New Council Offices - Green Transport or Traffic Chaos? Or Maybe Both.

I’ve recently given credit where it’s due to the excellent green energy credentials of the new council offices due to open next month on the outskirts of Aberystwyth. Now for a more difficult issue – transport arrangements for the site.

Whilst the current council offices are dotted all around the town centre, with easy access to the town’s car parks, the new offices – Canolfan Rheidol - are the best part of a mile outside the town. 465 staff will be moving there whilst the number of car parking spaces provided is 201. I haven’t got the figures for the new Assembly building next door but I imagine they will be quite similar, thereby doubling the problem.

Of course, at any given time a number of staff will be on annual leave or working off site and many staff already walk, cycle, bus to work or car share. But even taking this into account, in a dispersed rural area where public transport to work often isn’t an option, the difference between the figures suggest a problem; especially when you consider there will be no parking places at all for visitors to the building wanting to stay more than an hour, not even for invited guests who may have travelled some distance. You don’t have to be Jeremy Clarkson to think that’s quite tough. The distance from the town’s car parks isn’t unwalkable of course – the nearest one will be about half a mile away - but it’s certainly a lot further than people are used to walking for business purposes.

Over, then, to the Council’s Highways Department who’s hour has come. When it became clear there wasn’t going to be sufficient land or money to cater for everyone who’d like to drive to the building the department were suddenly given an opportunity to put into action all the green transport strategies they’d been thinking about for the past few years. So staff moving to the new building are being presented with superb cycling facilities, new bus stops, car share schemes and a Park & Ride together with flexible working hours and opportunities to work from home. Coupled with these incentives is a blunt refusal to allow any member of staff living within the boundaries of Aberystwyth or Llanbadarn to use the building’s car park at all.

Figures from a recent survey show that council staff are already considerably better than the Ceredigion average at making green transport choices. Even so, the same survey indicates that demand for staff parking places is still likely to exceed supply.

At least staff will have been fully briefed and know what to expect. The biggest problem may well be with visitors. The number of people visiting the various council offices in town each day must number well into the hundreds and the new building is being billed as a one-stop shop for all of them. I don’t envy the car park attendants standing by a barred entrance with the task of telling visitors the nearest car park for them is half a mile away at the Park & Ride from where they can catch the next bus back. Although this kind of scenario is already happening in many places, it’s new to Aberystwyth.

Now human beings, including those who should know better, are notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to their car-related behaviour. I remember being given a lift by a fundamentalist green activist. On the journey he was full of all the familiar complaints about poor roads and slow drivers in front, until I pointed out that he was supposed to be in favour of all that. Many perfectly intelligent, community-minded people, despite the best attempts to educate them about alternatives, will always try to get their cars to as close to where they’re going as possible.

The question is, given this, where are those excluded from the building’s car park, and bull-headedly intent on finding a nearby parking spot, going to go? Residential streets near the site await the opening of the new buildings with trepidation. It could be an interesting exercise into what happens when some good principles come up against the reality of people’s transport choices, a reality that more urban councils have had to face years ago. This summer there has been just a single traffic warden for the whole of Aberystwyth due to the Council Cabinet’s stubborn refusal to take over responsibility for parking enforcement from a police force willing them to do so.

In many ways the Council’s Highways department is being very brave in attempting to confront the sheer impossibility of our society’s car expectations, even if this has been forced on them by the restrictions of the site. There's a green transport argument that says that, given people’s mesmeric attachment to their cars, the only way we will ever learn to act green is to provide no car facilities whatsoever and, only when that results in traffic chaos, will we finally learn to make environmental choices. It looks as if we may be about to see that theory put to the test in Aberystwyth.



I’d like to thank anyone who had the generosity to vote this blog in at number 45 (out of 105) in this year's Welsh Blog Awards. I suppose it’s not bad for a blog about only one small town. I’ve no idea how many people have to vote in order to attain the dizzy height of number 45, quite possibly a very small number indeed. Even so, whoever you are, thank you.


Funding Announced for New GP Surgery in Aberystwyth

National Assembly Health Minister Edwina Hart today announced full funding for a new primary care centre on Penglais Hill in Aberystwyth whilst on a visit to Bronglais Hospital.

The new health centre, which will house a GP Surgery, pharmacy and university creche, received planning permission in September last year but, despite the site being cleared and fenced off in readiness for building, funding for the project had stalled until now.

The scheme is led by local GPs at Padarn Surgery who are currently housed in an 1880s terraced house in the town centre and will enable them to expand from their current 9,000 patients.

The site (seen above) is sensitive as it’s currently a green space on the northern approach to the town and bordering a hidden beauty spot known as the Dingle. However the developers, being local themselves, seem to have understood the concerns of nearby residents and employed landscape architects from Conwy to put together a scheme retaining the majority of trees on the site. Meanwhile, local campaigners acted to have a footpath running alongside the site designated as a public right of way.

Building is expected to start soon and the new surgery is planned to open in April 2011. Edwina Hart also gave reassurances about the Assembly’s commitment to the Bronglais Hospital expansion scheme.

Council Succumbs to the Plastic Tide

Wednesday’s decision of Ceredigion Council’s Development Control Committee to allow around 50 new plastic UPVC windows in a University hall of residence has disappointed Aberystwyth Town Council who strongly objected to the plans.

The Town Council are waging a campaign against the increasing replacement of attractive wooden windows in the town with UPVC and Cllr Mark Strong has a front page article on the issue in this month’s edition of Yr Angor, the town’s papur bro. Although the university is far from the centre of town and has hundreds of UPVC windows anyway, the Town Council felt that the scale of the scheme and the opportunity of the planning application provided a good opportunity to test the commitment of the County Council and the Assembly towards sustainability issues.

As well as the clear aesthetic superiority of wood, there are strong environmental arguments against UPVC. It uses eight times the amount of energy to manufacture as wood. In both its manufacture and disposal, UPVC creates toxic chemicals which are released into the environment. Every ten UPVC windows use half a tonne of CO2 more than the same number made of of wood. And there are certainly a lot of windows in the university building in question.

In recent years UPVC manufacturers have been mounting a vigorous campaign to convince people that their product is in some way environmentally friendly. This is based mainly around a big increase in the use of recycled plastic in the industry coupled with the argument that the cheapness of their windows helps to increase the take-up of energy-saving double glazing. But, although the increased recycling is undoubtedly a good thing, it’s a deeply flawed argument because this only delays the real problem. Unlike other recyclable materials which biodegrade, when plastic finally comes to the end of its life it’s consigned to landfill where it lies for hundreds of years leaching chemicals into the earth.

Of course the main reason for the use of UPVC is its relative cheapness and low maintenance. This is a real consideration for ordinary residents on low wages with limited time. But, although it may be cheaper in the short-term, a study by Camden Housing has found that well maintained timber is actually 25% cheaper over the whole life cycle because it lasts much longer. Presumably the University is here for the long term.

The ironic thing is that the University is stuffed with clever environmentalists who, if they’d been asked, would have told their estates department all this. You might expect that the University as an institution would use its own intellectual resources to pursue environmental best practice.

Guidance in both the Ceredigion Unitary Development Plan and the Assembly’s Planning Policy Wales encourages the use of sustainable materials. The Council’s planning department therefore contacted the university asking for this but were apparently met with a refusal on the basis that something more sustainable would double the cost of the project.

The officers didn’t feel that the policy guidance was strong enough to win a fairly inevitable appeal to the Assembly in the case of a refusal, leaving the Council with costs to pay. On hearing this the majority of the committee voted to approve the application.

I’m not blaming the Council’s planning officers – they may well be right about the likelihood of losing an appeal and at least they tried. But if the Assembly is serious about sustainability it really needs to make its planning policies far more robust because, if ordinary people can’t afford not to use UPVC and big institutions say they can’t either, organisations like the Town Council need much stronger support if they’re to stand against the plastic tide.

Whilst all the debate was happening, the University had pushed ahead and put the new windows in anyway - without planning permission. In the face of such apathy from much bigger fish, what’s an environmentally concerned tiny Town Council to do?


Traffic Delays - Is the Problem in our Heads?

The local paper contacted me the other day asking my thoughts about recent traffic delays around Aberystwyth caused by various roadworks. They were asking if the tourist season was the best time of year to be doing this work. Then it occurred to me that I’d been asked a similar question before, but at an entirely different time of the year. And I wondered, is there actually any time at all when people don't mind roadworks?

The tourist season may seem at first like a bad time to do these works, but then tourists aren’t in a hurry, the university students aren’t here, many local people are on holiday and there are no school runs happening twice a day. So the timing could be worse and I suspect reasons would be found against roadworks at any time.

The blockages to Park Avenue/Boulevard St Brieuc in Aberystwyth are being caused by two different sets of work - a sensible bit of co-ordination it could be argued. At the Llanbadarn end bus stops and pedestrian refuges are being built to serve the new government buildings, due to open next month, in an attempt to make it easier for people to reach the buildings without a car. At the same time, at the town end, a new rising water main is being laid to reduce the incidents of sewage flooding in the town centre, currently running at a very smelly three incidents a year.

Then, on the Llanbadarn Road approach, traffic has been delayed by changes being made to the entrance of Penweddig school, aimed at making the road safer for schoolchildren when they return in September. All this is worthwhile work.

Of course, we've all seen situations where roadworks could have been better planned and co-ordinated. But why is it seemingly so important that cars aren’t delayed for even two minutes, not even for clearly important work?

Maybe we ourselves should take more responsibility for our own impatience rather than blame the Council or the Trunk Road Agency for trying to improve services. As a car driver myself (as well as a cyclist and pedestrian) I confess to the occasional bout of frustration at delays when I think I need to be in a hurry. But then, in better moments, I switch the car ipod to
Pharoah Sanders and try to take it as an opportunity to chill out and contemplate the illusion of haste. Maybe the Council should put on relaxation classes.


New Government Buildings Meet Top Environmental Standard

They may be controversial with the local press, built on a flood plain and utterly alien in looks to the local area but the enormous County Council and Assembly buildings suddenly looming over the eastern approach to Aberystwyth do have one or two things going for them. I’ll cover some of the problems (like how people are going to get to them...) another time. But it’s only fair to highlight that the buildings have been designed with some impressive green energy credentials, with heating and other electricity being provided by a combination of wind energy, solar energy and biomass.

Wind Turbines - It’s the sudden appearance of these, with rotar arms designed for an urban environment, that have made people look up and start to consider that something really innovative might be going on.

Solar Panels - spaced along each roof are a row of seven south-facing solar panels to provide hot water for the buildings.

Bio Mass Heating – Situated on the other side of the railway line from the buildings, the biomass plant provides heating at 2 pence per kilowatt hour as opposed to the current 10p per kw in the council buildings being used now. It’s hoped that the nearby Plas Crug Leisure Centre and Ysgol Penweddig can also be connected up to this from next summer.

All these, along with passive solar design and high insulation standards, combine to bring the buildings into the top, ‘excellent’, category of the BREEAM standard – the system used to rate the environmental performance of non-domestic buildings. As time goes by all these energy-saving measures will give a substantial financial saving compared to the current Council accommodation in various converted 18th and 19th century houses dotted around the town centre.

The opening ceremony for the Council building will be conducted on September 9th with staff moving in during week commencing 25th September. Once they’ve worked out how to get there staff will be able to sit at their desks knowing that they’re working in what will probably be the most energy-efficient council offices in Wales.


Seagulls - calls to bring in the the navy

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but 250 people have recently signed a petition calling for ‘something to be done’ about the seagull problem in Aberystwyth where the gulls (mostly herring gulls to be precise) regularly rip rubbish bags apart and occasionally dive-bomb pedestrians to protect their young.

This is an on-going debate in many seaside towns, especially in the early summer months when young gulls have emerged and their parents are needing more food than usual as well as feeling a bit over-protective.

One thing has to be understood. Even if all the local seagulls were gunned down and their eggs oiled, as some people seem to expect, it would only be a matter of time before just as many were back on the streets again. Because the only reason they’re with us is that we feed them by kindly putting our bin bags containing food waste out for them to tuck into each week. You can hardly blame them - they must think they're welcome. The truth is that the seagull problem is the same thing as our waste problem. And it won’t be solved unless we reduce the reason the birds are here in the first place.

Ceredigion County Council have trialled bin bags made from two grades of thicker plastic but the seagulls just laughed and carried on pecking though them. Placing the bags outside only just before the bin men arrive helps (although the gulls don’t need long to get stuck in) but isn’t possible for working people. Using hard green wheelie bins to put the bags in, or smaller ones to separate the food waste into, is fine in suburban or rural areas but doesn’t work in town centres filled with flats because there isn’t enough space for them inside and they clutter the streets.

The latest idea being suggested is to provide residents with woven bags to place the usual plastic bags inside. Tried apparently successfully in Dartmouth in Devon, these bags actually are beak-proof and can then be posted back through residents’ doors to be used again the following week. Aberystwyth Town Council have asked the County Council’s Environmental Services Department, whose remit the issue is, to attend their next meeting in September to talk through this and other ideas.

If anything the problem has been less severe in Aberystwyth this year, maybe because residents have taken some of the measures recommended. In the meantime, as young gulls grow able to look after themselves and their parents chill out, the problem will lessen anyway until it all starts again next year. The question is, can we sort out what we do with our waste by then?

(Diolch i Harry James am y llun)


Welsh Patagonians in Aberystwyth

Vincente, a Welsh-speaking Patagonian, is seen here playing informally last night at the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth. A former gaucho (Argentinian cowboy), Vincente is over in Wales to perform at the National Eisteddfod, being held this week in Bala. The event at the Morlan was held to promote Aberystwyth's new twinning with Esquel in Patagonia following the visit there of a delegation from the town earlier this year.

The distance involved will mean that contact betwen the two towns is less than with Aberystwyth's other twin towns of St Brieuc in Brittany and Kronberg in Germany. But the fascination of meeting people who are bilingual in Welsh and Spanish with little English plus the other attractions of the region will ensure that the initial twinning is built on. A group from Esquel, a university town of 30,000 people, are planning to visit Aberystywyth next year with a return trip to South America planned for 2011.

Anyone interested in making their own links or wanting to know more can contact Aberystwyth Town Council at council@aberystwyth.gov.uk

Thanks to Laurie Wright for the picture.

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