Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jesmond Old Cemetery

I frequently walk through Jesmond Old Cemetery on my way to the nearest Metro station. Partly because I find it easy to pray here as I walk and because, like all old cemeteries I have ever visited, it exudes life.

In all seasons Jesmond Old Cemetery has a character that defies its position sandwiched between two busy roads, arteries to the city of Newcastle just to the south. In winter it has pattern and grandeur, in Spring life and movement, in Summer deep shadows and visiting song birds. It is cared for but with intelligence; a brisk official policy capable of wrecking the place was carried only so far; grave stones that threatened to topple have been carefully laid flat or at an angel to the ground. Unlike some other places, the more notorious policy of complete clearance has not prevailed here. There is a group known as the Friends of Jesmond Old Cemetery that undertakes some path clearing and tidying, as well as leading tours around the cemetery and historical recording, but nothing is over done. As it has been said, Jesmond Old Cemetery is "a fine old place".

The Cemetery is distinguished by some locally famous people whose last resting place it is, including author, playwright and feminist Julia Darling.

The Cemetery gates are Listed structures designed by John Dobson. The rest, I hope speaks for itself.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Rotten to the Core

I came in from walking on the coast to the north of Newcastle on Tuesday (15.11.11) to find a message from an old friend on my answer phone service. There was a meeting that night about the proposal to build six hundred new homes surrounding Gosforth Nature Reserve, that, should it go ahead would effectively end the needs of the increasingly diverse wildlife that has come to use the Reserve and through it, the green corridor down the Ouseburn to the foot of my own road here in central Newcastle. Was I coming along?

A hasty cup of tea and then out to South Gosforth. Collected a group of friends and walked the mile to Gosforth Civic Centre. Already very crowded by the time we arrived, we had to stand at the back of the hall. It was very hot inside and grew steadily hotter as the meeting went on. Before us on the stage was a panel of both presenters and spokes people. After a introduction and explanation of the reason for the meeting (polite, but hardly necessary; most of us were well primed) each of the four main speakers was introduced in turn and allowed a ten minute presentation.

The representatives from Newcastle City Council were first up to speak. This proved a sensible course, I suspect the packed meeting would have not been such passive listeners as the evening wore on. The Council case was presented in the linga franca of all such proposals and so laden with invented buzz words as to be opaque. It struck me early on I had yet to hear what these far reaching and over ambitious proposals were based upon and who had cooked them up. Were they like so much else today plucked from, er, thin air? One vague threat in this submission was that the current Coalition government were going ahead with measures to relax the planning laws so Newcastle "needed" to have a plan of its own ready for the day when this intention became a reality. Intellectually, that is on the level of "someone is coming to beat up Mother, so I must beat her up before they arrive".

The best presentations were, inevitably, from the opponents. David Byrne, an academic from Durham, once Labour councillor and now Green Party member, was impressive. He undermined the entire case for the 'Core One' strategy in that, as he demonstrated with expertise and recourse to respected available data, it does not address the current circumstances facing Newcastle; and, since the Core One strategy for growth is based on statistics that only go to 2008, it cannot cope with the present dire consequences of the Great Slump making themselves inceasingly felt day by day.

After this tour de force Head of Planning Harvey Emms and his colleague were not in a happy position. Their titular boss, Councillor Henri Murison however, decided not to show up at all.

James Littlewood's measured statement regarding the Reserve was a model of sticking to the issues. Read it (and view photographs of the event) in full here. I was impressed at the way Mr Littlewood refused to blame anyone in making his address. His hearers though were left in no doubt about where to look.

Opposition to the plan was far wider than simply the Northumberland Wildlife people. Golfers speaking from the floor of the meeting said that the development of the Great North Park (an earlier violation of the city's Green Belt to the north of Gosforth) had impacted on them due to increased surface water run off down the Ouseburn; greens flooded and play imposssible. Householders along the river, though few, also outlined their concerns over increased flood risk. Both groups claimed that they had not been consulted by the Council about the most recent plans to develop the Gosforth site.

All-in-all it turned out better than I feared. The meeting had been well disciplined and courteous. The Council was shown in a poor light though, not least when referring to having had exchanges of views with "English Nature", an organisation that ceased to exist three years ago.

Revised 6th December 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Friends in the North

Details have arrived from 'one who was there' of the City Council meeting held in part to discuss the development of housing on Newcastle's Green Belt.

A group of friends went down to the Civic Centre last night [2nd November] and one of them sent me this via e-mail.

What fun that was!!! Didn't realise that we would be let loose in the Council Meeting. There were so many protesters there that they had to offer half of us seats in the invited guest area at the back of the hall. Lots of loud boos and groans of disapproval as the councillor put forward the proposal followed by loud cheering and clapping when the chap from Newcastle Natural History Society read out a very eloquent opposition. It was great fun - like being naughty children at the back of the classroom. I had a quick scan of the Journal and Chronicle [Newcastle newspapers. Ed.] and both papers had substantial articles and photos of the event. Will have to see if there is anything on Look North [B.B.C. television] this evening - they did a piece about Sunday's protest yesterday.

A positive outcome from the meeting that I have heard is that the period for 'consultations' has been extended by many weeks beyond the original 18th November deadline.

The Journal report of the protest at the Civic Centre can be read here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Below the Belt

Urgent news has arrived of another assault on Newcastle's Green Belt.

The Green Belts were a post World War II planning concept, successfully ending uncontrolled housing sprawl that many commentators had predicted would ruin the landscape and put the experience of walking or cycling, the chief recreations of the urban working classes in the early decades of the last century, out of reach. By this measure this our cities and large towns were given 'green lungs', an extraordinarily far sighted policy at that time.

Muted noises from commercial interests (and some maverick academics) have have sought to challenge this presumption against development. In more recent times the motor car and trunk road have made commuting from "the country" in to work an aspiration for some who can afford it, so much so that commercial developers have seen a potential gold mine beckoning. Persimmon Homes now wishes to build 500 homes on green fields next to Gosforth Nature Reserve, effectively walling it in and ending the mammalian interest of the reserve. Other, smaller, schemes would complete the encirclement: Builders Bellway are applying for permission to build a further 100 "executive houses" on a separate but adjacent site. (1)

A number of organisations have banded together to fight these proposals. Details of the issue are to be read here.

I note only that this scheme has all the hallmarks of the City Council on it. Stealthy and, presumably lengthy, meetings have ensured local councillors learned only lately of the scheme, a scheme that seems well advanced. Public consultation is a low priority and the time allowed for objections brief.

These homes are for well off aspirational buyers; they will have no effect on the sector that requires urgent attention: Low access cost housing and homes for rent. Tyneside has extensive former industrial land (so-called brownfield sites) in locations close to existing infrastructure that should be developed for affordable homes. There is no need to encroach on the Green Belt, except only for the opportunities it represents for maximising profit.

If you live in or near Newcastle please consider writing to the Council. You never know, they might even open your letter.


Images from the meeting at Gosforth Nature Reserve on Sunday 30th October 2011. (© Judith Anne Tomlinson with acknowledgement.)

Site visits were guided by volunteers. Detailed information on the past and present status of several important mammal species was given. Otters are now resident on the reserve, possibly for the first time in over a century. They are known to venture down existing waterways into Newcastle's Jesmond Dene. Building over adjacent farmland would end their tenure.

Some of those who came to hear the opening speeches from Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Reserve managers were able to walk the one and half mile circuit to see the issues for themselves. If the proposals were to be given Newcastle City Council approval, then quite shortly the view over the heads of those walking nearest the camera would be one of rooftops.

(1) Sentence corrected 6th November 2011 following further information.