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Archives for March 2010

Are Bristol's builders booming again?

Dave Harvey | 18:22 UK time, Tuesday, 30 March 2010

cranes-slice.jpg

At Finzels Reach, the cranes are back. Four of them, winching steel rods high over the Bristol skyline, swinging huge panels into place. What was once a Victorian brewery is being reborn as riverside apartments and 110,000 square foot of offices.

"In the last six months we've seen office take-up come back to where it was in the good times," the developer tells me.

Chris Read, from HDG Mansur, has some pretty impressive numbers. "By 2007 Bristol was letting about 650,000 square foot of office space a year. In the first quarter of 2010 we've seen 150,000 go out already. If this keeps up, then this city will need all the office space it can get."

What's unique about this development is they haven't let a square inch yet. When it's finished, it will be six floors of Grade A offices, housing 600 people. But the whole thing is being built on spec. Finzel's Reach is the largest speculative office development outside London right now. The agents are confident that in a year's time, when the offices are ready, the tenants will come.

"If I was looking for an office," muses property agent Peter White, of BNP Paribas Real Estate, "I would worry that rents were going up. And I'd think, why wait? Why not get in now while the prices are good?"

building-web.jpg In this trade, they like big cranes. They're symbolic. And after the hammering the construction industry took through the last two years, four cranes on one site are getting people very excited.

"This announcement signals renewed confidence in Bristol's office market," the press release crowed. "We expect there to be strong demand from businesses as we emerge from recession."

Is all this confidence justified?

"I'm still fairly negative about construction, to be honest." Lawyer Stephen Clarke, of Clarke Willmott, can see the Finzel cranes from his riverside office window. He sees both sides of deals in this trade, so is well placed to judge a "recovery".

"It's still very patchy," he continues. "My big worry is the level of tendering. People are putting in very low tenders, because it's so competitive out there. I've even seen bids at 10% below the profit line."

So how do they make their money at that price, I wonder?

"Exactly, that's the problem. They'll have to pile on extras, claims and disputes. In the next few years, you'll see a huge rise in disputes. So we're advising clients not to be lured by low tenders."

It happened in the '90s. As construction came out of the crash, builders came out of hibernation. Every contract was a magnet, attracting ludicrous bids from all-comers. It was followed by a decade of litigation, as the extras that earned the profit were contested.

But beyond that, some fear that the property business has learnt nothing from the past three years. "Who's going to rent all that space?" asks Mark Dampier of Hargreaves Lansdown. Mr Dampier was the Cassandra of construction, challenging the market when everyone else was piling into it through the Noughties. He was proved right then, and he can't see a recovery now.

"I know I'm gloomy on the recovery, but I think the next three to four years look pretty bumpy," he explains. "For a start, the banks have got over £100 bn pounds of property on their books, which they don't want. So there's a ready seller."

Mr Dampier points out that property is only earning investors 3% at the moment, compared to 5% plus on the stock market. And if investors cool their interest, the property market can only bounce back on real demand, not speculation.

Back at Finzels Reach, they're confident in their calculations. The scheme was fully backed by bankers before the crash, and there are really only two other schemes of similar size in the city coming on stream in 2011. But while their cranes are back, we may have to wait a while for the building boom that some are claiming today.

Chancellor's cider tax leaves West Country 'smarting'

Dave Harvey Administrator | 14:25 UK time, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Pub sign being painted

The arguments on the big economic numbers will rage on. But at The Crown in Devizes, they've done the sums already.

"It means about 10p on a pint of beer, and maybe as much as 15p on a pint of cider. Darling's not popular round here, no," says Paul Sullivan, Wadsworth's marketing man.

Paul's remarks are, perhaps, obvious. Brewers rarely love budgets, and Chancellors rarely cut tax on booze. But as I look around this thriving pub, Paul shows me how much more there is to brewing than beer.

"We employ 700 people directly in our own pubs, and then another two thousand indirectly through the pubs we manage."

Mr Sullivan's big worry is the supermarkets. Wadworth, and the other brewers, will have to pass on the tax hike at the bar. But supermarkets may decide not to, and make a big splash with a "Pre-Budget Special".

"Supermarkets are increasingly undercutting our sales," says Mr Sullivan, "driving drinkers into the home. And each pub is someone's business, someone's home, the hub of a village community. If we lose pubs, we lose so much more than just a profit-line."

The Crown is busy today. A group of pensioners out for lunch. A local business team on a training day. And the talk is all of the cider tax. "Cider has been undertaxed," The Chancellor said, so he increased the rate by 10%, worth about 15p a pint.

"It seems so unfair round here," one lady tells me. "There are so many small cider makers, that's what the West Country is all about."

The other measures will be picked over by the economists as the days wear on. But there is something immediate about taxing beer and cider. And deficit or not, the West Country is smarting just a little this afternoon.

Wiltshire brewers prepare for another Budget headache

Dave Harvey | 13:26 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Pint of Bitter

Here's a prediction for the Budget.

Beer will go up.

So, being a simple soul, I'm heading to a brewery. Wadworth & Co of Devizes, have been brewing since 1875 and they still work in the same Victorian building with its special tower.

As a rule, brewers don't like Budgets. Wadworth's Chairman Charles Bartholomew wrote to The Times this week, with 39 other brewers, urging restraint.

Wadworth's Brewery in Devizes "Since March 2008 beer tax has increased by 20%," their letter explained. "Oxford Economics forecasts these tax increases will cost £9bn in lost economic activity and 59,000 job losses by 2012-13."

What they particularly dislike is the "escalator" Gordon Brown introduced, which increases duty by 2% above inflation each year. Add VAT on top, and the price just keeps going up, even as punters cut their spending in the recession.

But can Mr Darling afford to cut this now?

The big numbers have been crunched admirably by Stephanie Flanders here, but there's one clear conclusion. The national debt dwarfs everything else. Will it be £178bn, as the chancellor said in November? Or as "low" as £166bn, as some forecasters now predict? Either way, it's clear there are no "giveaways" on the horizon.

I shall be buying some drinks as the chancellor speaks, though probably orange juice!

HAM truck in actionOne of my guests does the books for a haulage firm in Devizes, Hams Transport, so she'll be on the soft stuff. Hams work in construction, lifting pretty much everything, as this picture shows! Finance Director Rachael Pickard says the last year has been tough for everyone, though builders can now see the economic sun breaking through the clouds.

"We are out of the worst of it," she tells me, "but confidence is still really thin. People are wary of taking on big contracts, because so many big firms have gone under."

Interestingly, there's not much Rachael and her colleagues are hoping for from Mr Darling. Their biggest problem? Still our old friend bank lending. It's barely a story these days, yet the difficulty of raising a loan, and the high rates the banks charge, is still the top worry for Wiltshire firms.

Repeatedly, people here tell me they see politics - both the Budget and the Election - as a distracting delay. They need confidence back, spending back, bank lending back. But they realise that nothing much is going to change this side of the Election. "They just want it over with," Michael Williams, from the Wessex Chamber of Commerce, tells me.

On Budget Day, they'll be brewing a special "St George's Day" pint at Wadworth. Mr Bartholomew and his colleagues love pointing out that 90% of beer drunk in British pubs is made in Britain, and drunk sociably. But can Mr Darling afford to buy the nation a round, and cut the duty?

Is Keynsham the graveyard of Kraft's reputation?

Dave Harvey | 20:17 UK time, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

You can build a reputation in a hundred years," the American executive told MPs, "but lose it in a second."

Chocolate wars

Marc Firestone, Vice-President of Kraft Foods, said many other things to Parliament's Select Committee on Business this morning. And the MPs made their own feelings thoroughly clear too. But this was the nub of it. Kraft, the world's second largest food corporation, has put the small town of Keynsham well and truly on the global corporate map.

Kraft's decision to close the Somerdale chocolate factory will cost 400 people their jobs. "It was like being sacked again," Andy Nicholls told me. Mr Nicholls is the senior shop steward in the plant for Unite, the union, and he expresses well how gutted people felt. "We were used, plain and simple. And Kraft are despicable for it."

But this is now about far more than 400 jobs and 75 years of chocolate-coated history.

"You [Kraft] were either mendacious, cynical or utterly incompetent." That's how the Conservative Chairman of the Committee, Peter Luff MP, kicked off the session on Somerdale. Lindsay Hoyle MP compared the Americans to Vikings: "You came to York and pillaged the town of its chocolate factory," in a reference to Kraft's takeover of Terry's, whose chocolate oranges are now made in Poland.

So did Kraft plan the closure from the start? Did they always intend to reverse their now infamous pledge to save Somerdale? Did they, in the words of Kingswood's MP Roger Berry, simply con the people of Keynsham to sweeten the bid?

Somerdale, in Keynsham, is due to close by the end of 2010

Most people here have already made their minds up. Browse this blog, and others on this topic, and the cynicism shines through. But before you decide, hear the case for the cock-up. Because that is the best Kraft can claim. An almighty failure of corporate intelligence.

"We had a perfectly rational plan," Mr Firestone tried to explain. A plan, he went on, that was not available to Cadbury. Simply put, Kraft faced rising demand for their European chocolate brands: Toblerone, Milka, and others. They reasoned that a new combined business could use the factory Cadbury was building in Poland to feed the growing European demand, and leave Keynsham to make Crunchies and Curly Wurlies for the UK.

Now I've been covering this story every step of the way, and this is the first time I've heard this argument, specifically put. And here's the vital bit.

"What we did not know," Mr Firestone went on, "was that Cadbury were investing in parallel plant in Poland. Tens of millions of dollars was going on specific equipment that could only make Cadbury products."

He claims that when the deal went through, Kraft execs discovered to their horror that the Polish plant could only make Curly Wurlies and Crunchies and Mini-Eggs. If they used its capacity, Keynsham would have to be mothballed. And if they didn't, they would have to throw away specialist machinery worth tens of millions of dollars.

"We had a perfectly sound basis for our belief that we could continue to operate the Somerdale facility," the American concluded, "but we could not know what Cadbury had done in Poland."

Chocolate production in Keynsham

"You are claiming ignorance on a massive scale!" said Roger Berry, MP for Kingswood. Afterwards he told me he found Mr Firestone's case "stupefying. Either they knew, in which case that original pledge was a cynical ploy, or they didn't - in which case they were rash in the extreme to give it."

Now Mr Firestone is both a lawyer and a PR man, by his own admission. And this morning he had to balance his words very carefully. Time and again he stated the sincerity of the original pledge, and the surprise in his company when, in late January, they saw the Cadbury closure plans in detail. But he clearly failed to persuade the Committee.

Did Kraft knowingly mislead us all? "We'll never know," Roger Berry concluded. Or was there a massive failure of corporate intelligence in Illinois? Either way, the reputation of the world's second largest food company took a hammering today, broken over a bar of chocolate.

Kraft and Keynsham: Westminster summons the Americans.

Dave Harvey | 14:20 UK time, Monday, 15 March 2010

Get the latest from the Committee Room as they quiz Kraft Execs on my Twitter feed here.

Cadbury's Keynsham Chocolate Factory

Most people in Keynsham now think the Americans were lying all along. Their famous pledge to save the town's chocolate factory melted faster than a Curly Wurly left out in the sun, and locals don't buy the Kraft line that "we were surprised how far advanced plans for the closure programme were".

"That's just nonsense," scoffs Andy Nicholls, the Somerdale rep from Unite the Union. "The plans were all over the internet, we were only ever a publicity stunt."

But losing their reputation in a small town midway between Bath and Bristol probably doesn't bother Kraft execs in Northfield, Illinois too much.

On Tuesday, we find out if it bothers the Americans what Parliament thinks of them.

The Select Committee on Business was already investigating takeovers and mergers when the Chocolate Wars broke out. So when Kraft did their infamous U-Turn, the MPs summoned the American execs to explain themselves. At 11am, Kraft's Vice-President, Marc Firestone, will settle down in Committee Room 16 and face the music.

Roger Berry MPAs luck would have it, we have a West Country MP on this committee, Roger Berry. In fact his Kingswood constituency borders Keynsham, so he knows it well.

"On the face of it Kraft have engaged in some pretty sharp practice," Mr Berry tells me. "So we have a responsibility to probe very carefully."

Can't wait till 11am to hear what the Americans say to our MPs? Well, after chatting to everyone involved, here's my prediction of how the crucial bit of the meeting will go.

Berry: Why exactly did you decided to pledge to continue production at Somerdale?
Firestone: Well Sir, we always believed that our new company would be a net investor in UK manufacturing, as we still do. And we were sincere in our pledge that we would do all in our power to continue the Somerdale operation.
Berry: So when did you change your mind, and why?
Firestone: Gentlemen, you have to remember this was a hostile bid for most of its life. We had no access to any Cadbury documents. Only when the joint boards agreed the terms of the bid did we see how far advanced the plans to close Somerdale and transfer production to Poland were. And even then we were asking, can we reverse this? But we were told it was just too late. We are truly sorry to all those partners and associates in Somerdale who had hoped, as we did, that we would not be in this position.

Berry: Come on Mr Firestone, you borrowed upwards of £7bn for this deal, are you telling us your due diligence people couldn't see how far this closure programme was advanced? It was all over the internet, even the BBCs own blogger on this subject could see the train was already out of the station! [ok, my vanity got the better of my judgement there! But do read the piece, written on the day they finally abandoned Keynsham.]
Firestone: Sir, I can only tell you that without access to Cadbury documents were in no position to identify how far advanced that closure programme was. And our due diligence process does not give any credence to unsubstantiated rumours on the internet.

Chocolate wars

Ok, for our lawyers I should restate that this is entirely my imagination here. Though I have Roger Berry's list of questions from the horse's mouth, as it were. And Kraft, it seems, will just tough this one out.

Can anything be done for Keynsham? In a word, no. The deal is done, the factory is closing the jobs are going. But Mr Berry believes things can usefully be done to stop it happening again.

First, he wants the law changing to ban takeover-gamblers from voting in deals.
"30% of the shares changed hands during the takeover war," he tells me. "These were all hedge funds and short-term investors, who then all promptly voted for the takeover. They should be barred from voting if they came in after the bid was issued." He's not alone in this, Cadbury's own former Chairman, Roger Carr, made the same point in February. Though it's worth noting he never pointed this out before the deal was signed.

Second, Mr Berry wants takeover rules here to protect workers and local communities as well as investors. At present our rules only ensure that competitors are not harmed by large monopolies arising out of mergers, and that shareholders aren't sold a pup. In committee tomorrow, Jack Dromey, of Unite the Union, will call for a "Cadbury Law", allowing governments to block takeovers which are 'against the national interest'.

What we've learned from Kraft v Keynsham, as they will surely call the movie, is this. Right now, you can tell an entire town that you'll save their most famous factory if they back you, then within a week of getting the keys abandon them. And you won't have broken a single meaningful law. Mr Berry thinks that should change. Will his committee agree?

Not Banksy, not Brunel, just plain old 'Bristol' Airport

Dave Harvey | 08:59 UK time, Friday, 12 March 2010

acrobats.jpg

Ooh we journalists love a breaking story. And secrets. Sometimes it doesn't even matter how big the actual news is, just so long as we know it first.

So hold the front page, Bristol International Airport is to be renamed as ... drum roll... Bristol Airport! Staff were told at a spectacular unveiling - pictured above.

I'm told they didn't think long about celebrities. Shame really, we've had some great suggestions from people online. The usual suspects yes: Brunel, "The Wurzels International Cider Export Facility", but some new ones too. Would our conservative airport bosses get all cool and sign up Banksy? Or how about another fine local band, 'Portishead'. Yes, a few problems there....

The departure gate at Bristol Airport Radio Bristol's phones rang steadily through the morning with more. Concorde, Frank Whittle (admittedly a Gloucestershire man) and from one resident of nearby Redhill, "Bristol Inappropriately Positioned Often Fogbound".

So why did the airport reject all this fun in favour of straight, conservative Bristol Airport.

Two reasons, I think. One, because this is an airport, not a rock concert.
Airports are places you go to leave. You want clean, efficient, reliable. Be honest, are you looking for an iconic cultural experience? No. A funky airport risks being a trendy dad.

Second, for every Banksy-lover or Concorde enthusuiast in the check-in queue, you'll find someone who thinks graffiti isn't art and Concorde was the world's worst gas guzzler. These quiet opinions are held in check most of the time, until you go to book a flight. Then they can surface into irritation, maybe not enough to stop you choosing that airport, but a black mark nonetheless.

And when you look, there are very few airports named after iconic people. And look at who they are. John Lennon. JFK. Charles de Gaulle. Do I need to tell you which cities fly their names? Exactly. Even if you don't admire these people, you can't deny their pre-eminence.

So, on that yardstick, who did Bristol have to pick? I'm not doing our city down here, but you can see why bosses decided to stick with the contents of the tin: Bristol Airport.

Kraft, Cadbury and Keynsham : Enter the Pinstriped Policeman.

Post categories:

Dave Harvey | 11:47 UK time, Monday, 8 March 2010

Keynsham's Chocolate Factory

Will it never end? Will Keynsham's chocolate saga never be laid to rest?

Today, people in this quiet north east Somerset town are all busy reading the Wall St Journal. Keynsham was quoted so often during the Kraft / Cadbury takeover war, you suspect some townspeople took out a subscription. Now, a month after the Americans abandoned their pledges to the town's famous chocolate factory, we read Kraft faces "a City probe".

The Takeover Panel has had a complaint that "employees and investors were misled" by the US firm in its hostile bid for Cadbury. So what's going on? And can it change anything?

Investors are rather baffled. "Sad as it may be about the Somerdale plant," says Ben Yearsley of investment analysts Hargreaves Lansdown, "it does seem strange that the takeover panel are investigating comments Kraft made about potentially keeping it open. Ultimately it would have cost shareholders more to keep the plant open, therefore shareholders haven't lost out by closing it."

He's right of course. When Kraft announced they were closing the factory after all, no investors complained. It was staff who felt gutted, but what concern is that of the City Regulator? How have they got involved?

Chocolate Wars

Like most stories in this battle, it starts with Amoree Radford, the feisty campaigner who's been fighting for two and a half years to keep Keynsham making Crunchies.
"I was out walking my dog," Amoree tells me, "when the phone rang. It was Jacob Rees-Mogg, asking me to countersign a complaint."

Mr Rees-Mogg is the Conservative candidate for the area at the next Parliamentary Election. He's also something of a city-slicker, an investment banker whose father, Lord Rees-Mogg, was Editor of The Times for 14 years and now chairs "The Zurich Club", described as 'a private, international network of trustworthy and knowledgeable investors and entrepreneurs'. You get the picture: connections.

Mr Rees-Mogg explained to Amoree that he had drafted a letter of complaint to the City regulator, itemising the broken promises made to staff at Somerdale. I've seen the letter, and here's the key line:

"The speed with which the closure was announced indicates that the stated intention to keep the factory open was either made without due care or was knowingly inaccurate."

Amoree Radford"We realise we can't get the jobs back," Amoree tells me ruefully, "but what else can we do? We just want them to learn their lessons for the future, so it doesn't happen to another company in the future."

You can't argue with that, can you? Yes, the die is cast. Yes, Kraft ain't changing its mind, and Keynsham is closing. But a rap over the knuckles from a pinstriped policeman can't harm can it?

"I think this is a distraction, and the town doesn't need it." There is a man arguing with it, and he's the town's Labour MP, Dan Norris. "It can't bring the jobs back, and worse than that, it will drag everyone back through the heartache they've already endured twice."

Mr Norris thinks Keynsham has had it with raised hopes. Being led up the chocolate coated garden path by Kraft execs was bad enough. Leave it there, he says. If nothing can be done, it's time to move on and create some new jobs to replace the old.

It's certainly true that the regulator has few teeth to bite Kraft's global chocolate empire. And already that Polish production line has started making mini eggs and 'Crunchskis', are they are now known round here. So is this latest investigation a weary waste of effort, or a reasonable attempt for a little financial justice?

Your call, as ever.

Update 17:15 Monday.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has just been on Ben Prater's show on BBC Radio Bristol. He told us that the "bowler hatted bobbie" does have teeth after all. Yes, just the reputation impact, but Cadbury / Kraft have such serious debts they will need the City, and therefore a good name. "A man's word should be his bond," Mr Rees-Mogg told us, "and Kraft's word turned out to be his bond for only a week."
Also, rather honestly I thought, he admitted he'd been caught out by their change of heart. He had originally believed the Kraft pledge, calling it proof that "capitalism can be a force for good". "I am rather embarassed to admit that I was taken in," he told us on the air.

Bristol Airport expansion plans get the green light

Dave Harvey | 17:17 UK time, Thursday, 4 March 2010

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Is the three year long battle of Lulsgate over? Are Bristol Airport's expansion plans about to be cleared for take off? Here's your answer.

"They would be very brave to reject it now."

Not the words of an airport boss, or a supporter. Tom Leimdorfer is a fearless, tenacious Green Party Councillor who has carefully opposed this expansion proposal every step of the way.

Cllr Tom Leimdorfer"On Congresbury Parish Council we have one pilot's licence and three aviation engineers," he told the planning meeting in Weston last night. "They don't object to the airport in principle. But they voted against these proposals."

Why? Because of encroachments on the green belt, because the surrounding villages can't take any more noise, because encouraging more spontaneous flying is cooking the planet. Arguments that have been well rehearsed, not least on this blog.

But those arguments have been lost, as of 9pm last night. The South Area Planning Committee voted to back the airport proposals, six votes to three. It's not a final decision, that must be taken by the senior 'Planning and Regulatory Committee', known as the P&R. But Cllr Leimdorfer can see the way the wind is blowing.

"It's not a political decision," he tells me, "but all the Conservatives backed the plans. The P&R has a Conservative majority, and is known for going with the officers' recommendations. They would be very brave to reject it now."

An Airbus A380

Campaigners haven't given up the fight, of course. An election might prolong things a bit, the White Paper on Aviation might be scrapped, who knows what might happen.

And airport executives are the very pictures of diplomacy, counting no chickens yet. They extol the considerable virtues of North Somerset's procedures. But the smiles say it all. This deal is done.

So what? Well first, Bristol Airport gets, eventually, its new five-story car park and enlarged terminal. Space to grow. More flights.

But it is wider than that. There is a new battle raging on Planet Planning, over how far councillors should look. The Mendips or the Maldives? Bristol or Borneo?

Last week Bristol's Lib Dems threw out a controversial Biofuel Power Station, because of concerns about the fuel. Claims that palm oil plantations in South East Asia were causing massive deforestation carried the day. Bristol planners considered Borneo in their decision-making.

Packed council chamber in Weston-super-Mare Well, North Somerset's Tories were having none of that last night.
"Climate change and international emissions are for government," said Cllr Tim Marter, chair of the committee. "We saw in Copenhagen that they can't even agree what to do, so we should just concern ourselves with our own district."

Tom Leimdorfer disagrees. His party's motto, after all, is 'Think Global, Act Local', but he didn't cite that in the council. No, he had chapter and verse of North Somerset's own Core Strategy Document, which is littered with claims on Sustainability. What use are they, he argues, if we approve global supercooking schemes like this airport expansion?

Should councillors, often in small district authorities, be expected to police global problems like climate change? Or should they keep their eyes down, and just consider the potholes in Winsford? It's an intriguing dilemma, and it's coming to a town hall near you soon.

Could a bigger airport actually make a greener Bristol?

Dave Harvey | 10:58 UK time, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Update 10:45 Wed night: What a night. After an hour of public speeches covering the whole waterfront, councillors decided to kick the airport decision upstairs. In council speak, the meeting will now be decided by North Somerset's "Planning and Regulatory Committee", I'm told within a month, but we will see.

Undeterred, they still had their debate, for another two hours. Everything from the number of taxis through Barrow Gurney to the international standards on climate change was discussed. In fact, this post below turns out to be not a bad guide to the argument; both my article and the comments below it.

Opposing councillors said approving the airport would make a mockery of the council's "core strategy" on sustainability. Those who backed the expansion argued that international emissions were not a subject for local councillors, and anyway "if people don't fly from Bristol, they will just drive to another airport".

Then they voted, 6-3 in favour of the Airport. This, of course, is just a recommendation. But a wily councillor who voted against the proposals and knows the council well told me afterwards that the final committee will almost certainly rubber stamp tonight's decision.

The Airport's expansion plans have cleared customs, and are on the runway waiting for the final green light. Thoughts please? Form an orderly queue now...

Lots more on BBC Radio Bristol with Steve LeFevre between 06:00 and 09:00 on Thursday.

Update 16:30 Wednesday Right, off to the big meeting now. To keep up with what happens, follow my twitterfeed here. I'll post some pictures, and the result when we get it.

Update 16:00 Wednesday Wow! This post has prompted a massive debate. And I hear North Somerset Council has laid on overflow rooms for the crowds they're expecting. Should be interesting...

Plane against a planet

Bristol is the capital of organic food. Of sustainable travel. It's a cycling city, with a funky digital, creative, graffiti zeitgeist.

We are so, like, now.

So the city wants to be officially Britain's Green Capital. And into this chilled out party hurtles a jet-powered neighbour, intent on drowning the party with its noisy planes. At least, that's how many in the city view Bristol International Airport's expansion plans.

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Their plans are massive, but here's the basics of them:

£150m buys the airport a new terminal twice the size of today's building and a five storey car-park. Passenger numbers sky-rocket from 6m a year now to 10m a year by 2020.

Already Bristol's councillors have lodged their "noisy neighbour" complaint. Full council passed a motion opposing the expansion, asking how this high octane growth would help the city cut its carbon footprint. They are not alone. 5,417 people have officially objected on North Somerset's planning portal, and the "Stop Bristol Airport Expansion" campaign is flying. As it were.

But what if the airport is the real green deal here?

Before you choke on your muesli, consider this.

First, BIA is not the only place to fly from. You may have noticed Britain has other airports, and Heathrow and Birmingham are not exactly a long haul from here. So if people can't fly from Bristol, they won't fly less, they will simply drive more.

Heathrow's traffic jams are already legendary, but have you seen the ones in the air? Stacked high above the runway, planes are held by air traffic control in organised aerial gridlock.

Aircraft at Heathrow "Regional airports are so obviously the green choice," says Richard Roller, a local businessman. Mr Roller makes ground power units for the aviation industry in Weston-super-Mare, exporting to the US, to Kazakstan, to the world. "Flying into Bristol is so easy, it's the only reason we're still here. But when you see how much fuel planes use waiting to land at Heathrow, it's obviously much greener too."

Second, jet engines are more efficient than car engines. Yes, that's right. The famously green Toyota Prius uses 4.3 litres of fuel to go 100km. Go the same distance on a new Airbus A380 with its Filton-designed wings, and each passenger uses just 2.9 litres. There is an obvious flaw in this, of course; planes go way further than we drive cars. But it's worth considering next time you decide to drive to that Spanish campsite, rather than flying and "wrecking the planet". The BBC's "Ethical Man" has been doing loads more sums on this, if it interests you.

A380 in the skies

The final argument for a bigger airport is slighty different. It's honesty. You see, as I revealed six months ago, passenger numbers can - and will - grow anyway. There is no new runway in these plans. They just want to make the growing crowds at the check-in more comfortable, sort out the parking and the approach roads.

So maybe the airports opponents don't hold all the green cards. And when the airport's website ran an online petition on their plans some 1,913 supported them.

Now I'm being deliberately provocative here, of course. If Bristol gets more comfortable and convenient, more of us will fly from there. That cheap weekend in Barcelona will be even more tempting about now, when the Spanish sun is up and Dundry is still frosty. If all airports were crushed, noisy cattle markets we would only fly the vital trips. And yes, because planes fly at high altitude, their emissions do more damage to our carbon calculations than earthbound cars.

Environmentalists have a one word response to the suggestion that new transport infrastructure eases congestion: M25. Remember the promises that a new orbital motorway would clear the jams from the south east's roads? Exactly.

Recently I met the aviation minister, Ian Lucas MP. I asked him how his industry helped the government meet its targets for cutting CO2 and climate change. His answer is relevant to this debate too, I think. "You're not going to stop people flying," he said, "and they will want to fly more. The challenge is how to meet that aspiration in as low carbon a way as possible."

He was talking about modern fuel-efficient aircraft, but he might also have meant local airports like BIA.

Right - over to you now for the next 24 hours, then councillors will have the last word in Weston.

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