What if it's in your back yard?




Jon Robins


The Observer



People power can beat unpopular development, but only if campaigners arm themselves with expert advice, writes Jon Robins

Dismayed by plans for a second runway in your back garden? Horrified by the idea of a prison being built in your idyllic village? Open the pages of any regional paper and you will find stories about locals protesting about schemes by developers or councils.

But how do people take on the planning system, the might of government and the interests of commerce and win? 'It's vital that you know what you're taking on from the start,' advises Jenny Thatcher, a local campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth. 'Loads of issues that local campaigners work on are buried in the planning system. You need to recognise where you are in this process.' She advises people to contact the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), a charity that identifies planning law experts who can provide a free legal prognosis.

Campaigners shouldn't hang around. 'If a legal challenge might be possible, you have three months to bring it from whatever decision is taken,' explains Paul Stookes, a former ELF chief executive now with the environmental law specialist Richard Buxton. In the case of Brighton campaign Dump the Dump, the clock started ticking after the decision of the council to back the plan.

'If the government or a local authority wants to do something, the one thing that will stop them is the courts,' reckons Buxton. 'It's perfectly possible to get to court without too much difficulty, but you're well advised to have some advice. Although you go to lawyers in planning cases for purely procedural issues, often there's no smoke without fire. Getting the procedure right might well end up with a better decision in the end.'

Know your rights about access to information, Stookes advises. 'If the matter has anything remotely to do with the environment, which includes almost all planning applications, ensure that your request for information from the local council is being dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations rather than the Freedom of Information Act,' he says. Don't accept photocopying charges of more than 10p per copy. 'It's not lawful to charge much more.'

Veteran campaigners often say that the most effective way of building a war chest isn't necessarily big fundraising events - appealing to individuals can be more effective. 'Knock on the wealthy doors, but don't exclude others, because you will need the ground-floor support as well,' advises Steve Charlish, a 47-year-old from King's Norton, Leicestershire, who founded the Demand group currently battling for a cap on flights into Nottingham East Midlands Airport. He started the group from scratch following concerns about the expansion of the airport, which he was alerted to through his job as a commercial pilot.

'I made a beeline for the stately homes and biggest houses, because they were the people who have the influence and the money,' he says. The first person he approached gave him a cheque for £1,000, which started the campaign, and more than 1,000 people turned up for the first meeting. Demand has since won the backing of local MPs including Edward Garnier, Kenneth Clarke and Alan Duncan. The group has a minimum subscription for its 1,400 members of £5. The campaign is expensive to run - its phone bill for the first 12 months was in the region of £1,500, stationery costs for newsletters to some 100,000 houses came to £3,000, and a noise survey by an independent consultant cost £5,000.

'There is a general inertia about getting a group of people together,' acknowledges Chris Mellor from Residents for the Protection of Nidderdale. His group comprises only five residents and they are currently digging in for a second fight with Harrogate Borough Council in North Yorkshire over plans by specialist mental health care provider Partnerships in Care for a psychiatric hospital at a former Royal Navy communication station site near Menwith Hill.

The residents were successful in the High Court in their bid to stop the plans earlier in the year by judicial review. 'From our experience, it's essential to have a small core of people with a solid objective,' he says. 'If you have too large a group it becomes a talking shop.' His group was able to raise £15,000 to pay for the legal challenge within three months of planning permission being granted.

The strategy was not risk-free in the Nidderdale case. If the case had gone to trial in the High Court, they stood to lose as much as £40,000 in legal costs. The fight continues, because Partnerships in Care made a second application this month.

· Friends of the Earth have a special site on running local campaigns, visit community.foe.co.uk/

This plan is rubbish, angry residents tell councillors

The Hollingdean depot is an eyesore among the otherwise gentrified streets close to the heart of Brighton. 'It was established as a waste site in the 19th century in the countryside on the outskirts of the town. It used to burn the rubbish,' says Ed Start, a 63-year-old engineer who has lived in the area for 38 years. 'In the 1950s, they closed it down when a new housing estate was built and it wasn't considered appropriate in a residential area.'

Start clearly feels those were more enlightened times. He is meeting in the pub to discuss the next steps in a campaign to persuade Brighton and Hove City Council to pull the plug on a proposed development of the site by Onyx, now Veolia Environmental Services, into a waste transfer station with a capacity for 200,000 tonnes of rubbish a year.

Karen Amsden, a 41-year-old mother of two, describes her response when she discovered what was happening: 'Horror and disbelief. I was one of those people who moved from London to Brighton to find somewhere nicer to live.'

Both Start and Amsden are leading lights in the Dump the Dump campaign. The group fears that the proposals could see as many as 22 trucks (plus 20 street-cleaning vehicles) negotiating the precariously tight network of roads every day. This fleet of heavy loads will pass Downs Infants' School on Ditchling Road, a few feet from the depot's perimeter wall. 'It is a terrifying prospect. I spend two hours a day pushing my buggy back and forth to the school,' Amsden says. 'People go to the same playgroup, the same school and everyone walks. It could destroy the school and the community.'

Environmental and pollution concerns compound local anxieties. The school recently told all children to stay indoors, with windows shut, after arsonists set fire to a building thought to be ridden with asbestos.

Despite 2,500 letters of objection from locals, councillors backed the plans in June, so Dump the Dump has issued legal proceedings. 'Previously all our fundraising has been done on an ad hoc basis, passing the bucket around,' Amsden says. 'We realise now that we've entered a new phase.'


How to fight

  • Be clear what the purpose of your campaign is
  • Encourage local involvement - talk to neighbours and local newspapers
  • Organise effectively and delegate the work
  • Know your rights. If the matter has anything remotely to do with the environment ensure that your request for information from the local council is being dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations (rather than the Freedom of Information Act)
  • Contact other groups or local campaigners
  • Know your rights in terms of the law. Contact the Environmental Law Foundation (elflaw.org, call 020 7404 1030) for access to a free initial legal opinion and other community support.

Paul Stookes, of Richard Buxton Environmental and Public Law