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    Birmingham, Cycling

    Notes from the Q&A on Air Quality event

    Q&A on Air Quality
    Climate change, traffic congestion and poor air quality have all been hot topics in the media, particularly in Birmingham where the Council’s announcement of a Clean Air Zone has brought some heated opinions from residents.  London Sustainability Exchange (LSx), who have been working with residents in some of East Birmingham’s wards, arranged a question and answer session for Birmingham residents to pose questions to academics, councillors and campaigners.

    Opening the evening, Alice Vodden from London Sustainability Exchange gave some background to how the evening came about; working with residents of Birmingham’s Sparkbrook and Ward End, particularly looking at poor air quality around high servies areas, they realised that a co-ordinated collection action would create more change.  Realising that the residents they worked with grasped the problems, but also had a lot of questions, LSx convened a group of panellists who each have an interest in air quality in Birmingham.  Each speaker was given a few minutes to talk about the subject, with the rest of the time offered up to questions from the floor.

    The first person to talk was Dr Zongbo Shi, Senior Lecturer in Atmospheric Biogeochemistry at the University of Birmingham.  Dr Shi talked about what exactly is air pollution and why a blue sky is not necessarily a clean sky, despite what people might think.  By studying the data it was clear to see that whilst Birmingham might not have the dangerously high levels of particle matter in the air that cities like Dehli have, air quality pollutants are fairly consistent in causing problems even at lower levels, so Birmingham needs to act – particularly at roadsides where it is a bigger problems than in urban backgrounds.

    Dr Shi pointed out that a few percent of GDP is lost to air pollution, giving examples of people who become sick and then cannot work because of respiratory illness.  He and his team are working on WM Air, the West Midlands Air Quality Improvement Programme, which supports improvements to air quality in the area and the knock on benefits to health and education.

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    Next up was Councillor Waseem Zaffar, Cabinet Member for Transport & Environment at the Birmingham City Council who talked about the brave and bold leadership Birmingham showed by introducing Clean Air Zone class D, which means all vehicles (Buses, coaches, taxis, PHVs, HGVs LGVs and cars) but motorbikes are included within the remit.  This is the toughest of the Clean Air Zones on offer but Councillor Zaffar pointed out that even this wasn’t enough, and that the council weren’t interested in merely being legally compliant, but that this would be the jumping off point, as good air quality is important to future generations and to reduce health inequalities within the city, especially as the Clean Air Zone encompasses some of the poorer communities with the city.  He was also careful to point out that the council are aware these communities will be impacted by the creation of the Clean Air Zone and that they have requested additional funds from central government to support these groups, and small businesses within the zone.

    Sue Huyton from the British Lung Foundation was the third panelist and she spoke about the unsafe levels of air pollution around hospitals and GP surgeries, both nationally, but also in Birmingham, where three hospitals are in areas that are unsafe and 41% of GP surgeries in areas which exceed the safe levels for air pollution, higher than the national average.  Sue praised  the national leadership shown by Birmingham City Council class D, but would want to see WHO recommendations for better air quality included in the Environment Bill, believing the answer to clean air lies in legislating for it.

    Stirchley resident Sandra Green joined the Clean Air Parents’ Network because she wanted to engage with how air pollution affected children.  Through the network she’s met with a number of interesting people, but talked about a sobering meeting with someone from UNICEF who she always thought of as working on child issues around the country, but found out that they have a campaign around UK children’s right to clean air.  Sandra believed that the way to change attitudes is through hearts and minds, and that things like the reusable cup example show it is possible, especially if we get people to think of air quality in the same way.

    The final speaker of the evening was Chris Crean from Friends of the Earth West Midlands.  Chris expressed thanks to the organisers for arranging the evening, Birmingham City Council for persevering, even when faced with criticism from within their own party, but that the biggest thanks should go to Client Earth who have successfully taken the UK government to court three times over air pollution in the country.  Recognising reports which talked about having only 12 years to act on climate change, Chris talked about the need to change how we live so that we have a sustainable economy, but also that we leave a tolerable planet for future generations to live on, and that this can’t simply be things like cleaner and green cars but less cars on the road.  He also spoke about the concerns government is only interested in compliance, rather than challenging further and whether they will put their money where their mouth is by supporting local councils to make the necessary changes.

    Whilst Chris praised the leadership of the council for implementing the Clean Air Zone, he did also point out a number of inconsistencies including plans to widen the Dudley Rd to more traffic and the chaos over changes to buses in south Birmingham, and what this says to residents and businesses within the Clean Air Zone.  Councillor Zaffar agreed this was a fair point and that the council needs to reprioritise the road space, make a walkable city centre and connect the new cycle-ways to existing paths.  Chris ended his talk suggesting that the city is not an island and that it needs to work with others in the conurbation, by sharing ideas like Solihull School Streets campaign [a pilot project which aims to address such issues by limiting traffic in the streets surrounding schools at key times, creating a predominantly car free zone] and working together to make a real impact.

    long_way_to_go

    And with the talks done it was over to questions.  As usual, several questions weren’t actually questions but more comments, offering to install pilot air filters which have been successful in India, calls to extend the Skips Clean Air Cops from primary into secondary schools, and whether contact information for people in the room could be shared.

    Questions about investment were asked, with Councillor Zaffar replying that a London-centric government does not fund transport fairly, and that the area has a long way to go in terms of charging points for electric vehicles and pushing for public transport not to move to the compliant Euro VI emissions but rely on hydrogen and electric vehicle fleets instead.  Questions around the joined up thinking around cycling were also raised, with Councillor Zaffar explaining how Manchester and the West Midlands authorities had spent transport money (WMCA spent it on the metro), and how Birmingham still needed to invest more but hopes that different ways of working, like the partnership with the Canals and River Trust, would be of use.

    Gavin Passmore from sustainable transport charity Sustrans asked about how receptive schools had been to the ideas around reducing parents driving to school and it was a mixed response, with Sandra Green saying teachers are keen and are thinking of innovative ways to implement it into the curriculum through things like maths and physical educations, whereas Sue Huyton pointed out that some schools are initially hostile due to concerns about how it would negatively impact the school, but that going in on a reducing carbon footprint was a more positive spin on a similar topic.

    Public transport was something that came up in both the panelist and audience questions, with one audience member posing the question as to whether Birmingham could take inspiration from numerous other cities around the world and introduce free public transport.  Councillor Zaffar said this was a great aspiration, and that there is certainly a need to make public transport cheaper, but that whilst the West Midlands Combined Authority Major has the right to franchise public transport, this isn’t something he seems to be looking at.  But that Birmingham City Council are trying to make changes where they can by introducing bus lanes and gates which prioritise buses on the roads.

    The last question of the evening was around the response to the consultation for the Clean Air Zone, which has been controversial within Birmingham.  The audience member pointed out that two thirds of responses were negative, and how do we change this and get people to see what the issues are.  Sue pointed at the work Client Earth had done around their Poisoned Playground campaign, as well as the British Lung Foundation’s website, which used data to show the impact on areas.  She recognised the limits of the data, but said that this data has given vocal parents the ammunition to accelerate things and put pressure on bringing about change.  And finally Councillor Zaffar called for a bottom up approach which saw young people as vital to encourage parents to enact change.

    Links

    Birmingham, Books

    UKYA Extravaganza

    What do you get if you put 35 authors in the top floor of a book shop on a Saturday afternoon and a while pile of people who really like books? Chaos.

    I went along to the inaugural UKYA Extravaganza at Waterstones Birmingham New St, which was organised by authors Kerry Drewery and Emma Pass. The idea had been to pull together authors and fans and celebrate the genre that was Young Adult. This was purely a labour of love and with £3 a ticket no one was there for the money and the sheer enthusiasm was palpable.

    Sure it was chaotic; it was sometimes a choice between quietly chatting with authors at the back of the room and listening to the panels. But ultimately it was a lovely event, full of enthusiasm and good will – and two groaning tables of cake!

    As a fan of YA it was lovely tto hear from authors, some of who I knew and have read their books and others who enticed me into buying their novels whilst I was there – I went home with another five books, much to my groaning ‘to read’ pile’s displeasure! The range of authors, and genres, was fantastic and Emma and Kerry have plans to do some more events, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the hashtag #ukyaextravaganza if you want to go along.

    So many authors, I couldn’t fit them all into one photo!

    Birmingham, Theory

    Kerslake debate

    Last Wednesday I went to the city council chambers for a public hearing on the Kerslake Review, organised by Pauline from News in Brum. The event was organised because of the lack of debate around the report’s release; “We are bringing the city together to debate the topic the council won’t.”

    For those asking what is the Kerslake Review; “In July 2014, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and Sir Albert Bore, Leader of Birmingham City Council commissioned Sir Bob Kerslake to conduct an independent review of corporate governance in Birmingham City Council.” – Taken from gov.uk, where you can find the report in full.

    The debate itself was led by a panel. Chaired by Diane Kemp from Birmingham City University, the panel also included: Pauline Geoghegan of News in Brum; Alex Yip Vice-Chair of BCProject, Business Director; Sohail Hussain, a West Midlands Youth Commissioner; Catherine Staite from Institute of Local Government at University of Birmingham; and David Bailey, Professor of Industry  at Aston University . Deliberately not the usual faces but an impressive line up never the less, one panelist admitted to having not read the 68 page report he was asked to give an opinion on, which felt a little disrespectful. However the majority of the three hours, a strict timeline as the room was being paid for privately by News in Brum (helped out with an impromptu donations on the night), was given over to the floor.

    Whilst there were a few conspiracy theories and agenda pushing, these were thankfully minimal and the majority of speakers were considered and thoughtful. There was a real feeling of love for the city, mixed with a sadness that things have gotten this bad, but a desire to move forward and improve; “Birmingham used to lead the way, now what are we leading the way in?”  Speakers from the floor also questioned the links between regional/local government and central government, issues around devolved powers, and a feeling that Birmingham was missing out on funding compared to other areas of the country.  It was clear that there were a lot of informed and passionate people in the audience, with a real desire to see things improve.

    Ultimately, whilst the opportunity to talk seemed cathartic, I do wonder what good it will have.  A report on governance felt like it was asking the council to get its house in order, and as there’s been no official forum to debate within the council, it seems that ideas on improvement from residents are even less likely to be heard.  A video at the beginning of the debate illustrated that most people didn’t know about the review and with low turn-outs for local elections, it’s hard to really get a grip on whether residents really understand what their role is with engaging local government, and if they feel there is any at all.  Still at least through the evening’s efforts there is some record of the residents of Birmingham speaking up, officially or not.

    I left feeling like there were a lot of people wishing the city well, but no clear, agreed idea of how we the residents, the council itself and both groups together move forward.  I wonder; what happens next?

    ‘Kerslake Debate 2: Child Poverty in Birmingham’ takes place at Parkside Lecture Theatre, Birmingham City University, near Millenium Point on Friday 13th March, 6.30-9pm. To book a space, visit http://newsinbrum.com/

    Related articles

    My tweets from the evening https://storify.com/lauracreaven/kerslake-debate-my-tweets

    Birmingham Post – Birmingham development centres too much on ‘glamour projects’ http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/news/regional-affairs/birmingham-development-centres-much-glamour-8701880

    Chamberlain Files – Andy Howell slams council’s ‘shocking’ partnership record and ‘disgraceful’ refusal to debate Kerslake Review
    http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/andy-howell-slams-councils-shocking-partnership-record-and-disgraceful-refusal-to-debate-kerslake-review/

     

    Birmingham, Lifestyle

    Where have I been?

    I haven’t been posting on here as often as I’d like, as I’ve been concentrating on my food and drinks blog.

    fulltothebrum_wFull to the Brum is a Birmingham-based blog which celebrates the exciting food and drinks scene in the city.  Since I restarted it in June I’ve been focusing much more on the personal experience side of it – restaurant, cafe and bar reviews as well as product reviews, news and info about events and even the occasional recipe.  I wanted to celebrate the great food and drink adventures I found in and around Birmingham.

    This means that this blog has taken a bit of a back seat, but I’m hoping to update more often on all the other adventures I’ve been on – and maybe even occasionally mentioning some of the stuff from Full to the Brum too.

    http://fulltothebrum.co.uk/

    Birmingham, Theory

    Death Cafe Birmingham

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    Ever given up a sunny Sunday afternoon to sit around and talk death with a bunch of strangers?  I did last week for Birmingham’s first Death Cafe, which took place as part of The Electric’s Shock and Gore festival.

    The Death Cafe is a voluntary group, developed in London by Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid.  There objective is simple: ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.  Birmingham’s first meeting was held in The Victoria Pub and organised by Carrie Weekes, a soon-to-be undertaker, and Sharon Hudson, a palliative care nurse specialist – with sweet treats from Conjurer’s Kitchen, and a room rather surreally decorated for a themed Dr Sketchy’s later.

    With a three-course list of questions, we sat in groups of eight and discussed attitudes to death, end of life care and what we’d like to see at our own funerals.  It was interesting to see the diversity of ages and experiences – from those working with people at the end stages of their lives, to people caring for elderly relatives and those who were just curious.  It also fascinating to see people’s experiences of talking about death in the everyday; from parents whose children didn’t want to discuss ‘what happens if…’ to those who’d written wills and had paperwork sorted for every eventuality.  Topics of assisted suicide, organ donation and the debate about knowing how long you have left were all covered too.

    Cake pop & menu

    Cake pop & menu

    It sounds strange, but I left the Death Cafe feeling oddly energised.  It gave me the opportunity to think about my own experiences with death, how better to live and questions to ask of loved ones.  For a few hours talking about death, I felt oddly more appreciative of my family and my life.

    Would I go back?  You know, I think I would.

    Check out http://deathcafe.com/deathcafes/ for information on the next Birmingham Death Cafe.

    Birmingham, Books

    World Book Day – three Birmingham authors to check out

    Today it’s World Book Day in the UK and what better way to celebrate than by picking up a good book by a Birmingham based author?  Here are three contemporary authors which i think are well worth checking out…

    Benjamin Zephaniah

    Writer, poet, lecturer and born in Handsworth, he is well worth seeing speak live as reading some of his work.  Having published (and performed) a slew of poetry, he has also released several novels aimed at young people.  He also did a blinder of a talk at the University of Birmingham’s annual Baggs Memorial Lecture on the topic of happiness and was in BBC TV show Peaky Blinders.  If you’ve never heard, seen or read anything by this man you’re really missing out.  http://benjaminzephaniah.com/

    Katharine D’ Souzaparklife2

    I read Katharine’s first novel Park Life a couple of years ago and adored it.  It follows the lives of two people who live in the same block of flats, with South Birmingham being almost a supporting character – and those in the know will be able to spot references to Kings Heath / Moseley, which just added to the book for me.  Katharine has since released a second book which I’m looking forward to reading soon. http://www.katharinedsouza.co.uk/

    Mike Gayle

    Ex-agony uncle (no really, check out his website) and author of a stack of bestsellers, Mike Gayle in a Brummie born and bred.  He’s also set a few of his books in Brum, namely Turning Thirty and its sequel Turning Forty, which is also set in South Birmingham.  But his other books are set in London, Manchester and there’s even a non-fiction book, The To Do List.  His books are light-hearted (except maybe My Legendary Girlfriend, that one’s a bit darker) and often confusingly called chick lit.  If you’re looking for a beach read, then you can’t go wrong with some of Mike’s novels. http://www.mikegayle.co.uk/

    Some other authors with links to Birmingham worth checking out are: W. H Auden (you know the Stop all the Clocks / Funeral Blue poem from Four Weddings), R J Ellory, Catherine O’Flynn (her first novel What Was Lost is set in a shopping mall which may or may not be Merry Hill), Lee Child, J. R. R. Tolkien, Arthur Conan Doyle (spend some time working in Brum) and Malala Yousafzai.

    So, what are you reading this World Book Day?

    Lifestyle

    Shapes, words and reminders

    I’m sat here in the new library, looking out onto Birmingham with my wrist bandaged up like a prize fighter. Today marks the day I got my first tattoo. I always thought I’d be the kind of person never to get one; I always said there was nothing I liked enough to chose to mark my skin with every day. But this has been a hard year and I’ve resorted back to one of the things that helps me to remember to persevere.  And when I thought about it, I’ve been doodling this on my wrist on and off for ten years, this little purple star.

    It’s funny because my mind remembers in pictures, shapes and colours; I’m hopeless with names but I will remember where on a shelf a long forgotten book is or the route to somewhere I rarely go. But words, words and stories, have always been my first love, in all their shapes and sizes. During hard times I always retreat to stories; books, music and film; to quotations and lines from songs.  Tell me a story, better yet put it in a song, and it has the power to stop you in your tracks…or struggle on through.

    I have a quote for most occasions and several for when things are tough and you keep going, but the one I always come back to is from New Found Glory; “every darkness, I’ll shine through”.  Life is full of struggles, big and small, but keep shining. It’s the same message as Winston Churchill’s “If you’re going through hell, keep going” or Disney’s Finding Nemo “just keep swimming”.  Life is wonderful and hard, awesome and awful, it’s so simple and wonderfully complex, but it’s worth persevering even when things aren’t as good as they could be.

    Someone I once heard talk said tattoos didn’t have to have meaning, they can just be artworks in their own right, and he’s right. To most people who might see this little purple star and I’m okay with that because stars are pretty awesome in so many ways. But to me it’s so much more.