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08/07/2014

The accidental advocate

Words:
Simon Tyrrell

In the autumn of 2013, plans to build a marina and housing on the historic Thameside filter beds at Seething Wells in Surbiton went to inquiry. Simon Tyrrell (above), of The Friends of Seething Wells, acted as voluntary advocate for the community. How helpful did he find the planning process to community campaigners?

I’m delighted I took on the role of advocate for the Friends of Seething Wells at a public inquiry – opposing a developer challenging the council’s rejection of its plans for a marina, homes and parking on the ecologically and historically vivid Metropolitan Open Land it owned in Surbiton.
 
Previous campaigning had been bruising. We were vilified by the developer as hysterical, destructive Nimbys living in cloud cuckoo land, forced to lie and mislead, self-interestedly denying the local community a wonderful opportunity to satisfy our own private agendas.
 
I’m proud that over the week of the hearing our genuine concern, well-researched thinking and business-like soberness of language gave the lie to the picture of us that others had painted.

"Available guidance, while clear on process, was thin on practical detail for volunteers"

But it was hard work. Available guidance, while clear on process, was thin on practical detail for volunteers. We rehearsed our arguments and evidence, fielding technical and professional specialists across all subjects. But our respected ecology specialist, for example, was competing for acknowledgement and respect with the developer’s costly veteran of 60 appeals who glossed over inconvenient facts and disparaged our experience.
 
Nor were we reassured that statutory consultees like the Environment Agency and Natural England appeared to contribute beyond their remit and capability. It was to their advice that the inspector consistently deferred, rather dismissively overlooking our informed challenges in her report.
 
In contributing their opinion, these authorities appear to focus not on enforcing statutory protection, but rather on how these protections might be overcome to enable development. And why can’t advice be co-ordinated? Archaeology and heritage protection seem pointlessly but wholly separated at English Heritage, for example.

"These decisions feel too important to depend in such large part on the self-confidence, tenacity and resilience of volunteers and community representatives"

Even without these reservations about other parties to the process, these decisions feel too important to depend in such large part on the self-confidence, tenacity and resilience of volunteers and community representatives. Such knowledge and a willingness to contribute to agreeing community benefits could be harvested so much earlier – before the process gets adversarial and weighted in favour of moneyed developers.
 
And although there was no doubt how important it was that the community voice was heard at this stage of the democratic process, it was heartening to hear the planning authority’s counsel making perfectly clear the significant role that local feeling should play when he castigated the developers:
 
“It is both patronising and contrary to the whole spirit of the importance now attached to local views, for the appellant to try and argue that the claimed benefits for the local community override the clear harm, in circumstances where the local community have reached a clear view to the contrary by a significant majority.”
 
Simon Tyrrell is a founder director of community interest company The Friends of Seething Wells. Find out more about the history of the filter beds and community plans for their enhancement at www.friendsofseethingwells.org
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