XR protested through the city today (July 30) calling for fairer and greener public transport and a stop to Bristol Airport expansion.
The protests came as part of XR Bristol’s “Bristol on Board” campaign, under which the group is demanding more affordable public transport whilst supporting the fight against Bristol Airport expansion.
Spokesperson for XR, Luke Lanyon-Hogg, said the protest was intended to send a message to the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) to: ‘improve public transport, make it cheaper, more efficient and hopefully better run by bringing it under public ownership.’
Luke said as a non-driver he relies on the buses, but has seen the price of a day ticket go from £3.50 up to £5.30, even as services in Bristol are being cut.
‘They’re being cut because they are “unprofitable”, which for me pretty much sums up the whole problem,’ said Luke.
‘Everyone agrees that good public transport is a way of reducing traffic and therefore lowering emissions but the motivation of these [bus] companies is not to lower emissions it’s to make money and therein is the problem.’
Twenty-six subsidised services in Bristol face the axe this year as funding for public transport dries up and the industry suffers from a post-Covid drop in passenger numbers and the loss of drivers to the higher-paying HGV sector.
Meanwhile, Bristol has illegally high air pollution levels which are estimated to cause 300 excess deaths each year. A proposed Clean Air Zone for the city centre has been repeatedly postponed and is due to be implemented from November 28.
A day of action
The day of action began early. At 4am activists unfurled a giant billboard-sized banner from the top of the scaffolding around the former Grosvenor Hotel, opposite Temple Meads station. The banner read “Stop Airport Expansion”. Two others were hung from another nearby building, reading “Fair Fares for Everyone”, and “Public Ownership of Public Transport”.
From 10am, campaigners gathered in Queen Square where there were information stalls and a small stage from which a few people gave speeches.
Amongst the speakers was Laura Fogg-Rogers, a climate communication researcher at UWE and member of the West of England Shared Travel and Active Travel Network (WESTACT).
She said: ‘We know that we need to reduce our emissions, we know that’s why we’re all here. But we can’t ask people to get out of their cars unless we provide them the easier, fairer, cheaper options to replace that.’
She called for cheaper bus fares, including free fares for young people, integrated networks that don’t only go to the city centre, and for buses to better reflect the needs of women and mothers, who disproportionately use public transport.
From 12.30pm the group, which by that point numbered around 250 people, marched through the centre, Broadmead, over Bristol bridge and towards Temple Meads station.
They stopped briefly outside Bristol Civil Justice Centre, where in November the High Court challenge against the decision to allow Bristol Airport to expand will be heard.
Ben Moss, a member of Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN), spoke to the crowd.
Referencing the recent court ruling that the government’s net zero strategy is illegal, Ben said: ‘there are people who are saying that the logic behind net zero is flawed, there is nothing there, there is no substance. And the decision that has happened to allow the airport to expand may also be flawed.
‘And if this [High Court] decision goes against the airport then that means the application, the planning application, has to start again totally because they have to consider climate change within these decision.’
Bristol Airport expansion has been called the biggest climate decision facing our region. It is estimated that the expansion alone will result in an additional 1mn tonnes of CO2 being emitted each year, outweighing everything else Bristol as a city is doing to reduce carbon emissions.
The 2020 decision by North Somerset Council to refuse, partly on climate change grounds, planning permission for the expansion was overturned by planning inspectors earlier in February. In their ruling, the inspectors claimed that climate change was ‘neutral in the planning balance’ and therefore not a consideration. It is this claim that BAAN are appealing with their High Court challenge.
Solidarity with striking workers
XR’s protest coincided with a day of strike action by train drivers’ union Aslef. The union is striking for an above-inflation pay rise.
Arriving at Temple Meads, the XR protesters joined with trade unionists on the Aslef picket line in a show of solidarity.
Bernard Kennedy, Aslef branch secretary and a retired rail worker, said the support shown by XR ‘means everything,’ adding: ’I fully support Extinction Rebellion.’
He went on to say: ‘They’re campaigning about the system being wrong and their being to many cheap flights and I think their agenda is an excellent agenda and it’s great to see them here today supporting us.’
There have been increasing efforts from XR to connect with trade unions and workplace struggles, particularly on the issue of Bristol Airport expansion, which was permitted largely on an argument of job creation. Unite, the biggest union at the airport by membership, supported the expansion at last year’s planning inquiry.
The march paused outside Temple Meads station where there were more speeches.
Amy, from XR Youth, who recently began their own campaign to win free bus travel for under-25s, students and apprentices across the West of England, spoke.
She said: ‘we need to get cars off the road now but our bus service is inconsistent and unaffordable, particularly for young people.’
She said better buses will create ‘sustainable life choices’ and reduce educational inequality. Fewer teenagers in Bristol poorest areas go to university than in wealthier areas, in part due to a lack of sixth form provision in poorer areas. Public transport, said Amy, would allow students to travel to sixth form college.
One of XR Youth’s demands is for WECA to hold public forums to discuss the future of public transport and how it can meet people’s needs. WECA mayor Dan Norris is holding meetings of this kind, dubbed Big Choices on Buses meetings, throughout next week.
There were some heated moments when motorists found themselves unable to move due to the march but overall the day was calm. A small number of police were present.
The march ended back in Queen Square where the protesters enjoyed a picnic in the park.
Shining a light on the climate crisis through the lens of public transport, protesting airport expansion and supporting striking rail workers. Bristol on Board may finally prove that XR is capable of the “movement of movements” style of organising they have always aspired towards.