The Nuttery

What do you think of when you think of the Reading Festival? Rock and roll? Loud music? Mud and debauchery? A haven for biodiversity? Perhaps not. But the Festival site, known the rest of the year as Little Johns Farm, a working cattle farm, has some hidden secrets. One of which is an old nuttery, a nut orchard, which Reading Borough Council, The Conservation Volunteers and Reading Tree Wardens are restoring.

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As part of the Biodiversity Management Plan for the site, Reading Borough Council proposes to plant nearly 300 hazel trees in the nuttery. However, before the new trees can be planted, existing trees and shrubs – such as blackthorn – need clearing and coppicing to open up the site enough to accommodate the new trees. It is hoped that the nuttery will increase biodiversity on the farm, which is largely grazed pasture in the floodplain of the River Thames. Habitats, such as badger setts and log piles for invertebrates are also being created. Little John’s Farm is a private site (apparently the Council work closely with the site owners due to the community interest in the Festival). It is a shame this nuttery won’t be accessible for public use.

However, nuttery creation can be an effective way to increase biodiversity on public sites. Like fruit orchards, nutteries can also be used to create community orchards, which can complement and create diversity in community resources. Some examples of community nutteries can be found in Bath and in Clare, Suffolk. Advice on how to start a Community Orchard can be found here and if you are in the Reading area and would like to learn more about planting fruiting trees, you could join in the restoration of an orchard in Prospect Park with Transition Town Reading on 2nd February. Details can be found here.

The power of joining in?

Back in June 2012 I wrote about taking part in my first Green Gym session. Today for the first time I led (on my own) a Green Gym session, which was the first of a programme of Green Gym activities that I have arranged for The Conservation Volunteers.

I find it easy to get enthusiastic about the Green Gym. My motivation to work with The Conservation Volunteers is to gain experience in running community projects and in leading activities that are focused on improving local surroundings plus learning how to teach and improve my own environmental conservation skills. But the Green Gym also considers improving helping the self through conservation work, both physically and mentally. A free for participants health resource that I think is much needed in a lot of communities

In October 2012, The Guardian Healthcare network published a fascinating article about the work Green Gym programmes have done in Leeds and Birmingham. It is well worth a read. I have been keeping this article in mind when working on this season’s programme for our Green Gym. I am minded of the importance of keeping sessions interesting, varied and, most importantly, fun and friendly. But I also believe that it is important that our Green Gym session are accessible. Unlike many other Green Gyms around the country we do not work on a single site, and cover a large part of West Berkshire, a predominately rural area. We now have some fantastic and wonderful ‘regulars’ but I don’t want location to preclude more participants joining in. Participants that might not otherwise get involved in other conservation activities in the area, but would really benefit from the scheme. So the new programme includes reducing the number of sites we visit and having as many sites that are accessible by public transport as possible, while still keeping interest and variation.

Transport isn’t the only hurdle to accessibility, and am continually looking for other ways to help the project reach as many people as possible. But it is a start. And hopefully some of our Green Gymers will get the benefits those in Leeds and Birmingham have experienced.

If you have any suggestions how to make community projects accessible to as many of the community as possible, I’d love to hear them?

The 2013 programme for the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym can be found here.

The Community Orchard

This part of West Berkshire is now most famous for being the kind of place that produces princesses. But amongst the grand houses and rolling countryside, one West Berkshire Parish Council is working on a unique community resource – a community orchard.

Cold Ash Community Orchard

An orchard is a collection of fruit trees. In particular, a community orchard may be owned or leased for or by the community (or held by agreement) by a community group, parish council, or by a local authority or voluntary body. Community orchards should be open and accessible at all times. As well as enjoying the place, local people can share the harvest or profit from its sale, taking responsibility for any work in the orchard (Source).

Cold Ash Community Orchard is run by Cold Ash Parish Council. We visited the site with the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym, to help the Parish Council by planting a new hedge along one of the orchard boundaries. The new hedge comprises native species, such as Spindle, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Cherry and Dogwood Rose. As well as planting the hedge whips, the Green Gym also protected them from hungry wildlife with rabbit guards.

Hedge planting

The habitat values of hedgerows are well documented. But what particularly interested me about this site was the community resource being provided. Community orchards are currently being actively encouraged by the Department for Communities and Local Government as part of the localism and decentralisation agenda. Community orchards strive to be the focal point for community activities. As well as the provision of acessible open space, they can promote the health benefits of fresh produce and outdoor exercise. Additionally there are opportunities for access to land for food growing and opportunities for assisting those who want to grow their own food (Source: DCLG).

Despite being a relatively affluent area, this part of West Berkshire, like many rural areas, still has residents that don’t have access to open space and places to grow food, which can have health implications and also increase vulnerability to food poverty. It will be really interesting to see how this community project developed and how similar schemes might be able to be implemented elsewhere.

The Department for Communities and Local Government produce two guidance documents on community orchards: A PDF ‘How to’ guide can be found here and a collection of case studies about of community orchards around the UK can be found here.

Days like this

It’s hard to be motivated sometimes. Especially on a day which is forecast to be the wettest day of what has already been one of the wettest years on record. It’s hard to be motivated when the rain breaches your raincoat and your waterproof trousers start leaking. It’s hard to be motivated when there is no longer any point wearing your glasses because they need windscreen wipers and your hands are covered in nettle stings, because all you have done is cut back nettles for over two, wet, long, soaking hours.

Some days are like this.

But what you need to remember is why you are doing this, why you are out in the pouring rain. And it’s to make something for everyone. People now have access to a bird hide, along a path that has probably been inaccessible all summer. People are now able to safely go and watch birds, maybe see a bird they have never seen before, maybe learn something they never knew before, maybe they can just be able to take some rare moments away from their normal lives and enjoy something different. With clear paths and improved accessibility you create access for all, you take access to wildlife and nature and beautiful places away from just those with privilege. And that’s something that can keep you going, even in leaky trousers.

Well at least until tea break anyway.

More on private public spaces

Last week I shared a link to The Guardian article about the increased incidence of private organisations owning and managing public space. Over the last couple of day I’ve been mullling over why this is a problem, if it is a problem at all?

Our public spaces, such as streets and parks, are typically managed by local authorities and, in a climate of reduced budgets, alternatives to this public management is naturally being sought. The management of public spaces by private organisations is not entirely new. For the last decade local authorities have increasingly used Section 106 (planning obligation) agreements to ensure that private developers are responsible for new public spaces in developments like new residential areas or business parks. The local authority is able to ensure the responsible management of these areas through a legal agreement. However, this is rarely used in perpetuity and responsibility often eventually falls to the local authority.

You also need to consider the quality of the publicly managed spaces around you. Are they really anymore accessible than the private public spaces mentioned in The Guardian? When thinking about publicly managed public spaces, I often think of concrete planters full of inhospitable spiky plants, low cost to maintain but also a deterrent to vandalism. I think of numerous ‘no ball game signs’ and the complete failure of post war developments to realise Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City. What is the problem with private organisations, with their increased capital, providing and managing these spaces instead?

The problems lies in the lack of accountability privately managed public realm has to its community. The Guardian article criticises the private approach as just providing spaces that will meet commercial interests, such as increased footfall to retail areas. The function of these spaces is of great importance. What may seem today like a perfect multifunctional space, suitable for providing a good retail experience or modern surrounding for an office, runs a great risk in not being future proof.

With these large areas of public realm remaining in private ownership, they also remain within the unequal system of land distribution and their private owners will undoubtedly, eventually, try to realise their optimum land value. There is no onus for the private landowner to permanently bequeath their space to the community and community interests are rarely effectively represented through market economics. Many towns are already populated with declining retail and office spaces awaiting private redevelopment or, increasingly rare, public intervention. There is no guarantee that the kind of developments mentioned in The Guardian will not eventually meet this fate.

Today’s modern, and often beautifully designed, pedestrianised spaces provide little opportunity to respond to the changing needs of the local community if it is not controlled by a body that is accountable to them. They will provide no opportunity for the community to use that space, no opportunity to use the space to build community resilience in challenging and changing economic times. The private public space will only evolve in response to its owners and not evolve to meet the needs of people, and that is the real risk with this approach.

Private Public Spaces

Originally posted on 12th June 2012

I had to quickly share this article from today’s Guardian, about privately-run ‘public spaces’. I’ll write a proper follow up post to this next week (after, what will hopefully be, my last Geosciences exam and a visit to Big Green week in Bristol), but it is quite thought provoking.

Local authorities have been less willing to take on new public spaces for the best part of the last decade, due to ongoing maintenance costs and diminishing budgets – It makes me wonder what is the viable alternative to the privately run spaces, as described in the Guardian today? I’ll give it some thought and get back to you…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jun/11/granary-square-privately-owned-public-space

Greenham Common Peace Garden

Originally posted on 1st May 2012

I’ve lived in Berkshire for just over a year now, but have always feared that, outside of the Reading suburbs, the county is little more than a breeding ground for Princesses. Recently I’ve been determined to delve a little deeper than the royal weddings and polo shirts on the surface and get to know this area properly.

Inspired by the account in George McKay’s Radical Gardening and a recent edition of The Reunion, yesterday I ventured off to find the site of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

During the 1980s, and the Cold War, RAF Greenham was used for siting USAF Cruise nuclear missiles. In protest this deployment, in 1981 a group of Welsh feminist peace activists set up a protest camp, committed to engaging debate about nuclear weapons and disrupting military exercises on the air base. The Women’s Peace Camp remained, continuously, outside of the airbase for 19 years, until 2000. Today RAF Greenham is now a business park, but a commemorative peace garden stands where the peace camp was situated.

Greenham Common Peace Garden

Seven welsh standing stones surround a sculpture that symbolises the campfire, whilst a circular sculpture is bears the enscription ‘you can’t kill the spirit’. The garden is planted with British species and includes an oak sapling that was rescued from the path of the controversial Newbury bypass.

Despite its location between the business park and a roundabout on the A339, the garden is very evocative. It does initially seem strange that somewhere that feels so inherently peaceful commemorates a site best known standing for radical campaigning, direct activism and the pursuit of idealism. But as George McKay describes in Radical Gardening,

“calmer than punk, more permanent in presence than most protest camps… [the peace garden] sought to present an experience of peacefulness and social idea of peace”.

Maybe this small defiant corner, between offices and a roundabout, does go a very small way to creating what the women of Greenham Common were striving for?

The Greenham Common Peace Garden is situated next to the the New Greenham Park roundabout on the A339 (near Newbury, Berkshire). Radical Gardening is available at Housmans.

Frack off?

Originally posted on 17th April 2012

The United Kingdom is facing a potential shortfall in energy provision. New methods of energy provision are required. Today the UK Government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change published an independent expert report, recommending measures to mitigate the risks of seismic tremors from hydraulic fracturing. Whilst the report is inviting public comment on its recommendations, it has largely been seen as giving a ‘green light’ to hydraulic fracturing. The report looks at its safety and recommends that it should continue, under regulation.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the extraction of natural gas reserves from shale, a densely packed rock. The technique uses water, pumped at high pressure, into the rock to create narrow fractures to allow the gas to flow into the well bore to be captured (source DECC).

The exploitation of any British shale gas reserves does have its benefits. It will provide a British-born source of gas that will provide energy and could, potentially, lower rising gas prices, in an environment where other natural gas supplies are diminishing. Not just a source of gas as we receive it in our homes, but also it would be able to generate electricity in gas-powered power stations. A much-needed resource in a country where the oil and gas reserves are diminishing, companies are dropping out of providing new nuclear power stations and there is continued opposition to the exploitation of renewable sources of energy. There are also employment opportunities too, much needed in times of recession.

But fracking is hugely controversial. The procedure caused two earthquakes and several other seismic events in the Blackpool area in 2011. In the aftermath of Fukushima, there is huge concern over seismic safety. Fracking has also been linked to the contamination of drinking water aquifers in the US, the chemicals used in the fracking process have been linked with health problems for nearby communities and it has been reported that levels of methane get high enough in some domestic water supplies to catch fire. And that is before considering the environmental impacts of any gas power stations.

So where is the balance to be found? Decades of short termism and outsourcing of provision to foreign companies have left the UK energy poor. The renewable energy assets of the nation have not been anywhere near exploited to their potential. The UK lags far behind other European nations, such as Germany, in terms of renewable energy infrastructure and in terms of developing skills, employment opportunites and innovation. New nuclear is falling to the whims of the markets and fossil fuel resources are diminishing. The country needs energy. Fracking is potential dangerous and undesirable, but has the United Kingdom left itself with few alternatives?

What do today’s planning reforms mean for local communities?

Originally posted on 27th March 2012

The new National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF, was released today, accompanied with a great deal of fanfare about the removal of red tape and the empowerment of communities in the planning process. Promising unrestricted (and newly defined) sustainable development, relieving England from the bureaucratic forces holding it back from economic prosperity. The new NPPF supersedes all the previous topic specific national statements and guidance notes – replacing over 1300 pages of national planning guidance with a mere 50. The Government claim that this takes planning out of the hands of experts, simplifies it and makes it accessible to all

But what does this really mean for local communities? Firstly the framework is completely directed at interpretation at the local level. And, by local level, this means interpretation by the Local Planning Authority through the production of a Local Plan. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Local Authorities produced Local Plans – until they were replaced the Local Development Framework system in 2004.

The NPPF does not place any additional requirement for Local Authorities to engage with communities in the development of their Local Plans. It just states,

“early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area.”

What constitutes meaningful engagement or being proactively engaged is unclear and, presumably, also up to interpretation by each Local Authority.

The framework also introduces the option for Neighbourhood Plans. The Neighbourhood Plan has been introduced to allow communities to devise planning policies for their area and determine a certain scale of planning application. So does this give local communities carte blanche to direct development that meets their needs and, indeed, to refuse development in their local areas? Unfortunately not. The framework states,

“the ambition of the neighbourhood should be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area”.

Crucially it states that,

neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan”.

And even more significantly, any planning decision made by these new neighbourhood powers has to be subject to a local referendum. Huge onus is placed on Local Authorities to facilitate empowering all neighbourhoods and all members of the community to make these Neighbourhood Plans anything more than a lip service exercise, or a bastion of the privileged and vocal minority.

But what must be of primary concern, in terms of community involvement in the planning process, is the ambiguity that is left in the planning system in the immediate future. The NPPF is certainly brief compared to its predecessors, but it could also be criticised for being unclear. The instantaneous replacement of all the reams of national guidance with this short document, combined with only 12 months of local policies (adopted since 2004) continuing to be given their full weight when considering applications could result in a policy gulf. A gulf that may only be filled with applications being determined through appeal and possibly through the courts. Until there is clarity, the much maligned bureaucracy has been replaced with a void that can only be filled by legal processes. Whoever has the best planning lawyer will undoubtedly win. And that’s not a scenario that will empower many communities.

The National Planning Policy Framework was published today by the Department of Communities and Local Government and is available to read on the DCLG’s website