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March 9, 2016

Unsung heroes

It’s the classic David and Goliath scenario but with Goliath all too often emerging as the winner. The bigger the development proposal sitting on the table, the more daunting the prospect must be for anyone to step forth and say, “I object.” And yet every grass roots campaign has to start with one or two people prepared to stand up and be counted. These people are unsung heroes in our communities and they need to be nurtured. The Guardian picked on four such people to tell their story – one from Scotland.


Local writer v Shell

George Turner is an unlikely anti-hero. Graced with a beard that would look more at home in Shoreditch than the Royal Courts of Justice, his rise to prominence in London’s property world came in 2012 when he single-handedly took the decision of then communities secretary Eric Pickle to approve the £1.2bn Shell Centre all the way to the high court.

The proposal was for eight buildings, up to 37 stories high, to be built next to the London Eye. Turner, a South Bank resident and writer, objected to the design and the damage the buildings could do to important heritage sites.

Taking a campaign to court can come with serious costs, but Turner was protected by a 2012 law that states that access to environmental justice should not be prohibitively expensive.

“Going to the high court was surreal,” says Turner. “On one side, we had me and my mate, Dave, helping me shuffle papers, on the other there were four QCs. Me, on my own, with this one piece of paper, had caused this immense amount of panic in all these institutions.”

It eventually failed, but the case caused ripples across the property world, with one developer describing Turner’s campaign as “a siege” against Braeburn Estates, the firm behind the scheme. It is a claim Turner dismisses: “One reason we are seeing more campaigns such as mine is that you don’t have the public interest being served by councils or government; instead, they act as an arbitrator between communities and business. The people whose job it is to work in the public interest don’t see that as their job anymore”

Turner says many developers are successfully lobbying government to tie the hands of campaigners like him – hence the measures in the housing bill.

Pharmacy lecturer v Aberdeen city council

But around the country, individuals have taken up arms against what they see as poor or wasteful developments. Aberdeen’s controversial Marischal Square development has been opposed strongly by a campaign led by former pharmacy lecturer Lorna McHattie. She is particularly critical of Aberdeen city council’s planning process and dealings with Muse, the developers of the hotel, office, and restaurant complex.

She began her campaign almost by chance when, after taking an interest in the proposals, she found it almost impossible to access documents regarding the £107m scheme in the city.

“To understand what was going on with the scheme I had to visit the council offices,” explains McHattie. “I couldn’t see the plans online. When I turned up I was put in a room and shown the plans, which were dragged up from a box in the archives. I was told I could not take photographs but I have no architecture expertise so I didn’t understand what I was looking at. How could people of the city understand what was going on if they all had to visit this room to get information?”

The development was questioned in the Scottish parliament because of McHattie’s campaign, and although the scaffolding is already going up, she doesn’t believe it’s the end. “The development can still be stopped all the way until they hand over the keys,” she says.

Resident v Hammerson and Ballymore

McHattie’s struggle for transparency is echoed by David Donoghue, who leads acampaign in Shoreditch to halt the £900m Bishopsgate Goodsyard development. Donoghue and a small team of voluntary campaigners have had to wade through hundreds of pages of documents to scrutinise the scheme – a series of 800ft high skyscrapers they claim will destroy the vibrant heart of Shoreditch, and cast shadows over much of east London.

“It’s in a developer’s interest to make the documents as difficult to comprehend as possible,” says Donoghue, who adds that it is “ridiculous” that the Goodsyard documents have more pages than the complete works of Shakespeare or the bible.

Donaghue has managed to run his campaign largely online, where more than 10,800 people have signed his petition against developers Hammerson and Ballymore. “Social media means the campaign can be run on an iPad. It costs my time, but means it’s possible to spread information for next to nothing,” he says.


Local author v multibillionaire Kuwaiti family

Groups that oppose development are often tarred as nimbys – not-in-my-back-yards – but it’s a label with which Michael Hammerson takes issue. He successfully led the Highgate Society’s battle to halt the demolition of the 1871 Athlone House, which overlooks Hampstead Heath, to make way for construction of a £80m mega-mansion for a Kuwaiti family that that campaigners said would blight views of the park. “Groups like ours do not oppose development per se,” says Hammerson, a local researcher and author. “We oppose bad development, and unfortunately we get too much of that.”

He says more developers now use the planning system as a “second throw of the dice” to overrule refusals made under local policies.

Many campaigns are run on a shoestring, and Hammerson says his was helped by the high proportion of expert witness submissions that were given pro bono, and the many days of preparatory work by the campaign’s barrister, David Altaras.