The fight for environmental justice
Ann Coleman is an activist, community representative, and resident of the village of Greengairs in North Lanarkshire. Ann, 72, has been challenging developments on behalf of communities and the environment for 25 years. I got the chance to interview Ann and this is her story.
Ann grew up in Maybole and moved to Greengairs in 1994. She fondly told me stories of living in the countryside, such as when her cats brought an injured fox home and the time she had to free a badger stuck in a fence. Greengairs is home to around 500 people and has a history of coal mining and quarrying which has left the landscape dotted with large holes.
Developers saw these large holes in the ground as ideal places for landfills, and then more types of waste management facilities such as incinerators. By the 90s, Greengairs had large areas of opencast mining and landfills – one of which was the largest capacity landfill site in Europe with permitted contamination levels higher than anywhere else in the UK. Today the village is largely surrounded by poorly restored and scarred landscapes and contaminated land that won’t be safe for land use for at least 50 years.
Greengairs campaign for environmental justice 1996
Ann’s campaigning story began in 1996 between Christmas and New Year when an application for an open cast coal mine was in the local paper. Ann’s first thought was, “this will mean more landfills” and she immediately reacted.
She began asking questions about the proposed development and, soon after, councillors turned up at Ann’s door handing her paperwork on the application. Other concerned members of the community joined Ann in her questioning, and together they decided on what steps to take. This led to a campaign opposing the development application, a request for a public local inquiry and eventually a village meeting aimed at securing legal representation for a public local inquiry.
The developer themselves came to this meeting and told the community that they were wasting their time and money because the development would get permission regardless, just like they had in previous cases.
“When you start from that kind of attitude, where do you go? You really start off from a very unfair position.”
The Greengairs community were undeterred and managed to raise £38,000 for a lawyer but this did not fully cover the lawyer’s fees for the whole inquiry or expert witnesses. They spent six weeks at the inquiry speaking about how decades of opencast mining and landfills had affected their community’s well-being and the environment. Ann described it as an “emotional rollercoaster.”
Despite this, the development was approved.
“Quite a few of us cried, it’s so emotional, it really is emotional. Governments want the public to tell them what they want and want us to care about our local environment, then when we do care about it, they take it away from us… I couldn’t believe how undemocratic it was, how unequal it was in terms of the public voice and how we had no real rights, no effective rights to protect our area. I remember feeling as if the law and justice didn’t apply to local authorities, rather we realised how unjust the system was and that the law had no provisions for justice!”
The community soon faced another application for a waste management development next to an opencast mine. With some assistance from Friends of the Earth Scotland, Ann and a few other locals represented the community at another public local inquiry.
“It was an absolute farce… We were quoting figures about the review the government had done of pollution in Scotland and how living in Central Scotland could shorten your life expectancy by up to 10 years.”
Even so, the application was approved. But this time, fortunately, the developers didn’t end up building.
The anguish and mental distress of local communities were constantly ignored. Additionally, there were no enforcement officers to control the conditions and regulations of any of the new or existing opencast mines and landfills for over a year. The community could not afford to go to court for infringements and so there was no penalty for operators.
What followed was a series of environmental hazards that the community had to cope with including:
- Persistent noise pollution
- Air pollution including nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, coal dust, and particulates from heavy equipment working the opencast
- Contaminated land and waterways
- Odours so pervasive they could be smelt at all hours of the night and from miles away
- Trucks loudly operating at unsociable hours
- Mining right to the edge of a resident’s house – leaving it on a precipice
- Mining causing a collapsed road which was never repaired
- Dumping of a whole whale carcass in the landfill
The final straw for residents was the plan to dump toxic waste from Derbyshire into landfills at Greengairs. This waste was too contaminated for England and Wales’s regulations but, because of a lack of licensing at the Greengairs landfills, it was accepted there and the community would be forced to deal with it.
The community instigated a campaign against the dumping which reached national news. Their protest was successful in ending the toxic dumping and new management was appointed that ensured the community was involved with the site moving forward.
This campaign in combination with other campaigns in working-class areas kicked off an environmental justice campaign run by Friends of the Earth Scotland. In 2005, First Minister Jack McConnell visited the site and used the campaign to announce the inclusion of social and environmental justice principles throughout all Scottish Government policies.
The good news – improved community participation and involvement
Following these events, Ann gave evidence as a community representative to round table discussions at the Scottish Parliament on engagement with communities with waste management developments. She was also consulted on the review of the planning system in 2005 as part of the stakeholder group for rights of appeal.
Additionally, the Greengairs community were recognised as a key stakeholder in local development planning and participated in the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Structure Plan. Working with other community groups, they designed a new designation plan for the whole area over 3 years. This included:
- Small industrial units made from sustainable materials by the local College. These were for start up local enterprises and community workshops
- A flooded opencast mine stocked with trout
- A countryside cycle path from the north to south of Greengairs
- Wind turbines
- Allotments and polytunnels to grow food with heat provided from the landfill
The Scottish Government supported the forward-thinking plan and provided funding to Stirling University to create a visualisation of it. The proposal was submitted to the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Structure Plan and was approved.
The bad news – the threat of incinerators
In the interim period, a developer who did not take part in the Structure Plan put in a last-minute application for an incinerator which did not include the required strategic environmental assessment. The incinerator effectively made the community’s plans impossible as they couldn’t cohesively put together the different parts of their proposal around this new development.
Ann called an air quality company about having polytunnels and allotments growing food in the area,
“they said, ‘no, not that close to an incinerator.’ And yet they are telling us it’s ok to live with it, work with it…so again, the public voice is not supported. I mean, we’re coming up with…forward-looking proposals, and all they want is money. Money talks.”
The application for the incinerator was submitted in 2009 and this time the community was not granted a public local inquiry. Again, they campaigned and were able to get an environmental lawyer to help them challenge the development. When they spoke to the Scottish Government about the development the reply was that, “the Government has the opinion that local authorities should make their own decisions.”
Ann described their response as “laughable.” To add to the issues, Ann and the community who were challenging the development had their names and addresses requested by the developer so that they could sue them if there were any delays in the start of the incinerator.
In the end, the incinerator was approved. The incinerator has not been built to date, but the approved application still stands. The cost of the campaign and the resulting stress took a tremendous toll on the community.
“No individual, no community should have to fight this much just to be heard and to have their rights met.”
25 years of fighting the planning system
I asked Ann if she has seen a change in the planning system over the 25 years. Overall, she felt it is worse than ever.
She explained that in 1999 there was individual guidance for different types of developments – which was where you went for your information.
“They’ve done away with all that now (…) they’re building a Berlin Wall to keep the public out. Reducing our access and ability to get involved.”
Similarly, I asked if there was any difference in the power of the public voice.
“I think if anything there is less. We didn’t have a lot, but it’s even less now I feel. The kind of hurdles to get any help, any assistance, any information has increased.”
These days Ann is working with other communities facing similar issues and sharing her experiences. She believes that, even if the system is failing, more people are wanting to stand up together for their rights and against injustices.
“Communities are becoming more informed. That is a huge thing. Their voices are coming together… With any development from here to London, anyone who has been made a fool of once they’re not going to be made a fool of again…The politicians that think they’re going to go on ignoring the public, no, it’s not gonna help.”
Ann has a straightforward hope for the future.
“I want to see equality for public participation. I want to see respect for the public. They live in these places, they understand them… I want to see governments learning from the public. I want to see it being bottom-up, not top-down. Every year it’s ‘the public voice is respected, it’s heard, and it’s acted on.’ It’s not, it’s ignored and it’s basic…
I mean basic human rights shouldn’t be a luxury. We should all be able to take them for granted. Now is the time for everybody to take human environmental rights seriously.”
Ann’s story is a story of environmental injustice and ignored voices, but it is also the story of communities coming together and fighting for their rights. It is a story of pure resilience.
Ann’s continued determination to fight and support communities across Scotland gives us all encouragement to demand a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for everyone.
Ann’s fight continues to this day.
“With my dying breath, I’ll still be fighting.”
Interview by Cornell Hanxomphou, ERCS Rights Officer, June 2022.
ERCS is grateful that Ann agreed to be on the Human Rights Lived Experience Board to inform the development of the Human Rights (Scotland) Bill.
The lived experience of people trying to use the law emphasises why we need an enforceable human right to a healthy environment.