Ann Coleman has been a community and environmental campaigner for over 25 years. We are grateful that she 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.
At the June meeting the Lived Experience Board was asked three questions and this is a summary of Ann’s response.
Question 1: Do you feel you’ve ever been ignored?
Answer: Yes, more often than been heard.
One of the biggest problems is that the system doesn’t prioritise the public voice or needs – there is still a culture of “you don’t know what you’re talking about, you just don’t understand”. Communities are frequently subjected to the derogatory “NIMBY” label when questioning aspects of developments that will impact detrimentally on their lives…I would argue that this on its own demonstrates a lack of respect for the voices of the lived experience and undermines our right to dignity.
We are forced to educate ourselves in order to navigate a system that isn’t designed to include us as equals and doesn’t understand us or our lived experience. Therefore it provides no option for our voice to be valued.
Even when we follow the options open to us for accountability of decision making, we are at such a disadvantage that our concerns aren’t addressed. On one occasion I was part of a four-person group representing communities facing incinerators. The group included a professor, a university lecturer and two community representatives and we presented a petition to the Scottish Government Petitions Committee. The committee agreed there were some points raised regarding environmental pollution issues and said they would look at them. We never heard back so we contacted the relevant department – only to be told that there was a new Petitions committee and that our petition wasn’t going forward. Obviously we asked why – we were told they didn’t have to give us reasons.
There have been occasions when we asked if the government would share information with us only to be told it would cost us over £700. This arose when we had a public inquiry for another waste management facility in close proximity to our communities.
It would take pages to tell the story of what our community has endured and how many procedures we have followed to try and achieve some justice over decades. Our voice has never been recognised, not even from the point of view of learning from our experience to ensure other communities don’t suffer the same. There is no accessible accountability nor is there any necessity for officials or people in power to react to our concerns – the system has no provision for justice or equality.
I would like to express my thanks to the few officials and politicians over the years who have tried to assist by giving us straight answers, telling us where to look, how to do what we should and helped us to understand a system that works against the public more often than with it.
Question 2: What are the barriers to accessing your human rights?
Answer: There are so many barriers.
At the moment for communities of place, it feels like we are victims in so many ways of a system that doesn’t support access to our basic human rights. Even when an incident occurs that denies us ‘the right to the safe and peaceful enjoyment or our property and possessions’ we don’t have the finance to pursue our rights. Judicial Reviews are skewed against us as they are too limited in what they consider and we don’t have appeal rights under the planning system – even when there is an issue relating to a healthy environment. We need equal rights to question and appeal planning decisions as a minimum.
Government Legislation and Local Authority documentation are frequently written primarily for political representatives, civil servants, external bodies like SEPA (the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency), and even developers. They fail to include the public either as an equal participant or as a possible victim: public rights are rarely identified or explained in a manner that would be easy for English speakers to understand, with no chance for those learning our language.
A lack of plain-speaking guides is another barrier to even knowing what our rights are. The Scottish Government website is not friendly to the public and has become a game of chance to negotiate. The reduction in specific guidance relevant to various activities and services is a huge loss in providing public information. When I got involved with the system over 20 years ago – there was specific guidance on landfill and opencast mines which provided our community with information about what we needed to research/learn relevant to our need.
There was also ease of access to talk directly to someone within the Scottish Government who had the expertise to guide us through complicated applications. I had a direct telephone number where I could talk to someone with the relevant expertise, I was on first name terms with a few of them. I phoned just over a year ago and had to go through the main switchboard and the gentleman who answered tried to be helpful but admitted he would have to ask someone else. A few minutes later he put me through to a very pleasant young man who listened to my question and said he would find someone who could answer and phone me back. Not easily accessible information! When you don’t understand a particular part of the system you need someone to talk you through it – you can follow-up with emails but you need to talk it through first when you are trying to understand.
Councils lack resources to enforce environmental conditions. We had an opencast mine operating for months outwith its agreed operating times, and we discovered the council didn’t have an Enforcement Officer for over a year. We were living with five active landfills and two active areas of opencast. Having no Enforcement Officer definitely caused a barrier to our right to expect conditions and regulations to be controlled as promised. We couldn’t have afforded to go to court so there was no real penalty for either operator or council – another barrier to accountability.
Question 3: Will there need to be structural changes?
Answer: There will need to be major structural and cultural changes.
As detailed in the responses to previous questions, there will need to be major structural and cultural changes to deliver public perception and expectations of Human Rights.
We will need accessible accountability and systems designed to be understood by the public in a language that isn’t confusing and open ended. Access to information, education, a mutual understanding of expectations, culture change that promotes mutual respect and understanding – as proposed in about 2005 but never delivered – and an alternative to the court system to deliver equal and accessible accountability.
Conflicts can be minimised with policies, legislation and guidance etc all being inclusive and understood by all to help ensure that very few human rights violations occur – this is the most inexpensive long-term option is to get the structure and systems in place to deliver on all our human rights for all of us.
Ann Coleman , June 2022
Want to hear more? Read our interview with Ann.