Sunday, June 18, 2006

RSS consultants must fess up

South Tyneside environmental campaigner Bryan Atkinson has won an important Freedom of Information decision from the Information Commissioner regarding a complaint he made against Environmental Resources Management Ltd (ERM), related to work that ERM carried out on behalf of the North East Regional Assembly.

The Information Commissioner has ruled in favour of Mr Atkinson in a complaint that was brought on his behalf by Friends of the Earth’s Rights & Justice Centre.

The complaint resulted from ERM’s refusal to supply environmental information relating to work they carried out on the Sustainability Appraisal of the North East Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS). The RSS will dictate all major planning decisions made in the North East over the next 15 years. ERM had initially refused to release the information on the grounds that as a private company it was exempt from the Environmental Information Regulations of the Freedom of Information Act.

Bryan Atkinson, who is a member of South Tyneside Friends of the Earth, said:

“This landmark ruling has positive implications for campaigners and communities up and down the country. It means public bodies such as councils and regional assemblies will not be able to suppress environmental information by sub contracting their responsibilities to the private sector.”

Phil Michaels, Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth said:

“This is an important decision. Members of the public are often unable to access important environmental information because the information is not held by a traditional public authority but by a private body carrying out an essentially public function. This decision should open the way for members of the public to get important environmental information from a range of private entities.”

The planning system is already weighted in favour of developers and their policitical backers. When public authorities employ private companies they have often protected relevant information by hiding behind 'commercial confidentiality'. This decision will at least make that a little bit harder.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Environmental justice has a cost

On Thursday, June 1st, both the Shields Gazette and Newcastle Journal reported comments by Andrew Sugden of the North East Chamber of Commerce, who criticised the granting of Legal Aid to green campaigner Bryan Atkinson for his legal challenge against the murky goings on behind the Environmental Impact Assessment for the second Tyne road tunnel.

Instead of moaning about the meagre funding granted for Bryan Atkinson's action, Andrew Sugden should aim his ire at the Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Authority for squandering millions in public money on a folly which would prove to be an environmental catastrophe. In criticising the use of Legal Aid, the NECC is effectively declaring that access to justice should be the preserve of the rich.

Rather than being an "essential transport development", the tunnel would prove to be an environmental burden to local residents, exacerbating health problems in an area already blighted by A19 and tunnel traffic. The tunnel fails on sustainability terms - the extra traffic attracted will further contribute to the UK's growing carbon dioxide emissions at a time when we should be trying to reduce them.

The TWPTA and Government argue that the tunnel shouldn't be subject to a fully rigorous and detailed Environmental Impact Assessment. However, it's clearly in the public interest to resolve the issues behind the case, which will impact on future large-scale developments, from roads to nuclear power stations. It's paradoxical that the bigger the project, the less expectations there be from the EIA.

The TWPTA enjoys massive financial resources courtesy of the public purse, whilst a citizen without money can only oppose this juggernaut by relying on limited Legal Aid funds to cover the high cost of barristers and solicitors.

The tunnel case is a grossly unbalanced environmental David and Goliath showdown. Hopefully Legal Aid will be the sling to Bryan Atkinson's pebble.