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Tuesday, 26 May 2020

LESSONS FROM LOCKDOWN

Despite the social isolation, the boredom and in some unfortunate cases, the loneliness of lockdown many city-centre residents will have had no difficulty in listing the benefits. Above all perhaps there is the kindness and good humour of strangers in the streets, the quietness, the cleanliness, the fresher air. Of course, much of this is due to the scarcity of people, both residents and visitors, and of traffic. For better or worse this will not last long. Without people and everything they bring, both good and bad, a city serves no purpose and will not long survive. But is there something we can learn from the benefits of lockdown? One undoubted benefit has been the marked decline this spring in the annual migration to the city of breeding gulls. Evidence is anecdotal in advance of the results of the council’s census of breeding pairs but many residents are noting that, compared with recent years, there are very few gulls about and with their absence has gone the raucous noise, the mess on our streets and the risk to health and safety. They seem to have left us in large numbers.

Why?

The annual migration of gulls to Bath is caused by the abundance, especially in the city centre, of nesting opportunities on inaccessible and undefended roofs and the generous food supply. There is no reason to think that nesting opportunities have declined but what happened to the food? This is largely provided deliberately by the thoughtless dumping on our streets of litter, particularly of fast food and the containers in which it is provided, and by the presence on our streets of residential and commercial rubbish waiting to be collected. Competing to find food waste, gulls attack the containers in which rubbish is left, scattering debris all over our streets which on windy days finds its way into every corner of the city centre. During the pandemic, residents have been in lockdown but many, including 90% of TARA members, live in apartment buildings where the rubbish collection is centralized. Businesses, on the other hand, have been mostly closed. It seems plausible to argue, therefore, that the retreat of the gulls has been due to the absence of pedestrian litterers on our streets and of the piles of commercial rubbish, particularly food waste from fast food businesses, pubs and restaurants, left on pavements for collection. If this is so, what can be done? Why are the problems of litter and commercial waste management so damaging to the appearance of our city-centre in normal times?

Collection and removal of commercial waste are the responsibility of the Council and the BID (Business Improvement District). The arrangements in place are complex and, in some respects, poorly conceived and ineffective. For example, although the Council and the BID, which regulate and partially provide collection, removal and disposal services, stipulate that both domestic and trade waste be left out for collection only at certain specified times, morning and evening shortly before collection, these stipulations are often ignored.  As a result, significant amounts of waste are left out overnight and attacked by gulls in the early hours of the morning. In addition to timing regulations both the Council and the BID require, and to some extent provide, supposedly suitable packaging in the form of bins and gull and rodent-proof bags.  These packaging rules are also routinely ignored.  Gull proof bags are easily opened.  Bins are overflowing and lids are not closed.  Extra, unapproved containers, bags and boxes including supermarket plastic bags are used widely and even the council and the BID appear to be issuing flimsy plastic bags.

The Council’s policy of refusing to collect waste that has not been correctly packaged, while well-intentioned, means that unless and until rubbish is returned to storage scavenging pests are free to attack and scatter it so that it becomes street litter. Both residents and businesses often lack the space to accommodate uncollected waste as well as the various re-cycling containers required. Finally, the many independent contractors used by businesses, so many that it has been difficult to obtain the exact number, often seem like a law unto themselves, frequently showing up too early, too late, or not at all. Litter, the collection of waste and the gull menace. All of these issues, and the links between them, have been exhaustively rehearsed in recent years, not least in the useful and thorough survey reported by the Chronicle in July 2019. As so often in Bath the problem seems to be not so much with the regulations as with enforcement. So far as waste management is concerned, in its survey last year the Chronicle reported ‘a significant fall in the number of offences by businesses,’ over the past three years. This turned out to refer to the number of fixed penalty notices issued and may reflect a reduced effort by the council rather than improved compliance by businesses. Given the limited resources available it is painful to watch the trouble that has to be taken before action is possible on a single infraction of the regulations for putting out commercial waste. Rubbish must be painstakingly gone through and photographed to identify the culprit. Standards for packaging and for the number and timing of collections need to be reviewed; two collections per week of food waste is inadequate in the commercial heart of the city. More effort is needed, not only to identify businesses flouting the rules and ensure they do not get away with it but also to monitoring and improving the performance of independent contractors. And why does the BID allow permanent waste dumps, in George Street for example, which are a magnet for scavengers both human and animal and remove any incentive for commercial premises to improve their management of trade waste?

As far as residential waste is concerned it makes no sense that the council allows this to be left out overnight where it is open to attack by gulls and rats. And then there is litter, an issue on which Bath is gaining an unfortunate reputation. Are we doing enough? In normal summers, having started at 6.00 am our heroic five-man city centre team is often still struggling to remove piles of overnight litter mid-morning by which time the streets are crowded with visitors and shoppers. The council should review the funding and organization of litter collection and removal in the city centre and replace the cancelled 3GS contract that brought in £200,000 in £150 fines in ten months with something more thought-through and less controversial.

The gulls seem to have arrived in their usual numbers in late March and gradually retreated as Covid19 indirectly eliminated most of their food supply. Is it possible that if we can at least reduce this food supply in future years we might have the makings of a solution to a problem which has been plaguing Bath for years and attracting critical comment in local and national media?

Friday, 8 May 2020

Pedestrianisation should not be taking place in a vacuum.

We have just seen yet another traffic scheme experiment in the City Centre this one apparently aimed at proving the viability of a scheme to pedestrianise Milsom Street. We are concerned at this further example of the council's apparent fixations with pedestrianisation as a magic bullet for solving the problems traffic and pedestrian movement. We are concerned because:
We have yet to see any evidence that BANES have well a founded traffic management scheme. One-off closures of Milsom Street and Queen square have shown our doubts are not without foundation. The latest experiment involving putting more traffic up one of the cities worse polluted streets with some of the narrowest pavements has not been reassuring. Any pedestrianisation scheme needs to be part of a carefully thought through a traffic plan for the whole of the city centre to avoid unintended consequences elsewhere in the city. We have yet to see such a scheme. This traffic management plan needs to encompass more than just traditional traffic issues and in addition cover, the range of things address by the late lamented Public Realm and Movement Strategy.
Pedestrianisation will create numerous problems for city centre residents ranging from loss of parking to problems with access. A large number of people live in the city and nobody seems to accord them and their needs any priority in pedestrianisation experiments or longer-term schemes. There are many residents and visitors with impaired/variable mobility and energy, who don’t meet Blue Badge criteria but would be adversely affected if the centre was pedestrianised. Accessibility for them appears to have been overlooked.
Most importantly this whole debate seems to be starting from the wrong end. We should be talking about how to improve the city centre for all those who live, work and visit. Pedestrianisation may have a role to play in these plans but it cannot and should not be seen as an end in itself.
It has been suggested that pedestrianisation is the magic bullet to improve air quality in the city centre. TARA has a long history of fighting to get improvements in air quality and this has shown us that the issue is much more complex than this and those advocating extensive pedestrianisation need to acknowledge this or we will fail to have the result that we would all wish to see. This is particularly true if we move from our current focus on NOX to the much more dangerous small-particulate pollution. 

Perhaps Banes should be focussing in the immediate future on getting in place the CAZ and if they really want to reduce the number of polluting vehicles implement option D rather than the weaker option C.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

The management of tourism

  • In 2014 there were 969,900 overnight tourist visits to Bath & North East Somerset.
  • There were 4.8 million day visitors to B&NES in 2014.
  • In 2015 there were approximately 1 million visitors to the Roman Baths, 398,319 to the Abbey, 157,851 to the Victoria Art Gallery and 90,147 to the Fashion Museum.
  • Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • In 2015 the City of Bath ranked 12th in the VisitBritain ranking of top cities/towns for international staying visitors. 
  • There were 323,000 international visitors to Bath in 2015, a 36.8% increase compared to 2014 when there were 236,000.
  • £411 million was spent by tourists in B&NES in 2014.
  • It was estimated that in 2014 in B&NES 9,213 people were employed in tourism.
Coming out of the Covid-19 crisis the tourism industry will inevitably be facing grave difficulties. The statistics above show how critical this industry is in Bath.

There will be, and hopefully is, an ongoing discussion about how Bath will respond to this challenge. 

On a positive note many comparable cities around the world are using these discussions to address some of the more negative impacts of mass tourism and it is to be hoped Banes will follow this lead.

Any dialogue will inevitably need to involve numerous organisations such as Heritage Services, the National Trust, Bath Tourism, BIGHA, the BID, the World Heritage Steering Group and Bath Preservation Trust to mention but a few.

Historically, and it seems, currently one major group of stakeholders who will not be adequately represented will be Bath Residents and in particular Bath residents living in the historic city centre. And yet we are the ones who pay for the maintenance of the majority of the heritage assets that visitors come to see, we are the ones who create the social and cultural environment that visitors find so welcoming, we are the ones who volunteer as visitors guides and we are the ones whose amenities are impacted by decisions made about the use of public spaces.

We would like to see plans put in place to rectify this as a matter of urgency.