Saturday, 31 December 2016

Endings & Beginnings

RIP 2016 tshirt
Goodbye to all that.

2016 RIP

The end of another year is inevitably a time of thoughtful reflection.

It's been an interesting year, hasn't it? Our worlds have been rocked by a succession of 'celebrity' deaths and the EU Referendum resulted in a change of prime minister and months of confusion and uncertainty about what BREXIT will mean and when it will happen.

Closer to home, graffiti, drifting, vandalism, long grass, dog poo, litter, flytipping and dangerous driving were just some of the issues that brought you into contact with me.

But is wasn't all bad. No year ever is.

2017 will also be a challenging year. It's worth taking a moment to reflect on all that was good about 2016 and to make a special effort to notice all that is good in the year ahead.

Here's a list of some of the things that I've appreciated in the past 12 months:

Natalie Bennett with Peterborough Green Party
Green Party (then) leader Natalie Bennett came to visit us in May

The Start of my 'Green Adventure'
On 20th March my life changed beyond measure when one of my fellow parish councillors suggested that I might stand in the Peterborough City Council elections on behalf of the Green Party. 'What's the worst that could happen', I remarked as I agreed to do the 200 or so Green voters of Orton Waterville ward the 'favour' of providing a name for them to vote for on the ballot paper. Little did I know that Orton Waterville was on the cusp of becoming the 'Greenest' ward in the whole of Peterborough. I came to the election very late and with no experience of standing as a candidate. With the help of Peterborough Green Party volunteers, I managed to put a leaflet out to 4200 homes, but not before many had already returned their postal votes. Coming any better than 5th place seemed an impossibility.

No one was more surprised than I was to learn that 565 residents voted for me, your Green Party candidate, on 5th May. The Green Party came third in our ward, just 42 votes behind UKIP! The warmth of your support and the level of your engagement with me was overwhelming. I did not expect it at all. A 'simple' act that began as a favour quickly became a cause to which I am now pleased to dedicate all of my time. In the months since, I have met so many of you and struck up true friendships, laughed and cried with you, shared in your frustrations and your joys. It has been the greatest privilege to serve you and now I cannot imagine life any other way. Thank you. I wonder where you'll take us next.

Steve is one of our invaluable Green Leafleteers
Steve is one of our invaluable Green Leafleteers

My New Team
You received four leaflets from me this year. But how did I manage to deliver 16,800 leaflets to doormats across Orton? I just write the leaflets. The delivery is done but a small but faithful army of 'Green Leafleteers'. In all weathers and without a single complaint, this gang of hardy letterbox-stuffers march on Orton Waterville ward to get my message to you. All are volunteers, driven solely by their desire to help me to reach you. In all my years, I've never seen a team like it. In fact, I've never worked with a team like Peterborough Green Party. We don't have the money or the resources of the larger political parties, but in no way does this restrict anyone's beliefs about what it is possible.

Life as a local politician is very bumpy, with high highs and low lows. It is as exhilarating as it is exhausting. What you need more than anything is a team that has your back, that will turn up on your doorstep just to ask how you are and will get stuck in with your latest mad idea with lots of great questions but no complaints. In September, they made me joint coordinator of Peterborough Green Party, along with my outstanding colleague Roger Proudfoot. And while I can't tell you about everything that goes on behind the scenes (as our political opponents avidly read my blog!) what I can say is that our team is my energy and it is they who make it possible for me to help so many of you by quietly and conscientiously getting on with doing the various essential tasks that free up a politician to do what matters most: listening to residents.

Julie holding a litter pick stick
When it comes to litter, we mean business

I don't appreciate litter. However, I do appreciate the efforts we're all making to clear it from our streets. This year, I took part in countless litter picks around Orton. Some were arranged by Peterborough Green Party, others by local residents and there was even a litter pick around the Lynchwood Business Park organised by staff of the Marriott  Hotel (accompanied by 13 4-year-olds from a local nursery). None of those who joined in the effort to pick the litter up was responsible for dropping it. You may believe that it's the council's job to pick it up anyway. You're right, it is. But so much litter is being dropped around Orton that the council cannot possibly keep up with it. Imagine how pleasant our surroundings would be if we all picked up litter that we didn't drop. I've stopped seeing litter as simply a nuisance and started to take pleasure in helping to remove it from our streets. Why not join us on one of our litter picks in 2017 and share in the feelgood.

Julie holding vote Green banner
Thank you for voting Green

Writing for you is a pleasure. I receive a lot of emails and phone calls from residents who have enjoyed my leaflets and my blogs. It is my pleasure. I like to keep up my writing (I'm a published author and write for Nene Living magazine about the exploits of my dog!). I love conversations too and I'm looking forward to many more conversations with you in 2017.

May the 4th be with you
2016 is about to be behind us and 2017 lies ahead, full of possibility and a little bit of trepidation. There's another election on the horizon. On 4th May 2017, you will be asked to choose a mayor of the new Peterborough and Cambridgeshire Combined Authority. Although the EU Referendum resulted in a lot of turmoil at least one positive has come out of it: many people used their right to vote for the very first time in their lives. It is my dearest hope that new voters will continue to exercise their democratic right, a right that was hard won in our country and a right that continues to be denied in other counties around the world. May the 4th. I'll remind you.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Rough Sleepers, Rough Justice: A Christmas Tale

I've had a bad week. A cold became raging tonsillitis, which became a raging dental abscess which has laid me low for the past seven days. I'm not a particularly patient patient. What gets me through the misery of these acute, seasonal illnesses is knowing that in a matter of days I'll be back to full health (which I will be very soon).

Being stuck at home hasn't meant I've been cut off from the world. I have watched with growing horror how the abscess in my mouth has become the perfect metaphor for the abscess in our Town Hall.

Raging Abscess

As the entire world now knows, Peterborough City Council (to be fair, not every single one of the city councillors, but a core group of Conservatives) continue to treat the homeless people in our city with utter contempt. You have already read how Peterborough City Council has made 74 families homeless in order to provide emergency accommodation for other homeless families. If you thought national embarrassment, including a basting on BBC1's The One Show, would have been more than enough to make the city council think very carefully about how it treats homeless people in the future you would be just like me: dead wrong.

Article from Peterborough Telegraph
Article from Peterborough Telegraph

On Thursday, the Peterborough Telegraph reported that Peterborough City Council has hired a security firm to 'patrol Peterborough city centre to remove rough sleepers' for 19 days over the Christmas period.

You read that correctly.

How to Blow £8k in 19 Days

If you're a Peterborough resident your council tax is paying for this 'service' to the tune of £8,000. The area of 'Peterborough city centre' that is of particular concern to the city council is a passage known as St Peter's Arcade, which is a literal stone's throw from the Town Hall on Bridge Street.

First St Michael's Gate, now St Peter's Arcade. If you live on a street named after a saint perhaps you ought to start looking over your shoulder too (I think I'm joking). I wonder, when you voted for your city councillors, did you think you were voting to give them permission to spend your money in this way?

I felt well enough to take a trip out today (Christmas Eve) and wandered down to St Peter's Arcade. There are still people sleeping rough there. Clearly, it doesn't please me to think of anyone sleeping rough in our city. Nor am I pleased that £8k that might have been spent on something positive for our city's homeless people has been spent on what appears to be little more than an exercise in personal vanity and public flexing of muscle by the city councillors involved. But I smiled inwardly to see that the city council's attempt to 'vanish' our homeless people from our streets has failed. Because it's not legal you see. So it's both a disgraceful treatment of fellow humans and a disgraceful squandering of public money.


I surely speak for growing number of residents when I say that we don't want the people who are homeless to be 'vanished' from public view like so much fly tip. People become homeless for myriad reasons and once homeless the struggle to get life back on track is mammoth. Just this week, the charity Crisis published a new report highlighting the abuse that rough sleepers routinely face on British streets. Now Peterborough has been linked with this report in the worst possible way (read this article in The Mirror - that's our city they're talking about).

I can say with certainty that the people of Peterborough are characterised by kindness, sympathy and understanding towards people who are going through hard times, and these increasingly bizarre decisions taken on our behalf but without any consultation by the city council are considered by many people here to be nothing short of a disgrace.

Peterborough's 'Christmas Tree' is best viewed with your back to it
Peterborough's 'Christmas Tree' is best viewed with your back to it

St Peter's Arcade is situated opposite another seasonal city council project that many residents find offensive: the £40k glowing pyramid that is supposed to pass for a Christmas tree. Ask most Peterborough people and they will tell you that they want a real tree, decorated with baubles and lights and a fairy on the top. You know... Christmassy. I'm quite sure we could have just that for less than £40,000. The council justifies the spend by insisting that it will be used year after year. Well, it would have to be used for at least a decade to stand a chance of being more environmentally friendly than an annual succession of real trees owing to the huge carbon footprint created by its production. I don't wish to be crude, especially at Christmas (there has been more than enough of that already), but there's more taste in my mouth, particularly since my abscess burst.

Talk is Cheap

It's easy for me to write this. What difference do words make? This afternoon, on behalf of Peterborough Green Party, my colleague Roger donated snacks and warm clothing to Youngsters Unity, an organisation in Peterborough that tonight held an event for our city's homeless people where they could have a warm meal and food and some clothing to take away with them. I know that's a small gesture and it didn't cost us very much. But doesn't it make you think what good £48,000 could do? Antibiotics have cleared up my tonsillitis and soon my abscess will be drained and gone because I have received the right care at the right time to get me back on my feet. Homelessness is a complex issue that requires a sensitive, long-term, multi-agency response that recognises that homeless people have genuine and complicated needs and that doesn't seek to either vanish or criminalise them.

Merry Christmas.

Poster advertising the Christmas Eve event organised by Youngsters Unity
Poster advertising the Christmas Eve event organised by Youngsters Unity

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Why Peterborough Green Party Wants to Help Young Motorcyclists

Young people on mini motorcycles
Young people on motorcycles

Earlier this month, I told you about a terrible accident in Peterborough involving a young man riding an illegal mini motorbike on a residential road at night with no helmet and no lights. Over the past few years, young people riding these bikes anti-socially around Orton - and Orton Goldhay in particular - have caused great distress to residents, who have long feared that an accident could happen.

Young people on illegal bikes on our residential roads and pavements are a danger to themselves and everyone else. Thanks to the internet, it's now easier than ever to acquire one of these bikes and many of the models you can buy online are cheap, poorly constructed and dangerous. While people continue to ride these bikes illegally accidents will continue to happen. It's easy to criminalise these young riders, but doing so doesn't tackle the issues at the heart of the matter in our community.

Nowhere to Go

You may be thinking that the Green Party and a project that encourages safe use of environment-polluting mini motorbikes would not be comfortable bedfellows. However, we are just as concerned about our natural environment as we are about the built environment that people live in.

It has become very clear to me that mini motorbike enthusiasts in Orton have nowhere to go to ride their bikes safely and legally. Instead, they bomb around Goldhay with no lights, no helmet and no idea of how to ride responsibly. For the safety of everyone and the protection of our residential environment this is something we have to address.

Gauntlet Auto Project

When I appeared on BBC Radio Cambs to talk about the accident and the problem of mini motorbikes in Orton Goldhay, I was introduced to a gentleman called Wayne Arbon who is involved in running the Gauntlet Auto Project in Ramsey, ten miles outside Peterborough.

Wayne Arbon at the Gauntlet Auto Project in Ramsey
Wayne Arbon at the Gauntlet Auto Project in Ramsey

Arial view of the Gauntlet Auto Project in Ramsey
Arial view of the Gauntlet Auto Project in Ramsey

Established in 1995, and registered as a charity, the Gauntlet Auto Project is a Saturday morning club for young people who would like to learn how to ride mini motorbikes, discover how to ride properly and responsibly and find out how to maintain their bikes to ensure they are safe and in good working order.

Gauntlet Auto Project promotes:

  • Safe motorbike riding 
  • Young people's self-esteem 
  • Mechanical and IT skills 
  • Youth volunteering 
  • Good citizenship

The sessions run on Saturday mornings, 10am-12:30pm. Each session costs £10, or £7 if you have an annual membership of the club, which costs £30.

Set in seven acres of beautiful farmland, the club has taken care to protect the natural environment that surrounds it, installing bug hotels and bird boxes to encourage nature to thrive.

The project is set in stunning farmland
The project is set in stunning farmland

A range of motorcycles
The project offers riders a wide choice of bikes
to ride to suit different levels of skill and experience.
A view of the workshop
In the workshop, young riders learn how to
fix and maintain their bikes.

All Welcome

There girls on quad bikes and motorcycles
Not just for the boys! I saw several girls on bikes today.

The project welcomes boys and girls, people with all kinds of disabilities (Wayne told me they recently held a session for deafblind children who had a fantastic time!).

There are six tracks, catering for riders at different levels of ability:
Quad loop
Figure 8 track
Loop track
Jump track
Training oval
Go kart track

What's the Problem?

There is no problem! The project just needs more publicity and more funding. And for young people in Orton who can't easily get to rural Ramsey on a Saturday morning it also needs the help of our local community to arrange a minibus to take them to and from the venue.

Two motorcycle riders
Riders take their turn around one of the six tracks.

We're really keen to help this project to thrive. If you live in Orton and would like to go to the club but need help with transport to get there, please let me know. If there is enough interest, we may be able arrange a minibus.

Of course, motorbikes do have a negative effect on the environment. However, projects like this can build riders' awareness of this and encourage them to maintain their bikes appropriately, make the more ethical consumer choices where possible and ride in a manner that is respectful of air quality and wildlife.

The difficulty with motorbikes in general is that they run on unsustainable fossil fuel, namely petrol. One of the most serious effects of these mini motorbikes is their contribution to climate change by producing carbon dioxide. The Green Party is keen to dramatically reduce the production of carbon dioxide from all methods of transport. We endorse walking, cycling wherever possible, car-sharing, and the use of busses and trains. However, public safety and an end to anti-social behaviour concern us too, and while ownership of these mini motorbikes continues to surge we want parents (who pay for them!) and young people to acknowledge all of the dangers associated with these bikes: the safety concerns, the anti-social behaviour and the effects on the environment. 

A Treasure

This facility is a treasure. It is run almost entirely by volunteers whose dedication to helping young people is very humbling. To keep any project going for more than 20 years in an incredible achievement, especially considering Cambridgeshire County Council recently halved the amount of grant money that it makes available to the project (a fact that saddens me greatly).

We've grown very used in Orton to venting anger and frustration at mini motorcyclists and with good reason. But you should see what I saw today. Thirty young people fully engaged in learning how to ride mini motorbikes correctly and responsibly in a safe environment under the watchful eye of caring and experienced volunteers and fellow bike enthusiasts. I didn't see anyone messing about or causing problems. Wayne tells me that after a short time with the club, kids who had driven anti-socially in the past start to take pride in doing things the right way. This is exactly the sort of project we should all embrace.

To find out more visit the Gauntlet Auto Project website.
Unit 5 Park Farm, Wood Lane, Ramsey, Cambs PE26 2XA
Telephone 01487 711161

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Women, Men & Children

Protest banner created by residents of St Michael's Gate
Banner created by residents of St Michael's Gate

You must have heard about the disgraceful situation across town at St Michael's Gate in Parnwell. A private company has made available to Peterborough City Council accommodation to house some of our city's homeless people. Sounds like a good idea? It isn't, because the properties concerned are already occupied and to make them available to homeless families the people who currently live in these homes are being evicted.

You have understood this correctly. People are being made homeless to free up housing for homeless people.

It's All Perfectly Legal 

If they can do it in Parnwell, they can do it here or anywhere.

Much has been written about this disgraceful situation in both local and national media. In particular, our Peterborough Telegraph is doing a fantastic job of shining a spotlight on the misery that the newly homeless women, men and children of St Michael's Gate presently face.

Story in the Peterborough Telegraph

Women, Men, Children. A Community. 

I have heard and read of local politicians describing these women, men and children as 'the homeless'. This language is de-humanising. Wittingly or unwittingly, when we start to use 'the homeless' as a collective term for women, men and children we begin to set people apart from ourselves. Very quickly, we get to here:

Click to enlarge
[Text: We believe we had absolutely no option but to enter into a formal lease to occupy these properties because if we didn't the properties would have been leased to another council somewhere else in the UK to use for their own homeless households. The existing households that live in St Michael's Gate would still have been evicted whether or not this council entered into a lease agreement, and we would have seen households from another council housed in Peterborough. Demands on services such as education, social care and health would have increased at a time when we are already working hard to manage that demand, and a proportion of these new households would undoubtedly seek to permanently settle in Peterborough reducing the availability of housing for our own households.]

The text you see above is an excerpt from a letter from Peterborough City Council to the Local Government Association, calling for local councils to work together so that the situation that has arisen at St Michael's Gate cannot happen again. The intent is laudable. The language is deplorable.


Brilliant people of Orton Waterville ward, would you agree that 'homeless households' is an oxymoron? How can a person be both homeless and have a house at the same time?

The phrase the city council is desperate to avoid using is 'homeless women, men and children'.

'Homeless women, men and children' has an emotional resonance. It's a phrase that can put a lump in your throat. It makes me think of 'humanity' and 'caring'. 'Homeless households' on the other hand, is clinical. It creates distance between 'them' and 'us'. It makes me think of the bricks and mortar, rather than the loving community of friends and families that is the beating heart of St Michael's Gate.

And do you know, that's exactly what it's supposed to do.

Mind Your Language

We use language to distance ourselves from emotional discomfort. To dissociate from it. Our use of language can change the way we think and feel and it can also change the way other people think and feel. It is that powerful.

Sometimes, that's a good thing. Sometimes, it is helpful to use language to distance ourselves emotionally when we need to deliver bad news or when we are in a professional or formal situation, such as a job interview. However, when it comes to the wellbeing of the women, men and children who find themselves facing eviction just before Christmas through no fault of their own, dispassionate, dissociating language enables people in power to inflict great harm and injustice when they otherwise might be more compassionate.

Passion and Compassion

This evening, at a meeting of the full Peterborough City Council, St Michael's Gate resident and campaigner Jelana Stevic made what Joel Lamy, reporter with the Peterborough Telegraph described as 'a hugely passionate speech'. It is with regret that this passion will be sieved and strained through the medium of the council chamber until all humanity is lost.

This is human suffering that has come to pass via policies and procedures that de-humanise people. It is very easy to make decisions that affect the well-being of women, men and children when you use language that removes their humanity.

Let's stop doing this. Let's stop de-humanising people. Let's create policies and pass laws that protect people and help them to feel secure. And let's always put people are the heart of our decisions and take greater care with our language.

Your beliefs become your thoughts
Your thoughts become your words
Your words become your actions
Your actions become your habits
Your habits become your values
Your values become your destiny 

And so it is for the women, men and children of St Michael's Gate.

p.s. On reading this post, a local Green Party supporter reminded me of George Orwell's book 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' and Orwell's fictional 'doublespeak' language Newspeak.

Please support Action for St Michael's Gate on Facebook.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Mini Motorbikes & the Accidents Waiting to Happen

Motorcycle light
If your mini motorbike doesn't have a light you're invisible

Everyone saw an accident coming.

Everyone, except the lad on the bike and the poor driver whose car unavoidably hit him.

Just before 9pm on Thursday night (1st December 2016), a lady driving a Chevrolet Spark along London Road in Fletton Hempstead, Peterborough collided with a man in his 20s who was riding a mini motorbike. The biker wasn't wearing a helmet, there were no lights on his bike and, according to some unverified witness accounts that I read on social media, he jumped a red traffic light. The lady driving the car had no opportunity to take evasive action and the motorcycle and its rider ended their journey under that car. Our treasured MAGPAS air ambulance took the young man to hospital and it is reported that he has sustained 'life-changing injuries' including a broken pelvis. The driver of the car is, mercifully, unharmed.

The motorcyclist (and his friends and family) have learned a very hard lesson in the worst way possible. These bikes are not road legal for a reason. Even if they were, riding without a helmet is foolhardy. Riding without lights could kill someone. If you ride in the dark on public roads without lights on your bike you're invisible. No matter how carefully you think you're riding, if you cannot be seen then you're putting everyone in range of you at risk of great harm.

Yesterday, I gave an interview to the BBC Radio Cambs Breakfast Show expressing my concern about these mini motorbikes. Although the request for an interview was triggered by this incident, I have long voiced concerns about anti-social behaviour involving these bikes in many areas of Peterborough, including Dogsthorpe, Werrington and Orton.

Many residents of Orton have spoken to me about their anxieties regarding these bikes and the aggressive and anti-social attitude of the young people who ride them on the pavement, often narrowly missing pedestrians and certainly terrorising them.

Where Are The Police?

Residents also complain very bitterly that the police rarely respond to their reports about the mini motorbikes, despite it supposedly being a priority for police in Orton. Calls to 101 are frequently dismissed and if they attend at all, the police tend to arrive long after the rider has left the area.

Evidence of the problem is difficult to capture as the bikes travel so fast, with no licence plates to identify them, and the riders usually cover their faces with scarves to hide their identity.

Unsurprisingly, this has led some residents to describe parts of Orton as 'lawless', with many believing that neither the police nor the council cares about them.

What Should Be Done?


If you're riding a bike you and your bike should always be safe, road legal and visible. Venturing out without lights on your bike at any time of day is risky and at night it is extremely dangerous. 'Life changing injuries' generally means 'will never walk again'. This is a terrible life sentence for a person in their 20s. Put lights on your bike, even if you don't agree that you need them. They will one day save your life and probably someone else's life too.


While some riders mean no harm, a considerable number of mini motorbike riders in Orton deliberately ride anti-socially, terrorising families, older people and pets. Putting people's lives at risk. Where those riders are concerned the police must intervene.

On 5 June 2016, Community Inspector Kate Firman of Safer Peterborough Partnership wrote in the Peterborough Telegraph about seizing bikes and issuing warnings to anti-social riders, and yet the problem seems to be worse than ever. I don't know whether the 101 operators are failing to handle the calls correctly (we know this happens sometimes when 'drifting' is reported) or whether the police are simply overwhelmed. However, it's very clear that residents feel a more visible police presence in the community and a faster response when crimes involving mini motorbikes occur would make a difference.

Somewhere to go

Peterborough is a property paradox. We have a desperate housing shortage (depending on whose 'facts' you choose to believe). At the same time, our newer housing estates are cramped. Planning that probably made very good sense on paper has led to narrow streets and areas of very dense housing. People in some areas feel that they are living on top of each other. And as new estates are built, where is the infrastructure needed to create communities? Is it any wonder that young people are using residential streets for recreation? If you are interested in mini motorbikes, where can you go in Orton to ride them safely and legally?

If you listen to the BBC Radio Cambs interview on the link above, you'll also hear from Wayne Arbon of the Gauntlet Auto Project. This business operating in Ramsey provides a place for mini motorbike enthusiasts to ride safely and teaches them how to maintain their bikes to keep them in good working order. Wouldn't it be great if we had such a facility in Peterborough?

What do you think is the answer the problems caused by young people riding mini motorbikes illegally and unsafely in Orton?

UPDATE: Read about my visit to the Gauntlet Auto Project in Ramsey where they are giving young people the opportunity to learn how to ride mini motorbikes safely and responsibly 

Audio transcript: Dotty: Now the use of mini motorbikes in Peterborough has reached epidemic proportions, that’s according to a member of the city’s Green Party. Julie Howell says people riding them without lights and helmets are a hazard to residents as well as themselves. Last night in the city, a rider on a mini motorbike was reported to have sustained life-changing injuries after a collision with a car on London Road. Julie Howell joins me now. Good morning. I mean epidemic proportions Julie, what do you really mean by that?

Julie: Good morning, Dotty. Well the first thing that I’d like to say is how terribly sorry I am for everyone involved in that accident on Thursday, particularly the driver of the car. It sounds absolutely horrific. Now, we call this epidemic proportions because we have been complaining about this for over two years now. It’s a problem in Werrington, in Dogsthorpe, in Orton, various places across Peterborough. We’ve told the police time and time again we’ve got a real problem with people driving these off-road bikes, these illegal bikes. They’re not wearing helmets, well, that’s their risk, isn’t it? But they’ve got no lights on their bikes and this is a huge risk to everybody.

Dotty: And you said that you feel particularly sorry following this accident on Thursday night for the person who was driving the car that was involved. I mean it was the rider of the motorbike that has suffered such serious injuries.

Julie: And it sounds like it was a miracle the person behind the wheel of the car wasn’t injured or indeed any pedestrians passing by because I believe this was round about 9pm, a very busy time. I know that location well. It’s quite a built-up residential area and if you’re riding a bike with no lights on then you are responsible for any accident that happens, absolutely right. I’m sorry someone’s hurt themselves but this was bound to happen if you ride in the dark with no lights on.

Dotty: So what really is the problem, especially if these kids are, you know, just knocking about, if they’re just having a bit of fun, I mean, is it really a big deal?

Julie: They’re not just knocking about though. I’ve spoken to many residents about this over the weekend and certainly what we find in Orton is that there’s a lot of very anti-social behaviour there with these bikes. The kids who are riding the bikes, I say kids but it’s also young people in their 20s, are riding them with their faces masked by scarves so they know they’re doing wrong and they don’t want to be identified and they’re driving along pavements, they’re putting children at risk. It’s something we’ve raised with the police many, many times and it’s just a matter of time before a pedestrian is really badly injured or killed.

Dotty: Yeah, I mean in the last six months we’ve spoken to you Julie about concerns over fly tipping, over drifting and now mini motorbikes. You say you’ve complained about all of these things to the relevant authorities for months at a time. Do you feel that Peterborough is being effectively policed?

Julie: Some parts of it you have to wonder, don’t you? I don’t think this is entirely a policing issue. Clearly, we need to tell our young people to put lights on their bikes. That’s really important. And I know that some residents feel, as I do, that we need some place for people to be. Peterborough’s becoming so built up with new housing, it doesn’t have great transport infrastructure, and people will always as they have since motorbikes were invented, wanted to muck about on them. So they need somewhere safe to be able to do that. But for years residents have been complaining to police about this sort of thing and they’re feeling terrorised now by these young people and I doubt hearing about this accident on Thursday is going to make any of the residents feel any better about it. Where are the police? Where’s the presence? Where are the police telling these riders if you don’t have lights on your bike it’s not just your own life you’re putting at risk it’s the life of anybody who is unfortunate enough to get in your way.

Dotty: What do you think should be done about this?

Julie: Education about how important lights are. I can’t believe that we’re saying this. Isn’t it obvious? If you choose not to wear a helmet it’s on you. If you choose not to have lights on your bike that could affect all of us. And somewhere for people to be so that they can do this and they’re not doing it out on our streets.

Dotty: Okay Julie, thank you very much. Julie Howell there from Peterborough Green Party, concerned about the number of mini motorbikes being ridden illegally around Peterborough.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Communication Breakdown

Vandalised Information Board at Thorpe Meadows
Information Board at Thorpe Meadows

UPDATE: On Tuesday 6th October 2016, following a 7th attack on Nene Park, I appeared on the Paul Stainton Show on BBC Radio Cambs to talk about the things I mention in this blog post.

I woke this morning to the news that several of the information boards at Thorpe Meadows, a beautiful area close to our ward that I visited only recently, have been vandalised with extremely offensive graffiti.

I've written about Peterborough's graffiti on this blog a couple of times already. Firstly, I spoke of the graffiti that had appeared on a wall in Orton Northgate and compared this to the 'Vote Leave' graffiti that appeared in Stanground just before the EU Referendum. More recently, I wrote about the graffiti that has appeared opposite St Mary's Church in Orton Waterville.

However, I don't need to write about graffiti for residents to know about it. A group of people have been defacing Orton for months now. Elsewhere in the city, graffiti has moved on from 'tagging' to being racially offensive and deliberate in its intention to destroy public enjoyment of our natural spaces.

Vandalised Information Board at Thorpe Meadows
Information Board at Thorpe Meadows

So What's Going On?

Well, the tagging at St Mary's Church is communication. It may be deeply anti-social, but it is neither mindless nor thoughtless. Because graffiti takes effort. The person doing the spraying needs to have paint to spray, a certain amount of 'skill' with a spray can and the ability to be organised enough to make their mark without detection. This is the opposite of mindless. It is, however, done without seeing the bigger picture. It is done without an appreciation of the stress and misery that graffiti can cause to people living in a community. It is inconsiderate. It is an act that is 'separate' to the community. But it is still a form of communication. To dismiss it as vandalism is to over-simplify it and if we over-simplify and ignore it how are we ever to fully address it?

Tagging opposite St Mary's in Orton Waterville

I also wrote recently about how Peterborough City Council had taken a decision without consulting the local community to paint the 'blue bridge' green. I love green, but I can well understand why some residents felt that the council had 'vandalised' a landmark without even asking them how they felt. To some, that paint job felt like a 'mindless' act.

Common Thread

I see a common thread running through all three of these instances: communication. Or, more specifically, communication breakdown.

So what of this horrible mess that has appeared overnight at Thorpe Meadows? Is this communication too? And if it is, how do we respond to it? Do we put CCTV everywhere? Or do we try to find out why this was done? These are the questions that divide communities.

One might say 'give the graffiti artists a place to do their tagging and they will stop doing it elsewhere'. There may be some truth in this, however, the mess at Thorpe Meadows is not the same as the mess in Orton Waterville. The vandalism at Thorpe Meadows is deliberate in its intention to cause offence. It is still communication but it is not communication between graffiti artists. It is communication to the rest of us. It is saying something about human misery. It feels hateful and violent and provocative. It is painful screams, not simply 'I was here, please notice me'.

Graffiti and vandalism are as old as humanity itself. The generations that preceded ours did not succeed in stamping it out and nor will we. But I wonder, when our most precious and beautiful areas are attacked and destroyed, whether communication has broken down completely, or whether we're just not listening to one another intently enough.

Listen Harder

As a local politician, my role is to listen and to communicate. But I'm well aware that not everyone in our community is a skilled communicator. I wasn't exactly brilliant at school, but I had a good English teacher who nurtured and pushed me. Not everyone has the ability to express how they feel in language, through speech or through writing. Effective communication, where the person expressing the idea does so in the way they intended and is fully understood by the audience they wished to reason with is really complicated stuff. This is why so many residents approach people like me to help them write letters, fill out forms and talk to people in authority on their behalf. It is difficult, it takes real skill, and the more any of us can do to help other people to express themselves and be heard is a very good thing. I know many community volunteers who do exactly this. They are our angels.

I have no idea why the person who has vandalised Thorpe Meadows did what they did because communication has broken down. There is no message, only questions and despair. But the message I will CHOOSE to take from this is to listen harder in our community, especially to those people who find communication difficult and frustrating. It may make absolutely no difference to those who would cause this kind of harm to us, but it might make those of us who reckon ourselves to be effective communicators and who put ourselves forward to serve in our communities a bit more aware of residents' needs to be heard.

Audio transcript:
Paul Stainton: Also with us is Julie Howell. She’s from the Peterborough Green Party and recently wrote a blog about Peterborough’s graffiti problem. Julie, Good morning.
Julie Howell: Hi, good morning, Paul.
PS: Should we get the big stick out for these people?
JH: Well, I think we need to differentiate between two different things that are going on here. There is graffiti across Peterborough. Some areas of Peterborough have got a real problem with graffiti and by that I mean tagging which is really a conversation between people. It may not be a conversation that we like, we may find it anti-social, it’s a conversation none-the-less and I think there are a lot of questions there about why people are doing that rather than having conversations face-to-face somewhere else, are we providing enough facilities? But let me tell you, this stuff at Ferry Meadows, this is not graffiti and I’d like us to stop calling it that. It’s a hate crime. It’s very clearly a hate crime. It’s racist. It’s not a conversation at all. It’s not a conversation that any of us are party to that we can understand. Covering over signs is stopping conversation. And writing racist words, and I don’t know who the racism is aimed at because the press has, quite rightly, not shared that.
PS: We don’t want to give that any oxygen, that’s the thing.
JH: No, absolutely not. But to me, first of all I want to find, mmm, okay, graffiti, it’s a conversation, but seeing that this is, what, the seventh time that this has happened at Nene Park, which as Brian was saying is absolutely vast, and that nature of it.
PS: Have you seen it, by the way? Because you live quite close don’t you, you live in the Ortons, don’t you?
JH: I do live quite close. I haven’t been there since this graffiti started up. Quite frankly I don’t care to see it. It’s offensive to me. I’m seeing the pictures and I don’t like it. And when I go to Ferry Meadows and Thorpe Meadows by the rowing lake where I’ve been quite recently I go there to relax, not to be confronted with things that make me feel stressed. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. But I’d really also like to challenge this thing about ‘mindless’. This hate crime that’s going on in Nene Park, it is not mindless. Think about it. Nights when this has been happening are freezing cold, absolutely freezing cold, a bit like it is today. And whoever is doing this is going equipped. They’re going with spray cans to do it. They’re going with torches because it’s pitch black.
PS: With intent
JH: With intent, exactly. This isn’t mindless. It’s deliberate, it’s planned, it takes careful planning to do that sort of thing, so we have to stop dismissing it.
PS: Yes, so there’s a couple of things going on here is what you’re saying. We’ve got people across Peterborough tagging, having that conversation, which we could have sympathy with or not have sympathy with and then we got this individual or individuals who’s intent on committing a hate crime for whatever reason in Nene Park.
JH: Well, it’s interesting that Brian says he thinks it’s one person. That’s not what the police are saying. The police have said to the media that they think it’s a group of people, which is interesting again because you can imagine that it’s one person who’s got some sort of gripe though I can’t imagine how you link racist graffiti with Ferry Meadows I don’t really see that.
PS: Do the police have to pull their finger out?
JH: Yes, they do on this. They do on this. This is about hate. Other sorts of graffiti I’d say it’s a council matter and the council has policies for dealing with this. I looked up this morning, actually. Peterborough City Council spent over £35,000 clearing up graffiti.
PS: Money they haven’t got.
JH: Well considering they don’t clear up any old graffiti, they only clear it up if it’s offensive, this shows you how big the problem is that we have across Peterborough.
PS: What do we need to do? Do we need to educate people? They’re blighting our lives. They’re making a mess over here. Do we need to get tough with taggers? Notwithstanding what you’re saying about the differential between that and this crime. What would get the message across?
JH: When it comes to Ferry Meadows it’s crime, get the police the police on it. When it comes to tagging generally, and there’s a load that’s popped up in beautiful Orton Waterville right outside the church which really annoys me because that does bring it to another level when it’s outside a churchyard. When it’s that I think we need to ask ourselves as a community why aren’t we providing more things for our young people to do. It may not be young people of course, that may just be a stereotype. In central Peterborough we have graffiti walls and they’re actually quite beautiful and people tend not to deface other people’s really lovely looking graffiti.
PS: So let’s get more of them out and about shall we.
JH: It’s something to think about, isn’t it?
PS: Julie, thank you for that. Julie Howell from the Peterborough Green Party, recently wrote a blog about Peterborough’s graffiti problem. There you go, we can stop some of the tagging by having graffiti walls but as she quite rightly says this is different. This is hate. This is racist graffiti that people are putting on there. People with intent.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Plans for Plegan Place

Plegan Place
Plegan Place

UPDATE 23 July 2017: Since I wrote this blog post, Orton Waterville Parish Council has been considering a request from a group of residents for improvements to the play equipment at Plegan Place as they feel that the range of play equipment there at present is uninspiring. At time of writing, the Parish Council is considering this request and has agreed to set aside some budget for potential improvements to the play equipment. However, no work will be started without further consultation with residents, both in favour and not in favour, particularly in respect of those residents who live near Plegan Place, who make use of it now and who are concerned about how the Parish Council spends the money it receives from the council tax 'precept'. If you have any concerns or wish to share your views, please contact the Parish Council clerk via the Orton Waterville Parish Council website.

Chances are you've never heard of Plegan Place, but you know it. It's the area of common land registered to Orton Waterville Parish Council between The Gannocks and Wyman Way in Orton Waterville.

The land, previously a 'public gravel pit' according to public records, is subject to bye laws that mean its use is protected and restricted. For example, while there are public allotments at Plegan Place, fencing around the allotments is prohibited (so if you've ever wondered why those allotments are not fenced off, now you know).

Plegan Place has quite a history. It was the parcel of land numbered '72' on the Enclosure Award Map of 1809 for the parish of Cherry Orton (now known as Orton Waterville parish) and was awarded to 'the surveyors of the highways of the parish' at that time. The herbage for the plot was awarded to the Surveyors so that they 'could let this out at a reasonable rent and use this income on the repair of roads'.

The parish council presently maintains the burial ground at Plegan Place, and also owns the play equipment which is maintained by Peterborough City Council. If you thought things like burial grounds and playgrounds 'just were' you may be surprised at the complexity of who owns what and why and who looks after it!.

Plegan Place
Aerial view of Plegan Place

Much of the rest of Plegan Place is given over to grass. However, discussion are happening at Parish Council level to make more of this lovely area that is so popular with local dog walkers, for example by turning some of the land into a meadow of wild flowers for everyone to enjoy.

Earlier this year, the parish council was approached by residents who feel that the play equipment would benefit from some improvements. With their help, this idea is being considered, and now a working group of the parish council is considering ideas to both improve the play facilities and enhance the natural beauty of Plegan Place.

Ideas for the development of Plegan Place are still at a very early stage and residents' input will be welcome. If you'd like to be involved, drop me a line.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Have Some Respect

Every few weeks I spend Thursday mornings on a litter pick in Orton Waterville with a group of volunteers (you are welcome to join us, the more the merrier). While I wait for the rest of the group to arrive I take the opportunity have a look around the village. We have a few projects on the go that I like to check up on, I often bump into people I know (and today was no exception) and sometimes I come across things that I'd really rather not.

Someone, or maybe a couple of people, with not much talent and even less respect has sprayed graffiti on the side of the parade of shops that faces St Mary's churchyard.

Graffiti at Waterville
It's Waterville, not water-vile.
Knock it on the head.

Posted by Julie Howell on Thursday, 17 November 2016

I do talk to people who have a greater understanding of street art than I do and I know that tagging is all about being seen and on the level where tagging is perhaps the only means some people feel they have to be seen or heard in their community I can just about muster a begrudging tolerance (littering and speeding hurt our environment and our people more directly). But these particular tags are seen by people visiting the the graves of their loved ones or paying their respects to the fallen at the war memorial. It's easy to call all graffiti a senseless and selfish act without trying to understand the motivation behind it... but come on. Outside the churchyard in a conservation village - really?

Graffiti is a deliberate act. It isn't carelessness. It isn't caused by people who can't be bothered to clean up after themselves. Graffiti is created by people who have made some effort to equip themselves with spray paint and then find locations to use it. Thought and effort go into graffiti and in a way this makes it even more offensive.

Whether it's graffiti, litter, fly tipping, dog mess or speeding, there is a horrible blight on almost every area of Peterborough at the moment that is hurting our community as much as our environment. Many of us go out everyday in all weathers to remove litter, report fly tipping and graffiti, etc. (and that's in addition to all the work Peterborough City Council's teams of street cleaners do). If we didn't do all this voluntary cleaning, I shudder to think how bad things would be. In our aspiring 'Environmental City' some people, for whatever their reasons, are letting us down.

Broken litter stick
I picked litter so vigorously this morning
I broke the stick

Video transcript: Hello, I’ve come out to Orton Waterville this morning to check out something that was raised by residents recently. Just let me show you where I am. If I turn the camera around you can see I’m at the beautiful St Mary’s Church in Waterville. But if we just spin around and look at the side of the shop directly opposite, as you can see somebody else has had other ideas about how to keep this place looking lovely and they’re quite different ideas to all of the residents’ and indeed everybody else really. Look at the state of it. We’ve got a real problem with graffiti at the moment right across the ward but this is just beyond disrespectful isn’t it really? We tend to think about Waterville village as being a place that’s spared this as people have respect for the church and also it’s a conservation village but apparently not so that’s really disappointing. We’re seeing what we can do to get that graffiti removed as soon as possible and to do something about it happening ever again.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

New England, Same Old Problem

Green Party litter pick group
Peterborough Green Party Litter Pick Team

New England is much like any other part of Peterborough. It's leafy, it's home to a thriving community, and the people who live there are lovely.

And just like in many other areas across our fair city, a minority of people are intent on spoiling it by dropping litter and fly tipping.

This morning I joined a small yet eager group of Peterborough Green Party members and residents on a clean up of the streets around Eaglesthorpe at the request of local resident Jess. I'm not for one moment saying Eaglesthorpe is any worse than any other Peterborough street when it comes to litter and fly tipping. I am saying it's just as bad, and when Jess asked for our help in giving it a tidy up we were very happy to get involved.

14 bags of litter
All this from one very average Peterborough street

Group of litter pickers
We were lucky with the weather today,
but any weather is good for picking litter!

It isn't my goal to become an expert in littering, but when you've done a few litter picks you get to know who's doing it and why. The causes are complicated. It has nothing at all to do with the presence of bins (there are two in Eaglesthorpe), but a lot to do with how people regard their own community. It only takes one or two habitual litterers or fly tippers to bring an area down, and we have found that wherever you have fly tipping you very quickly have more fly tipping. This is why it's so important that you contact Peterborough City Council as soon as you seen any fly tipped waste in your street.

How do you do that? It's easy, you just call this number...

01733 747474

You can also report fly tipping using the My Peterborough app.

The council promises to remove fly tipped waste within two working days.

If you're not sure what I mean by 'fly tipping' this photograph, taken where Eaglesthorpe meets St Paul's Road, will illustrate.

Fly tipped bed
Human beings did this.
I have no words.

UPDATE: Within 24 hours of us reporting it, Peterborough City Council removed the fly-tipped bed. Thank you Peterborough CC!

There are no words really, are there? Someone living in our community thinks it's fair enough to dump their unwanted divan bed under some trees on a residential street.

Our streets are not a rubbish tip and the people in our communities are not rubbish. This kind of behaviour, inflicted on some human beings onto other human beings causes misery. It is brought about either by sheer laziness or by unscrupulous traders who charge local people to take away their rubbish then dump it on our streets. How is this ever okay? It isn't. Not ever.

And how's this for a lovely Autumnal scene? At the other end of Eaglesthorpe, someone has decided that the best way to get rid of their unwanted bathroom sink is to smash to bits and leave it in a bush.

Broken sink in a bush

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

I struggle to get into the mindset of fly tippers. I can only assume that they close their eyes to the harm they cause in communities. As communities, what should our response be? Is it our responsibility to contact the council? I would argue that yes, it is. It's my belief that when we all start to play our part in making our local area better we begin to have an effect on the causes of fly tipping and litter and on the people who are doing most of the fly tipping and littering. When we all take pride in our little patch, especially if it's a stretch of street and not just our own gardens, we create the best kind of infectious virus that can spread right around communities very quickly: it's called pride in where we live.

Bags of litter
Inaugural use of our new Green litter bag hoops.

A Community Problem with a Community Solution

There are many reasons why Peterborough Green Party undertakes monthly litter picks. Obviously, we want to play our part in removing rubbish from our streets, particularly the stuff that has been there a long time and is slowly suffocating the ground beneath. However, there's also a deeper reason. We believe that when members of the public see us picking up litter that we did not create they begin to understand that littering and fly tipping are a community problem with a community solution.

Posted by Julie Howell on Sunday, 13 November 2016

We will often engage residents in conversation when we're out litter-picking, and welcome being stopped to talk about what we're doing. It's very common for passing motorists to slow down and wind down a window to thank us for caring about where they live, especially when we don't live there ourselves. This gets the problem talked about and energises residents to believe that picking up litter, especially litter that you didn't drop, is a good thing. We rely far too much on our city council to keep out streets clear of litter. Isn't it better for the council to focus on the stuff that's difficult or hazardous for residents to deal with (fly tipping) and for us all to do a bit, regardless of who made the mess and why? Perhaps this is a controversial view, but should it be? Yes, everyone should pick up after themselves. But they don't, do they?

Video transcript: I’m in Eaglesthorpe today which is in New England which is a different part of the city. We’re doing a litter pick here. Unfortunately, there’s a good example of fly tipping here. I’ll just show you. A bed has been fly tipped. It’s just at the end of the road hear where Eaglesthorpe meets St Paul’s Road. It’s opposite a very nice residential care home. There’s a complete bed set. Obviously we’ll be asking the council to take it away. There’s the bag of litter that I’ve picked up from a street that has two litter bins in close proximity which is hugely frustrating. I lot of the litter that we’ve picked up is typical Peterborough litter: a lot of cigarette packets, a lot of beer cans, fast food wrappers, children’s toys. As you can see this fly tipping also means I can’t pick up the rubbish that’s underneath because it’s trapped under there which is really frustrating. We’re doing this litter pick today at the request of a resident. We always welcome residents’ suggestions. We do our litter picks once a month in all different parts of Peterborough. We usually do them for an hour and a half, from 10:30am to midday on a Sunday morning. We’ve been very lucky with the weather today but even if it’s raining we still do it. If anyone’s got any suggestions for anywhere else we can do please let us know. Right, I’m going to get on with it.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Take a Fresh Look at Ponds

When I say the word 'pond', what do you think of?

I bet the first image that comes to mind is the typical garden pond, free from mud and unwanted species, home to koi (if you're lucky!) or maybe a few goldfish. The pond in your imagination - which is probably much the same as the pond in your own garden - may attract frogs and frog spawn but as far as other species of aquatic creature goes there's not much else going on.

Or maybe your thoughts turned to a pond in your local park, the type that attracts duck and swans, the kind your dog likes to swim in when the weather is warm.

These are what we might call domestic or municipal ponds. They exist to look nice and to support only a very limited number of species (ones that look nice!). They are clean almost to the point of being sterile and while they may be lovely to look at underneath the surface there isn't a whole lot going on. These are not 'real' ponds.

This is a real pond.

Julie by a natural pond
It may not look like much to the human eye but it is fragile
and essential habitat to a vast array of invertebrates.

At first glance this may look like puddle rather than a pond. It's not terribly appealing to the eye. However, as I learned today when I attended the inaugural meeting of the Peterborough Nature Partnership at Thorpe Meadows, this is actually the type of ponds that we need more of.

Would you believe that since the Nene Park Trust (working in partnership with a range of agencies including Buglife and Froglife) created five of these nature ponds late last year they have attracted 51 species of invertebrates between them? That's not 51 individual invertebrates, but 51 distinct species. There is a world of nature that needs specific habitats to thrive and when we help to create their ideal homes just look at how quickly many different species manage to succeed.

I'm not going to share the exact location of these new ponds as it's important that they are slightly off the beaten track and not subjected to what usually happens when humans show up - dogs and litter. I don't need to tell you what litter does to wildlife, but you may be surprised to learn that when a dog enters a pond he can seriously disrupt the fragile habitats of other creatures. I'll certainly be more mindful about permitting my dog to play in nature ponds after learning this today.

Members of Peterborough Nature Partnership walk across Thorpe Meadows
Get your wellies on!
Members of the Peterborough Nature Partnership

You probably associate the garden and municipal ponds that you are more used to with fish. But fish can be a big problem in nature ponds because they eat everything! Another problem that affects many nature ponds is caused by people dumping excess frog spawn from their garden ponds into them. This is a particular problem as it can lead to the transference of crassula, an invasive non-native plant that will quickly overwhelm natural ponds.

The best way to help nature ponds and their inhabitants to thrive is to stay away from them and to appreciate their existence from a distance. This is why the Nene Park Trust will be putting in place 'interpretation boards' to let you know what is in the ponds and how it came to be there, while gently discouraging any activity that might interfere with nature's delicate balance.

Posted by Julie Howell on Friday, 11 November 2016

If this post has whetted your appetite for nature ponds, you'll be really excited to know that I'm currently involved in a project to improve and maintain existing ponds in Orton Waterville. They used to be mill ponds. The windmill that stood in Waterville village is long gone, but the ponds remain, neglected, overgrown and inaccessible. Look out for more posts in coming months as I keep you up-to-date with how the Waterville ponds project is going. If we can attract 51 species of invertebrates to our ponds, how wonderful that would be, but it will take a real community effort to keep the ponds free of rubbish, dogs, humans and others disruptive influences!

Transcript of video: This beautiful area that I’m in today is called Thorpe Meadows and I’m by the rowing lake. The weather’s incredible. I’m actually here for a meeting, a meeting of the Peterborough Nature Partnership which is lots of organisations that have a vested interest, which of course we all do, in the biodiversity of Peterborough, protecting the biodiversity of Peterborough, making sure there are many different species of animals and invertebrates as well as people of course, here to enjoy the wonderful landscape both now and in generations to come. And the weather has been absolutely incredible so I’m feeling particularly lucky today.