On this walk Kat receives an education in greenspace infrastructure and environmental justice from Shivali Fifield of the Environmental Rights Centre Scotland and Clare Symonds of Planning Democracy. The walk takes them from one of the West coast’s most affluent villages to Port Glasgow which has health and inclusion statistics among the most disadvantaged in Scotland.
I’d arranged to do this walk with Shivali back in December but, due to an inconvenient bout of covid, we’d had to put it off. Shivali Fifield is the CEO of the Environmental Rights Centre Scotland, an NGO that Scottish Environment LINK set up four years ago to use the law to improve environmental protection and restoration. They aim to secure the human right to a healthy environment in Scots law and to assist everyone to exercise their environmental rights. I’d wanted to chat about our shared commitment to supporting people in their communities dealing with planning injustices, and to hear about her PhD research on environmental justice and access to green space.
The delay meant that Clare Symonds from Planning Democracy could also join us. Clare used to be the Head of Community Action at Friends of the Earth Scotland, running their environmental justice course, and meeting campaigners such as Ann Coleman (who I met on my walk in Greengairs). While doing this work she realised the need for specific support on planning for activists and campaigners as so much of the work on supporting environmental justice campaigners was caught up with dealing with an unjust planning system. She set up Planning Democracy and for the past 15 years they have been campaigning for a more just and equitable planning system, and supporting grassroots groups and individuals to engage with planning issues. APRS has been a long-time supporter of their campaign on the Equal Right of Appeal, which would put communities on the same standing as developers in being able to challenge planning decisions.
And so it was the three of us – APRS, Planning Democracy, and ERCS. We’d need to be careful because, should avalanche, rockfall or lightning strike wipe us out, the sum-total of organisations working on supporting grass-roots campaigners to overcome unjust planning decisions would be gone.
We started, of course, back at the Cairn café, in Kilmacolm, where I had feasted on the poshest breakfast in Europe ahead of the walk over the Clydemuirsheil Regional Park. Shivali and Clare, being busy and earnest people, had to be persuaded that a stop for self-indulgence at the Cairn Café was essential for a successful day. Clare wanted time to visit a couple of sites in Kilmacolm that were designated as greenbelt in the development plan, but were under threat from a large housing development. I fortunately managed to persuade her that this was not incompatible with also eating breakfast. This time I had smashed avocado on sourdough toast with feta and poached eggs, with a wee sprinkling of chilli flakes. Exquisite.
It had been a very cold few days with clear skies but the weather had turned and was threatening rain. The pavements were sheet ice – rain having fallen on snow-covered streets which instantly froze. We headed off towards the Sustrans cycle route hoping there would be grass verges we could walk on. To start with the three of us adopted a penguin–type walk, feet out, arms out, waddling along. “It’s going to take until tomorrow to walk the route at this rate,” I said.
I suggested we walk with arms linked so if someone slips the others could steady the ship. But after 3 seconds, and near catastrophe, it was decided that was a terrible idea. I then tried a new approach, working my arms like an Olympic speed skater and trying not to take either of my feet off the ground while making forward motion. This caused hilarity among my companions but it worked to get us through the frozen housing estate (roads as bad as the foot-paths) and to the edge of town where we could, at least, walk on the verges in safety.
I’d wanted to do this particular route with Shivali as it would take us from one of the most affluent communities in Scotland, Kilmacolm, to Port Glasgow, one of the most disadvantaged, over a distance of only 5kms. It would give Shivali plenty to talk about – “Just wait until I get started on bins” she’d said as we spoke on the phone ahead of the walk.
It wasn’t long before Shivali stopped us and pointed to the verge.
“What do you see?” she said.
“Grass?” I ventured.
“No” said Shivali – “you see no litter. We haven’t seen a single piece of litter since we left Kilmacolm – But we have seen two bins. And there’s another. And signposts.”
We stopped when we got to the bin.
“It’s an empty bin,” continued Shivali. “There isn’t litter overflowing and all round it – in fact it’s been emptied very recently”.
She pointed out that we’d also seen three or four walkers already, on a day with an appalling weather forecast.
“This tells me that the locals here are in touch with their councillors whenever they see an overflowing bin and so it has been made a priority.”
As we walk onward we started to see the odd can or crisp packet in the verge and Shivali picked them up, it wasn’t that much – just here and there. Every now and again Shivali would stop to marvel over a signpost or an interpretation panel “that’s the fourth bench we’ve seen so far” she said.
Her interest in greenspace infrastructure comes from her PhD in part of Glasgow whose health and inclusion statistics are amongst the poorest in Scotland. She explained that her work was looking at this through the lens of environmental justice. There are two main elements in environmental justice, she told me. Distributive justice – this is about equity in how burdens and benefits are distributed in society and procedural justice – this is about ensuring that there is equitable involvement and decision-making by different communities and that the communities can challenge and change their situation.
Shivali gave an example of distributive justice by describing the community she worked with. They were near a canal, but their side of the canal had no access, fly tipping and litter, while the other side of the canal had a lot of investment for access. The community had no way of getting to the nice bit of the canal apart from taking two buses, as the footpaths had become completely impassable. Every consultation in the past 15 years had identified access to this path was a local priority and there had been many ideas on how to make it engaging for children and families, but nothing had been done. I mentioned that I had noticed the same on my walk – affluent areas like Helensburgh had so many well-marked paths and I saw people walking everywhere, whereas in much of North Lanarkshire I had hardly found any paths near settlements.
Shivali explained that her PhD focussed on a third element, Recognition. “This is looking at how practices continue to ignore and marginalise certain groups” she said. Shivali had encountered situations where communities had been asked to take part in multiple consultations over what they wanted to improve their community and yet this had not resulted in community benefit. So she worked with local groups to understand what was constraining the delivery of local greenspace aspirations and how to get action for change.
At that moment Shivali saw a bird scuttling along the ditch at the side of the cycle path. We thought it was a snipe at first but it didn’t flush from the ditch and instead stopped at the base of a young birch and completely disappeared. “It’s a woodcock” said Shivali quietly as we watched it picking its way along the overgrown ditch, marveling at its masterful camouflage.
We were soon at the edge of Port Glasgow and got our first view over the Clyde, at this point an estuary at least 3kms wide. “It’s amazing that’s the same river as near our house” said Clare, who lives not far from Abington in the Southern Uplands. We discussed what the big snowy hills were that we could see beyond– perhaps the Luss hills or the mountains of the Cowal peninsula.
The cycle path skirted the top of a 1960s housing estate at the edge of Port Glasgow. The residential streets ended with open access to the countryside beyond, it was the same as 60s estates I’d seen elsewhere – Plains (near Airdrie), Milton of Campsie, Kilsyth. But in newer estates I’d seen on my walk, the cul-de-sacs and high wooden fencing around the whole estate meant that they were cut off from the countryside beyond.
Where the path started heading into the town we turned uphill through rough grass and tussocks. I apologised for my single-minded insistence on staying within the green belt, even if it meant foregoing a level cycle path. We walked past a small playpark right on the edge of the houses and Shivali told us about a group of mums she’d met during her research who had been campaigning for a playpark in their area for ten years. They had been involved in multiple consultations, but the funding never materialised. When, at last, it looked like it would happen, they were told that it would be too expensive, as it was contaminated land with mineshafts and would need remediation and there wasn’t the funding for it.
“It’s an example of what I’m talking about.” said Shivali – “some communities take playparks for granted, some have to fight 10 years and still don’t have one”.
In the end the play park was built because Shivali found out that there was a specific fund in the council for the remediation of vacant and contaminated land but it wasn’t used and was usually assimilated into the main pot at the end of each financial year.
“They said no one asks for it so it doesn’t get spent”.
“In the end what was the point of the multiple consultations? Can’t we all agree that we don’t need endless consultations to build a playpark?– shouldn’t every area just have a playpark?”
As we were still talking about the inequalities in greenspace infrastructure we came upon a fence I thought we may need to cross. A path emerged from the back of the houses and evidently crossed the fence at this point – the barbed wire had been cut and carefully folded back.
“It’s been like this everywhere on my walk” I explained, “people find their own way to the countryside, and make their own paths”.
“That’s brilliant. I’ll bring my clippers next time!” joked Clare
“But people shouldn’t be forced to do this.” said Shivali “What about people in wheelchairs or with buggies, or who don’t want to climb over fences? It illustrates my point that everyone deserves decent access infrastructure, not just affluent areas, and authorities need to take this kind of infrastructure seriously”
“But we can’t wait for that to happen” said Clare “Power needs to be claimed and, if you wait for it to be given, where’s the empowerment?”
I was too busy taking Clare’s manifesto for people-power down word-for-word to join in the discussion at this point, but I did manage to say, after a few more exchanges along the same lines, that I thought that we probably need both approaches.
In writing this up I am struck, firstly by Clare’s ability to distil what she was wanting to say into that phrase “Power needs to be claimed and, if you wait for it to be given, where’s the empowerment?” and secondly, how well the conversation illustrated the two organisations: ERCS, set up to hold institutions to account using legal frameworks, and Planning Democracy, surviving on a shoestring budget, and run entirely by volunteers, finding ways to get things done.
We reached the trig point at 201m and an amazing view over the Firth of Clyde to Ardmore Point and beyond, Loch Long. “Can we see the Arrochar Alps?” asked Clare. I didn’t think that we could see that far as cloud shrouded the head of the loch, but we could certainly see the hills on the west side of Loch Lomond.
Our route took us past the golf course then onto a track that led back down towards the town to rejoin the cycle path where it marked the border of the greenbelt at the very edge of the Port Glasgow housing. We passed a gate heavily fortified with barbed wire which was looped round and round the top two bars of the gate and all over the posts either side. A giant padlock hung from the opening latch.
Someone had put a length of plastic piping over the barbed wire on an upright to act as a safe handhold in climbing over and positioned a rock in a very useful position. Clare said “Look at all this barbed wire! We need to get that person with the clippers up here!”
We laughed at her instinct to direct action – David Graeber, the anthropologist and anarchist philosopher, wrote that “Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free1.” And this is what I had seen in all those occasions on the Green Belts walk so far, where people had created their own paths, and ways through fencing and barriers to access the countryside where they lived.
Back in the summer I had attended an event organised by Right to Roam, the English campaign for access to the countryside. “Acting as if you are already free” is a guiding principle of their campaign, as they organise botanical walks, historical wanders and wild swims in the English countryside, asserting the rights they wish to have as an act of protest2. In the event I attended, a bus of Scottish campaigners met a bus load of English campaigners on the Scottish border, each walking from their respective sides to meet on Scots Dyke, a wall built in 1552 to mark the ‘Debatable Lands’.
As we walked along the wide mossy top of Scots Dyke, Lewis Winks, one of the Right to Roam Campaigners, illustrated the contradictions in having differences in the rights of access either side by explaining that “my left foot is trespassing and my right foot is exercising its right to roam.”3 We assembled in a clearing in the wood to hear speeches by campaigners on both sides of the border and a song in Gaelic. Then Andy Wightman, Scottish land reform and access campaigner, handed over a copy of a draft Access Bill for England and Wales, based on Scotland’s 2003 Land reform act.
Back in Scotland where our right to take responsible access has been enshrined in law since that 2003 Act, we had rejoined the cycle path and had met a man with a very enthusiastic border collie pulling on a lead. He was carrying a couple of pieces of litter and Shivali opened her, now bulging bag, for him to put them in.
We got chatting and found out that he walked this way almost every day with his dog and picked up litter as he went “you won’t find much litter here” he said. And indeed there was the odd can, but not much else. The path was edged with straggly ash and sycamore covered with ivy, and had a view over Port Glasgow and Greenock waterfronts. Willie explained to us that this was the railway that would have gone from Glasgow through Paisley and Kilmacolm to the Princes Pier in Greenock bringing visitors to the Cycle Coast for their summer trips ‘Doon the Watter’.
“This route was awful before, but we went to our Councillors to get the path improved and the lighting put in” said Willie.
Willie’s dog wasn’t just straining at the lead, her front legs had come off the floor and she was panting with the effort. “She’s great for a walk on the moor” he said “she just pulls you up.”
“There were once big hotels down here where people would stay, or they’d go to the pier for the ferries” He pointed out a new development of houses – “that’s on the old ship yards – I was an apprentice there”. He told us that they used to build super tankers in the dock but they were so big they’d need to be made in two parts and then floated to the Great Harbour in Greenock to be attached together.
Willie took us on a little detour to show us the site of the old viaduct “It was fantastic with nine arches, a bit like the one at Glenfinnan” he told us – “but it was nearly a hundred years old and they were worried it was going to be listed so the army came and they blew it up.” He was just a boy when it happened but he remembered the day, as they used to come and play up by the viaduct. “On the day of the explosion we hadn’t gone up there but we heard it being blown up.” he said.
As we headed off the main cycle path we heard a man on the path shouting at us – I didn’t hear what he said but Willie said that he was worried that we’d fall. Willie shouted to him not to worry and we carried on.
There wasn’t much left of the viaduct – Willie pointed out a couple of stone bases and then we scrambled back down to the path which continued over a new bridge over the Devol Burn.
We waved farewell to Willie close to the end of his usual walk and headed onward. Soon after we left him we started to notice litter on the path. By the time we arrived at Lady Octavia park, drifts of litter lay caught in the brambles and dock at the side of the path. Shivali stopped us and asked us to look around, “There’s no bins anywhere here, we haven’t seen one for ages” she said. It was so noticeably different from what we’d seen at the start of the walk. This park not only had no litter bins, it had no dog poo bins and no benches.
“It isn’t that people in less affluent areas don’t care.” Said Shivali, “They just don’t think anything will be done”.
We had started our walk in one of the most affluent communities in Scotland4, scoring the maximum score on every measure of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (except geographic access) and we had finished in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods5 (scoring the minimum score on almost every measure – except geographic access). It was a clear wake-up call to the severity of the inequalities that people experience in communities living almost side by side in Scotland.
Lack of access to nature-rich, multifunctional greenspace, and other elements of environmental injustice is just one element of the inequalities experienced in these communities. There is a huge mountain to climb, but knowing that people like Shivali and Clare, working through organisations like ERCS and Planning Democracy, are on the job, gives me hope that we are, at least, going in the right direction.
My experiences on the walk so far is that well-heeled suburbs like Bearsden, Clarkeston and Milgavie are actually the exception rather than the rule when it comes to communities on the edge of green belts. Obvious inequalities in quality of access, in the types of development pressures, in the inequalities of capacity to engage with the planning system in their area – these are all issues of environmental injustice that APRS sees in Scotland’s green belts. I am looking forward to exploring more with Clare and Shivali how we can work together to be more effective campaigners and advocates for environmental justice.
- ‘The Democracy Project’ by David Graeber – a book that takes a retrospective look at the Occupy movement ↩︎
- Trespass is not a criminal offence in England and Wales, it is considered a civil offence and, as the Met Police website says ‘not usually a matter for the police’. The Met Police website suggests that landowners are concerned about walkers or campers they should speak to them or contact their local authority. ↩︎
- https://www.channel4.com/news/activists-call-for-england-to-join-scotland-in-right-to-roam-laws ↩︎
- In the least deprived decile (90-100%) as ranked by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) It is 6884th out of 6976 datazones ↩︎
- In the most deprived decile (1-10%) as ranked by the SIMD. It is 156th out of 6976 datazones ↩︎
If you’d like to read about the other green belt walks you can do so here