Cataloguing fly-tipping hotspots in
Nottinghamshire, late 1990s
About Paul Mobbs & MEIR:
Phase I, 1992–2007, ‘environmental investigator’
The basis of environmental consultancy is to sell your technical skills to people with money, which allows people with money to exert their power, to make the money to pay you. My business model was the opposite: working for those without money to stop the powerful damaging their lives.
Investigating unlawful habitats damage
while working on IDOs, early/mid 1990s
If working in activist groups in my teens was an apprenticeship, spending so much time immersed in the regulatory system during my twenties was my university.
I spent pretty much eight-years solid working on public inquiries and major development proposals on behalf of community and campaign groups; from Scotland, to Devon, to Essex, and large areas in between. Much of that was on planning, waste licensing, and development plans.
It was tedious, but it paid; writing eight to ten planning appeal or development plan responses per year, and attending three to five long public inquiries a year – and in between doing lots of small, strange jobs that, in many cases, didn’t pay anything.
Workshop on Citizen Science,
What made it worthwhile was that this ‘heavy’ work supported me enough to spend time helping communities with really awful pollution and public health problems. I did a lot of what I called, ‘site visits’ – investigating a waste or industrial site with the local community, and then suggesting ways they could put pressure on the regulator(s) to get things tidied up. Then for months, sometimes years after they would call every now and again to update me, and ask for suggestions of other tactics to try.
Another strand of my work at that time was ‘Interim Development Orders’ (IDOs). Granted during or after World-War Two, these government orders covered large areas of near-urban and rural countryside – areas which today are national parks or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) – and gave the operators unstoppable legal rights to quarry.
Tracking down rogue toxic waste operators in
The Black Country, mid/late 1990s
The review of those orders, required by a 1991 law, offered the aggregates industry the chance to legitimate their rights to quarry some of our most sensitive landscapes.
Looking at the issue more strategically, working with communities to restrict or rescind these orders was an opportunity to protect the natural value of these areas in the future – which was quite successful in retrospect.
What I far preferred doing was working in community education. One of my first long-term contracts was with community education in Oxfordshire. From there, during the mid-1990s, I was picked up by WWF to assist on some of their community education work.
Strictly speaking I was not a ‘consultant’, charging for my expertise. As part of every job my aim was to involve and educate the local group so that they could continue the work after I had left.
In deciding to write this I did something I rarely do; I looked back in to my archives (I find the experience exhausting!). While looking through I found this table, from 1997, of my previous four years work (I think it was for a funding application). I remember so many of those jobs, and the communities and people I worked with.
For example: ‘Unlawful development by Reliance Security, Steventon, Oxfordshire’. That was the compound the bailiffs evicting the Newbury Bypass protests built at a former Home Office store. Every job has a story associated with it, and every job represented getting to know another part of our lovely country.
In the mid-to-late 1990s I spent more time writing training materials, and running workshops, where I could train people on different aspects of research, campaigns and the law – formalising the core of what I sought to do in my work, educating the community. This coincided with some major changes to national campaign groups, who were becoming more focussed on broad lobbying in the media, and less on fighting strategic local issues to set national precedents.
I could have quite happily continued this work for many years, but for an awful catastrophe that struck local authorities and the rights of local communities to influence decision-making; New Labour.
Under John Major, the Conservatives were always too disorganised to undertake real reform of local government (remind you of more recent events?).
In contrast, Tony Blair made ‘reform’ his badge of office and set about overhauling many regulatory processes and agencies. In most cases that didn’t protect the historic rights of communities to participate on an equal basis.
Reforms to the planning system, to local authorities, and to government agencies, might have made them more transparent (e.g. ‘freedom of information’ – which Blair has since said he deeply regrets enacting); but it also brought-in far more exclusive/ under-the-counter influences from corporate lobbyists, and in particular co-options from the business community directly into regulatory agencies.
At this time I was coming to my end of four years as a non-executive director on the board of Friends of the Earth. I tried to alert FoE, Greenpeace, and others about the problem, but they were besotted by Blair’s talk of human rights, freedom of information, and sustainability – and had become so alienated to working in the poorest urban communities, that they simply didn’t understand the implications of these ‘reforms’.
At the end of the 1990s major environmental campaign groups were ‘going green’ – professionalising their staff, and being more officious and restrictive in terms of what their local members were allowed to do. In parallel they started to take corporate sponsorship.
Cataloguing fly-tipping hotspots in Nottinghamshire
As a result communities were pressured from both ends: From the ‘officials’ who were supposed to represent them politically or administratively, but who were now pro-growth/pro-business in all matters; and, from those in NGOs who were supposed to assist them when they needed help, but who instead now focussed primarily on generating media coverage.
Ultimately that tussle with Friends of the Earth would land me in the High Court. This was not a problem. I was already having to work with groups on High Court actions as various corporations had, with the Government's support, begun to bring new forms of High Court injunction out against protest groups – under the (then) funky new label of ‘domestic extremism’.
For me, the final straw came with one single job – in Byker, in Tyneside.
I was asked to go and talk to the community as the council wanted to replace the refuse derived fuel plant with an incinerator. As I often did, I got there early and asked if I could be shown around the site and the community to get a feel for it. That's when the real issue came to light.
The local council had been ‘recycling’ the ash from the existing incinerator at the site by using it on parks, allotments and other areas to surface paths. This was it wasn’t just the ‘bottom ash aggregate’. They had taken the ‘fly ash’ from the pollution control plant too. This material was very toxic.
Defending the FRAW website from anti-GMO
protest injunctions, genetiXsnowball trial,
High Court, London, April 1999
(I'm standing under the ‘c’ in ‘genetics’)
It took two years of constant pressure from the community to get first the health protection agencies, then the media, and finally – after a long struggle – their own local council to wake up to the scale of the contamination that had been loosed across Tyneside.
Let's be clear now. For the previous decade I had been working mostly in places like Tyneside, The Black Country, Merseyside, Teeside, South and East London, Avonmouth, and all across the South Wales valleys. Why did I work there so much? That was where the really awful, polluting developments were taking place; and yet at the same time, that was often where the major campaign groups were not to be found directly helping the local community to oppose these developments.
Following the Byker case I had had enough. In any case, the fall-out with Friends of the Earth had gotten toxic, and they started to blacken my reputation as a punishment for challenging them. Luckily, at that time, another research and training option arose…