On Wednesday 15 May a special council meeting was held in Bristol city hall concerning the construction of a gas-fired electrical generator just 80 metres away from a nursery school in the already highly polluted inner-city area of Barton Hill.
The company pushing to acquire planning permission to build this generator is Conrad Energy, and it’s no surprise that the majority of local people, and especially the parents whose children attend the nursery, are dead against its construction.
Bristol’s planning authority had initially approved the plan, on the basis that there were no legal grounds for refusing it, but after a petition opposing the plant racked up 1,000 signatures in less than three days, a public hearing was suddenly deemed to be necessary. (Planning officers recommend approval of St Philip’s Marsh gas plant by Lorna Stephenson, The Bristol Cable, 8 May 2019)
Who cares about a bit more pollution in an already polluted area?
Many parents at the meeting, some of whom have children who are already asthmatic, complained that they had never been consulted about the plan. Although the council maintains that the air pollution figures are within safe limits, this is disputed.
What is not disputable is that asthma cases in the area are already significantly higher than in other parts of Bristol owing to the high air pollution levels there, whilst life expectancy is significantly lower.
Plumbing the depths of cynicism, Conrad Energy argued that, since Barton Hill is already a sink of air pollution, another 5 percent increase won’t make much difference! After all, workers are accustomed to living like that.
Some speakers at the meeting drew attention to the class issues this brings into focus, pointing out that such a power station would never be proposed in wealthier upper-class areas such as Clifton. Instead, as usual, it is the poorer communities that are told to put up or shut up.
Conrad Energy claims that this would only be a “standby” generator, with the sole purpose of supplying electricity when renewable sources fail to keep up with demand. Yet the generator has an annual projected capacity of 2,132 hours, just shy of six hours a day, suggesting that it would be running a hell of a lot longer than it would be ‘standing by’.
Contrary to Conrad Energy’s plea that the generator would only operate at certain times, thereby mitigating the effect on the children at the nursery, it is planning to operate between 8.00am and 9.00am Monday to Friday, coinciding neatly with the school run and resulting in a toxic cocktail of generator and traffic fumes. It is also planning to be running from 5.00pm to 8.00pm on Saturdays – a peak time for people to be heading out to socialise with friends and family.
Sham democracy exposed
Nine of the ten councillors at the meeting voted against the power station, meaning that for now planning consent has officially been refused. But the story doesn’t end there. Conrad Energy is able to appeal against the council’s decision in a hearing in London behind closed doors – with no say from either councillors or members of the public.
If the company’s appeal is successful, the plant gets built and Bristol council gets to pay the energy company’s onerous legal fees. If the appeal fails, however, Conrad Energy will not have to pay a penny of the costs incurred by local people and the council, and will be free to up sticks and try its luck polluting somebody else’s neighbourhood. (Controversial gas power station refused at development committee by Lorna Stephenson, The Bristol Cable, 15 May 2019)
Such is the true nature of justice and democracy in capitalist Britain.
Council lawyers advise against the truth
The council has been advised that the best legal defence against an appeal by the company would be to leave aside the question of the direct health risk posed by the project, instead making the case that because residents believe the plant poses a threat (which it does) that this could be detrimental to their mental health, even if the plant were completely harmless (which assuredly it is not).
This is a tacit acknowledgment by these advisors that a truthful defence on the basis of the real health issues is far less likely to be accepted by government. Branding such stations as a health risk clearly has implications for the profit margins of companies like Conrad.
However, whilst the psychological stress of ferrying your children to school every day under the shadow of 12-metre-high chimneys cannot be doubted, the stark biological reality is that, should Conrad Energy get its way, local parents will be expected just to suck it up as their children are slowly poisoned before their eyes.
The anger and frustration expressed in the meeting by local community activists with a real stake in the neighbourhood offer hope that the resistance to such attacks on the working class will soon be breaking the bounds of reformism (patrolled by the likes of newly-formed ‘tenants’ union’ Acorn) and taking on a revolutionary dimension, opening up into the politics of class against class.