The Environmental Law Foundation continues to support local communities faced with concerns of an environmental nature.
The legal profession has suffered from a paucity of good news of late, and like many charities the Environmental Law Foundation, which provides access to justice for communities with problems that carry adverse environmental implications, has had to maintain essential services through a period of reduced staff and accommodation.
However, ELF is now fully operational in presenting a new model of the services it has provided over 21 years of community support. ELF was one of the earliest proponents of providing a pro bono means of assistance, and it continues to be the foremost national provider of support to local communities faced with concerns of an environmental nature. With a UK-wide participating practitioner membership, the foundation provides advice and a support service to ensure the public has a meaningful voice.
It is the most marginalised and vulnerable sections of society where access to professional help is not generally or readily available. They need help to navigate through the morass of planning law and practice, confront activities of a polluting nature or address problems of public nuisance. These are all issues which affect people’s quality of life.
The advice and referral service is conducted through our practitioner membership, from which we muster consultant specialists who work in concert with the members. The aim is to ensure people are properly informed and able to have their views soundly presented, so their concerns are genuinely respected and taken into consideration.
ELF intervention is not intended to be adversarial but to encourage real local participation. If all else fails and the step is warranted, our members do take matters forward to appropriate tribunals or the courts. Running in parallel with that is our sustainable communities outreach programme, which enables the public to anticipate the advance of issues in a timely and proactive way.
The mainstay of our membership is solicitors and, in the words of Law Society president Nicholas Fluck: ‘ELF reflects particularly well on the good works and pro bono side of the profession.’ Since its inception, more than a million people have benefited from ELF’s service, giving real meaning to the much-vaunted localism espoused by the government. Moreover, demands for this service have increased in tandem with legislative changes and commercial pressures.
Not all cases that merit ELF’s support are high-profile, though many become so. We currently have three references on the issue of fracking, as exploration work on shale gas has begun. There has been a reference to ELF by people in Cumbria concerned about a proposal for the siting of disposable nuclear waste in the locality. On Anglesey, where an area of outstanding natural beauty is threatened by a proposal for a gated holiday village, ELF is guiding local people in making representations. Airport noise and applications for ultra-intensive cattle farming are also among our cases.
We do not always succeed. While court victories were secured with ELF support against Donald Trump’s proposals to develop 1,400 acres of beautiful Aberdeenshire coastline, judgment was overruled by the Scottish government.
Support for the residents of Redcar provide an example of a more positive outcome. About six years ago, they contacted ELF seeking legal advice on how they could achieve village green status for Coatham Common. The residents wanted to register the common as a town and village green under section 15 of the Commons Act 2006 to prevent a building development. This section stipulates that such status may be granted, providing they can prove that such recreational activity had been indulged over the land for a period of 20 years or more. Initially, on a planning inspector’s recommendation, Redcar and Cleveland Council decided not to grant the land such status. This was despite the fact that the common formed part of a golf course whereby local inhabitants had allowed golfers to play their shots.
After ELF’s initial referral, a lengthy battle ensued. Eventually, in March 2010 the Supreme Court unanimously decided that the council should register Coatham Common as a town and village green.
A major development in ELF’s capacity has come to fruition through collaboration with law clinics operated by major universities. This facilitates improved regional access. It also provides work experience for students and a valuable adjunct to degree courses.
Members of our profession gain from giving something back to the community and providing disadvantaged people with the capacity to meet the better-placed on equal terms. The issues arising enable a honing of skills and developing experience within a growing field of law. Profile-raising, sharing information and opportunities for trainees can all be embraced.
Solicitors working in public law, environment and planning can offer support and participation in the work of ELF. We would be delighted if you would join us - please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martin Polden OBE is a co-founder and vice-president of ELF