The system ain’t working if community councils resign en masse

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Panorama of Grangemouth refinery with lots of smokestacks

Last week, Grangemouth Community Council resigned en masse. By doing so, they were giving a clear vote of no confidence in the democracy of the Scottish Planning System. These individuals were coming as near as a Community Council can, to civil disobedience. They were saying “we engaged, we worked hard, we gave you our input, but you didn’t listen and now we don’t want to play by your unfair rules”. The resignations were triggered by consent being granted to a 120 Megawatt ‘renewable’ energy biomass plant at the Port of Grangemouth to which they had objected on the grounds of air quality, visual impact and sustainability.  However, there was a back story to the resignations and a build-up of circumstances, not least years of experience of failing to get air quality standards met in the area.

The Community Council wrote an eloquent letter which they sent to MSPs and councillors.  A key concern that they had voiced to us, following the Public Local Inquiry, was the prominence of the economic arguments over all other arguments which, for them, included concerns about pollution, health, and the environment.  To quote the then convenor of the organisation: “The impact of the Public Local Inquiry on my life was enormous, but it was short term and now it is over.   What it has left me with is a sad feeling that, no matter what energy I put into planning matters such as this, there are greater forces at work that leave me powerless to change things”.  This situation reveals the reality behind the rhetoric of public participation in Scotland which increasingly prioritises any kind of economic argument, however poorly evidenced or argued.  The sadness of this is that, in the end, people such as Grangemouth Community Council, residents of this industrial town, the environment and democracy are the ultimate losers.

So what happens when a well functioning and respected Community Council take the furthest step they can to voice their total dissatisfaction?  They cannot make a greater statement of feeling – and yet how much coverage did they get in local and national papers?  It made page 18 of the Falkirk Herald and had some local coverage.   But why the whisper when it should be alarm bells and claxons?   This is a full-on failure of our local democracy.  It is the plainest demonstration that the planning system is not working for people.  However, there is little evidence that anyone is taking responsibility for this failure.  What steps will be taken to address the issue?  Will there be a council inquiry? Will anyone take the time to talk to the members and try to work towards a solution?

In October, elections will be held to elect a new Community Council in Grangemouth.  Walter Inglis, one of the now ex-Community Councillors, believes this could be an opportunity to establish a new model of Community Council.  Perhaps the local Council will see this as an opportunity to reignite public confidence in the system and to seek some innovative alternative. At the very least, they should seize the opportunity to resolve some of the issues involved in this sad state of affairs.  Certainly, the Community Councillors appear to have a good relationship with planning officers and are balanced, level-headed individuals.   We hope that someone in Falkirk Council or in the Government might just recognise the value of individuals who are willing to engage in planning through the statutory processes and try to re-establish Grangemouth Community Council in a way that gives them greater influence and reason to get involved.


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Clare Symonds

Clare Symonds is the Chair of Planning Democracy.

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1 Response

  1. Avatar Angela Hull says:

    I agree it is really disheartening that our pretense at public consultation is only a one-way interaction. There is little dialogue and attempt to understand the local assets valued by residents. The fundamental issue here is the structure of our planning system which is not based on legal requirements to ensure improvements to environmental quality and social advancement – though our system has to respect strong EU laws on rare habitat and species protection, and procurement. Of course we have strong aspirations for the planning system and a wish list of improvements which we ask local planners to negotiate for on every individual development application. But we have shackled them with achieving ‘sustainable economic growth’ in a mainly privatised banking, land supply and development economy – it is these interests that are the experts in achieving this. The odds are firmly stacked against local planners achieving anything else – unless they are backed by strong local politicians who can argue for a wider definition of ‘sustainable economic growth’ than the private sector. The planning system seems resigned to trying to effectively coordinate all the different development and land interests so that their interventions are at least connected in some way.

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