Monday, 1 June 2009

Reports from the audit trail … Number 3

On a wet Friday night last month some 200 residents of Peacehaven, a few miles down the south coast from Brighton and Hove, met at the Meridian Centre. They were in the community hall to hear an update on a last-ditch legal attempt to block the development of a controversial £300 million waste treatment plant.

According to John Hodgson, who leads a protest group known collectively as PROUD (or Peacehaven Residents Opposed to Urban Development), the site is going to be ‘the size of 17 football pitches’. ‘It is an industrial process and we don’t want it,’ he says. The plan is for the treatment plant to be sited in his town and on the edge of the South Downs, recently designated a national park. Southern Water expects it to handle 95 million litres of waste generated by 250,000 people every day, most of whom live in Brighton. The plan also includes a proposal for an 11km tunnel, eight feet in diameter, running from Brighton to the new site and passing directly under Peacehaven homes. ‘There is a burning resentment that the city of Brighton and Hove is literally tipping its rubbish over its neighbour’s wall,’ says Hodgson.

You can see a video-film about their fight – inelegantly dubbed ‘the battle of Poohaven’ by the Brighton Argus – as part of the Guardian’s 'Justice gap' series which is based on LAG's Access to Justice Audit ( Unfortunately (at least as far as those residents of Peacehaven are concerned), their attempt to challenge the development after a five-year campaign failed shortly after the film was shot. The High Court last month refused to grant them permission to judicially review East Sussex County Council’s decision to allow Southern Water to develop the site. The residents’ legal fight was backed by legal aid (although they had to pay a £5,000 contribution) but it was the threat of legal costs that prevented them challenging that refusal. ‘Our lawyers advised us there was no more legal aid available - so if we’d lost we would face the costs,’ Hodgson said later. ‘And they could have been as much as £50,000. We couldn’t afford that.’

Whether you characterise the actions of Peacehaven residents as NIMBYism (as some Guardian bloggers have) or not, the role of public funding in allowing locals to challenge the seemingly unstoppable combined might of ministers and developers urgently needs to be examined. It is not an area of our cash-strapped legal aid system that has been looked at despite a widespread concern about the lack of local accountability in the planning system. If the planning system fails communities, they are led to believe that there are always the courts. It is not as simple as that.

Even if campaigners are supported by legal aid – and that is a big ‘if’ - legal costs are routinely deployed to silence them. The High Court judge Mr Justice Sullivan, in his 2008 report Ensuring access to environmental justice in England and Wales, found that only the ‘very rich or the very poor’ could afford to fight environmental schemes – no news to environmental law specialists and campaigning groups such as Friends of the Earth.

Away from the as yet unspoilt rolling hills of the South Downs to the banks of the Mersey … the next stop on the audit trail was the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre situated in a housing estate in Vauxhall.

Do you remember those misty-eyed plans of New Labour to create ‘community justice’ courts in which judges engage directly with offenders, taking charge of their rehabilitation? The Liverpool project was based on the Red Hook Community Justice Center in New York and opened with some fanfare over four years ago. It cost £5.2 million to establish the pilot justice centre plus £1.8 million a year running costs.

On the day of my visit, Judge Fletcher explains how his court deals with the offending behaviour of his clientele, ranging from the 47-year-old chronic alcoholic ‘in his 32nd year of offending’, arrested for shoplifting £2 worth of ham, to the 15-year-old who has been before his court 30 times for anti-social behaviour offences. ‘The idea is based upon the judge being much more proactive and having a much greater say in a way that sentences are carried out as opposed to the judge just being the sentencer, just applying the law,’ he explains.

Crucial to the Community Justice Centre model was a single judge monitoring the progress of offenders, with onsite agencies so that offenders can be referred immediately to professionals who can deal with their addictions and housing problems – as well as involving the local community, seeking its views on particular problems and on appropriate punishment. The court has been a test bed for new approaches such as the Criminal Justice Act 2003 s178 which has given Judge Fletcher power to review community orders.

Judge Fletcher has been outspoken in support of what he calls ‘therapeutic jurisprudence’, talking about the value of the judge as ‘social worker’. ‘It is about trying to satisfy the public demand for a just result but at the same time doing that in a way which is actually responding to what the public really wants,’ he says. ‘That is not for the offender to be locked up for the rest of his life but it is that the man stops offending.’

Unfortunately, plans for future justice centres appear to have been quietly dropped. Apparently, they are a luxury we cannot afford. Tucked away in the recent green paper Engaging communities in criminal justice, ministers have ruled out future centres ‘in light of the costs involved’. The paper talks of other models, based on existing magistrates' courts, involving multi-agency working and ‘virtual problem-solving teams’. Whether ‘community justice’ will mean anything more than disaffected youths being forced to clear up blighted parks in high visibility with ‘community payback’ stamped on their backs, remains to be seen.

No comments: