PEDAL’s purpose is to support our community to build social, economic and ecological resilience. Even if we manage to establish all the infrastructure needed to ensure our children are fed and warm when food and fuel prices go through the roof – all the community gardens, insulation and turbines in the world aren’t going to be much use if we don’t know how to sort things out and be able to live with each other.
Here are some personal reflections on what we might learn from the community divisions generated by the proposal to build a new Portobello High School on the Park.
In 2006 PEDAL made an initial objection to the school being on the park: not because we prefer green space to kids’ education, but because we didn’t see the need to choose between one and the other. We wanted a new school and wanted the best for our kids, including being able to convert green space to food growing if peak oil makes that necessary.
However, we changed our position to one of neutrality, as we became aware of just how divisive and embittering the issue was becoming for our community, as well as because (given the way the choice was being framed – a new school on the park or no new school at all) many of our members were strongly for the new school being on the park and others strongly against. We didn’t want to be part of a process that was pitting one part of the community against another. We decided that we would not take a position but would make suggestions to help improve the school.
We were advised that we needed to frame our suggestions as objections to be taken seriously. If that was right, then I believe we made the right call since those comments were intended to improve the school and ensure such a big new development can help make Portobello less vulnerable rather than more vulnerable to fast rising fuel prices. If our understanding of how we should frame our suggestions was wrong, then that was a serious mistake. I have subsequently sought advice from those involved in planning and the answer is not clear. On the one hand all submissions – whether framed as supportive, neutral or an objection – should be taken into consideration; on the other hand, given the number of comments a planning committee receives, much greater consideration is (in reality, although not in theory) given to comments framed as objections, since they might lead to permission not being granted.
On reflection, the key point for us is less whether we framed our suggestions in the best possible way, but whether we engaged in the process constructively. What has become clear is that Pedal does not need to take a position on divisive issues, but needs to engage in community consultations in a way that can help build community consensus to ensure we get the best for our community.
To be fair, our original 2006 submission was pretty comprehensive, positive and made substantial suggestions not only in terms of the building but also in terms of the kind of education our children need to face the future. Subsequently we have been so over-stretched with all our other projects – from the orchard, to the market, to energy saving and energy generation to . . . – that we just didn’t have the time engage in the school process. . . . we have realised that in future we should either engage far more fully in potentially divisive issues or we not engage in them at all.
But how can we best engage constructively and non-divisively in contentious community issues?
I am heading to Kenya to work with six communities who are seeking to develop a ‘community protocol’ that can enable them to present a united response to the threatened building of a huge deep-sea oil terminal. I am hoping to learn from them, but meanwhile in PEDAL we are aware that we need to consult much earlier and deeper and to look at issues in the wider context of a fast changing world.
How do we do this?
One way would be to proactively bring together a small group of people who are interested in consensus building, perhaps kicking off with people who have not been at the forefront of the school and park debate, but who are interested in establishing a process that can model for our children how to resolve disputes in a way which treats each other with respect. Anyone interested?
Justin Kenrick – justin AT yahoo.co.uk