Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Bristol should have a 'hotel tax' to fund low carbon transition

I think it's time that Bristol seriously considered having a 'city tax'. This would be a small amount of money levied on tourists staying in hotels in the city, raising funds for important projects. In my view there is a strong case that this money should be used to aid the transition to a low-carbon economy, and specifically targeted at lower-income households.

The point is that Bristol needs money. Like other authorities around the country Bristol City Council is in trouble, with a £92 million hole in its next five year budget. At the same time the city itself is booming, with population, construction and tourism expanding rapidly. We also know that the transition to a low carbon, environmentally friendly economy is both the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity of the coming decades. It is also essential. We simply cannot carry on as normal.

A tourist tax would help with both, and would also be a fair tax. Tourism is a high-carbon and relatively high-income business, and a little tax on it is justified.

Bristol receives around 526,000 international tourists a year. If each spends on average six nights in the city, then there is the potential to raise millions of pounds. There are also around 1.5 million domestic tourists, each spending around 2 nights in the city (they should also pay the hotel tax). Of course the tourism industry also brings over a billion pounds to the local economy, so there would be no advantage in making the tax punitive, but a small amount would be justified.

Lots of cities have these taxes - from Amsterdam to Cologne, Paris to Singapore - and Bristol's close neighbour Bath is also considering it. No doubt parts of the hotel industry will cry foul, but there is no reason to worry. A tax of £2 per night per person on a hotel room might earn the city £12 million a year. That would be less than 0.1% of the total tourism spend on the local economy, so would be unlikely to harm the industry, and would give money directly to the Council.

£12 million is not vast, but it is not nothing either. And it would be a start. It is one of the few taxes a city can have which is not a tax on the electorate, making it politically viable. Finally if the tax was publicly and visibly advertised as helping the environment many tourists would welcome it, and it would boost Bristol's 'green credentials' which are an important part of its overall 'brand' (itself something which draws tourism).

So what would we do with this small windfall? It could be targeted at specific functions - such as deploying solar power on low-income housing. The returns (small though they currently are, around 3%-4%) could accrue to the Council, while residents would get lower electricity bills.

Other good options would include home insulation to make a contribution to fuel poverty, biodiversity projects in the city (here a few million could make a very big difference), affordable zero-carbon housing, or public transport.

At the very least it is worth a try. It would be a bold move, and a fair one. Give it five or ten years, and then see who wants to get rid of it.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Is Bristol in danger of losing its trees?

Is Bristol in danger of losing its trees? Its a genuine question, and one I don't yet have the full answer to. But I've done some digging and I'm concerned. Let me explain.

Trees are one of the nicest things about Bristol. Particularly the old ones. But in recent months I've noticed quite a few little white signs seeking permission to cut them down - for development, for rebuilding, for health and safety, for disease. A lot of renovations seem to involve removing mature trees. One in particular caught my eye from a developer in Clifton who wanted to remove two huge oak trees because they were decaying. The planning office was unable to insist on their replacement.

Individually these applications could be reasonable, but what of the cumulative effect? How many established trees are being lost, and are they being replaced? The trouble with trees is that they take a long time to get old, and unless there has been continuous replanting, there will be big gaps. That's bad for wildlife, air quality and the character of the area, and it's just not as nice.

From a Freedom of Information request I got a list of all the times permission has been sought to fell trees. This only covers trees in conservation areas, so I have no idea how many are being lost elsewhere, but its a start.

From this data we can see that around 3800-4000 trees have been lost in the last 5 years (a conservative estimate from the number of trees mentioned in each application). That might not sound too bad, but these are only the ones in conservation areas which required permission. That excludes much of the city.

Plotting the location of the trees removed on google maps give the spread below.

And what of replacements? Looking at the entries in the FOI data, only a small minority of applications indicate that new trees will replace those being removed, about 130 trees replanted in all.

In addition, very few applications were refused or had tree preservation orders imposed - around 70 out of 2343 applications.

Of course Bristol has planted lots of new trees in that time - about 39,000 by the Council as part of Tree Bristol and the One Tree Per Child scheme, including at least 129 street trees. But where are they? I've been trying to get a comprehensive map, but have not yet managed to find one.

We can however get a clue from the Council's adopt a tree policy, which allows individuals to adopt trees that have already been planted. Looking at the adopt a tree map from Bristol City Council you can see that almost all of the trees that have been planted by the city are in the same few parks, and open areas, quite separate from the old garden and street trees being lost in conservation areas, and perhaps, the rest of the city (we don't know).

Individuals too have likely planted thousands of trees - no permissions are needed - but again, as far as I can tell, we simply don't know.

The point of all this is that I have a concern. Without some way of accounting for the cumulative impact of losing old trees, and without being able to ensure that on average they are replaced, there is a risk that the ancient garden and street trees which give large parts of Bristol its character will be hollowed out and lost.

There is a threat too that as trees mature, take up more space and become more difficult to handle then the easiest thing will be to simply remove them and either not replace them or replace them with different species, such as the ubiquitous plane trees which blanket all new developments - a danger that seems more likely than ever given the financial crisis facing our councils. Indeed this may already be happening. There have been stories that Bristol City Council cannot afford to replace trees that it is removing, while in Sheffield the city council is removing trees on roads to cut down on maintenance costs.

This is not to say that this is all the fault of the Council, or that they are not aware of the problem. Far from it - the Tree Bristol and One Tree Per Child schemes look very worthwhile, and planting community forests is a great idea - but we must also take care of the every day urban trees that are essential to the character and ecosystem of a city.

I have tried to contact the council to chat through some of these points, but so far, no joy. I'll keep you posted. Do let me know in the comments if you have any insights or corrections.