and MacCaskill once spoke almost as loudly in favour of the trams. (Interesting to compare that ranting bluster with Malcolm Chisholm’s much quieter tone of voice.)
By comparison the case for the trams was mercifully brief and beautifully to the point (okay, okay I am biased, I think trams are a seriously good idea as any sane person must). Transform Scotland, the Light Rail Transit Association and Edinburgh University Students Association, all argued with succinct clarity that Scotland’s capital needs a modern public transport system that enhances the quality of life that modern economies are built on; citing of course other European cities who compete with Edinburgh for world trade and tourism – such as Barcelona, Dublin, Lyons, Paris, Manchester.
And don’t forget Croydon. Labour fought their corner well but curiously it was the Tory leader Councillor Iain Whyte who came up with some of the most clinching arguments. Always beware a former colleague. Both LibDem Fred Macintosh and Whyte were on Tina’s side in last year’s campaign against the congestion charge. But now like a pair of housetrained badgers they politely savaged her case against trams. Whyte remembers when Tina’s wildlife corridor was a suburban railway line, he prefers to call it a ‘transport corridor’. Besides, he has visited the tram cities of Europe and even went as far as Croydon where the Tory MP who opposed the tram scheme has been so thoroughly convinced of the benefits he is campaigning for an extension – not least because the peripheral housing estate is now so well connected with the town centre that unemployment in the most deprived area has fallen by 30%.
All of which did not prevent Newsnight Scotland producing a characteristically perverse and negative report using 50 year old newsreel to imply Edinburgh would be going back not forward and allowing undue airspace to Kenny Mac, the ScotNat MSP for the Lothians, who promises that when the nats get into power next May yesterday’s 56 council votes approving the business case for the trams will be torn up and consigned to history. Along with Edinburgh.
December 22nd, 2006
Why are Edinburgh NIMBYs so afraid of skate parks? Ray Perman reports from an inspiring enterprise in Dundee where the energy and enthusiasm of young people benefit the whole community.
I like skateparks. That’s not a very popular thing to say in North Edinburgh just now when a disgraceful NIMBY campaign has defeated plans for a skate facility in Inverleith Park. But I like them because they give kids a great outlet for their energies and skills and keep them off the streets.
A visit to the highly successful Factory Skatepark in Dundee confirmed all my beliefs. The Factory, which cost £1.3m and is Scotland’s first indoor park, has been open two years and already has 5,700 registered skaters, skateboarders and BMX bikers. Last year it had 33,000 visits. That’s a remarkable achievement when you consider that the kids have to pay every time they use it. Trouble is negligible and on the back of skating the Factory has been able to add a range of other activities for all ages. “We’re building a 21st century community centre,” says Derek Marshall, who runs it.
The NIMBYs look down on skating as “not a real sport” but it takes skill, courage and physical fitness. Perhaps the inclusion of BMX biking – a close cousin – as a show sport in the 2008 Olympics and the possibility that skateboarding will follow in 2012 will change their minds. Ewan Aitken, leader of Edinburgh Council, has pledged to find an alternative location for the park. All power to him.
Ray Perman is chair of Social Investment Scotland, one of a large group of sponsors and funders of the Factory Skate Park.
December 12th, 2006
I didn’t know what kind of response I would get. But within hours of reading my birthday blog Jean posted a comment to say she would be joining global gossip as soon as she had travelled further than Didcot. Then Kate emailed to say she would like to take part. Nick sent a text saying count him in. And with luck I will persuade Ray to put up that piece about the incredible success of Dundee skate park.
I am really pleased that family and friends like the idea of creating a patchwork of impressions about what makes cities tick. Seems fitting that I picked up a few more replies when I was checking email in the hotel lobby in Brussels last week. Fantastic to hear from Carrie in Beijing. She will be posting from the Great Wall! Excellent to find Roel might join in from Maastricht when he has finished moving studios. And better still I open Kate’s email to discover she has actually sent pictures and words on the trams and elevators of Lisbon.
So here’s to Global Gossip (and by the way there’s no exclusion zone round Didcot).
December 5th, 2006
While Edinburgh is inching towards a decision to install one tram route Kate MacInnes sends her views of a city where trams have been running since 1873.
Getting around Lisbon is a joy with the trams, funiculars and elevadors – all a perfect way of climbing up the hills of this great city. Although modern trams connect most inner and outer areas the old wooden trams are still in service and a perfect way to see the sites – the best route is Number 26, the old tram which takes the same route as the tourist bus but at a fraction of the price.
The Elevador De Santa Justa takes you 45 metres vertically up to the old quarter and Carmelite convent and the Elevador Gloria saves a particularly gruelling climb up to the Barrio Alto. Want to know more? http://www.luso.u-net.com/lisbon.htm
Lisbon’s neogothic urban lift: each storey of the Elevador De Santa Justa is decorated with a different pattern. An idea for some of those Edinburgh hills?
December 5th, 2006
It’s around 8pm and the place is going like a fair. I am squeezed between an East European couple on one side and a Spanish pair on the other. The waiter delivering many forms of cooked mussels is French but he is speaking to us all in flawless English. So why does this place feel so unmistakeably Belgian?
The thing that bugs me about the anti-European crew is their claim that Britain will lose its identity if it becomes a truly paid up member of the EU. I think that must be a perverse form of envy. Compared with the bland chain store uniformity of the average British town centre, most European towns and cities seem to have a wonderfully civilised and individual sense of place. Brussels is not at all like London or Paris or Barcelona. In some way that it is hard to pin down, it is an international city with a local atmosphere.
Maybe it is something to do with the beer. Belgium makes over 400 different beers (served in nearly as many different glasses); that’s one for every day of the year and a few over as the tour guides always remind you. Or maybe it is because Brussels, like a lot of other European cities, actually still takes pride in making something of their own at all. The smell of chocolate and vanilla is everywhere and – though international chain stores line the pedestrian shopping centres – the cobbled streets round the Grand Place are crammed with small, independent shops, cafes and businesses.
We pay for our mussels and Belgian beer and walk through pavement cafes still serving seafood beneath patio heaters though Christmas is less than a month away. We’re heading for the Cuban bar, Che Habana, though we’re told it really only comes to life after midnight. I hadn’t expected the capital of Europe to be such fun or so stylish. Each arcade is competing for the most innovative lighting display and every shop window is exquisitely dressed. That jewellers’ across the street turns out to be another chocolate shop with a queue of tourists waiting for their individually hand-made treat. Is this sense of pride what the Europhobes really fear?
Places to go: Chez Leons needs absolutely no help from me but if you haven’t already found it add it and Brussels to places you must go to. Preferably by Eurostar.
December 3rd, 2006
I would rather be back in Brussels where the air smells of chocolate and vanilla and they haven’t even finished putting up the Christmas lights in the centre of town.
After a night on the sleeper from Euston to Edinburgh, home is not very welcoming. The taxi driver is surly (mind you, I am not a bundle of laughs myself at 7.30 am), my car insurance ran out just after midnight (we lent the car to Dougal so fingers crossed he had a long lie-in today), the central heating boiler has blown out, and to top it all there is a bloody Christmas card in the post.
Right now I would rather be back in Brussels where the air smells of chocolate and vanilla and they haven’t even finished putting up the Christmas lights in the centre of town. In the Grand Place we watched a man on a ladder doing a thorough job of thatching the stable. By the time we left it was topped with a green star showing wise men and shoppers the way to Christmas.
The odd thing is that the weather feels more like spring. There are rows and rows of hand made chocolate Saints Nicolas in beautifully dressed windows but I sit on a bench in the sun while Ray is at a conference and restaurants are still serving people on the streets, with just a little help from gas-guzzling patio heaters.
Climate change is a hot topic this week at Scotland Europa, the European arm of Scottish Enterprise – the reason for Ray’s trip to Brussels (with me along for the ride). And it is going to get hotter. Yesterday evening, I sat in for a little of Gavin McCrone’s lecture on climate change, oil supplies, renewable energy and what it all means for Scotland. He’s a professor, the General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and he’s on the same rigorous line of argument as Nicholas Stern and Al Gore: basically we have to start consuming less and producing more efficiently if we want to keep the lights on. It’s not going to be easy. Outside, right on cue, a police car sounds a siren, the lights of the European Commission blaze against the night sky, and back home rail companies have just announced British fares will rise far above inflation next year.
It promises to be a good thought-provoking lecture but unfortunately we have to sneak out in time to catch the Eurostar back to London. (Our offpeak tickets are £59 return, cheaper than flying!). The trip takes around two and a half hours to make the journey. In less than a year’s time, when the final section of the channel tunnel link goes straight to St Pancras it will take less than two hours to travel between London and Brussels and just over two hours to get to Paris. The total cost of this upgrading is £5.8 billion.
Investment in the East Coast main line could bring the journey time from Edinburgh to London down to considerably lower than four hours. With Eurostar type investment in track and rolling stock they could get it down to three hours, which would make flying redundant, speeding trade and business between Scotland and the rest of Europe and reducing our carbon footprint along the way.
As it is we settle down for a night in the sleeper (a double Scotch works wonders). Between starched white sheets, I dream about the little grey mouse I saw in the truly horrible smoke-filled bar at Euston. That’s one up for Scotland. Next year the atmosphere in English pubs will be as unpolluted as it is in Scotland. Pity we can’t be so bold with transport.
December 1st, 2006