For eight years, a property developer called New City Vision (NCV) has been trying to gain permission to build condos on the North Kelvin Meadow. The campaign to prevent this development from going forward has gained significant momentum in the last couple of years, due in part to the activities of The Children’s Wood. Last week, members of the City Council’s Planning Applications Committee visited the meadow in response to a request from the Children’s Wood, who have submitted an application of their own to retain the land for community use and outdoor education. Hundreds of people of all ages, including several groups of children from local schools and nurseries, came to the meadow in the midst of high winds and heavy rain to show their support for this alternative application. The councillors arrived a half hour late and toured only a small portion of the site, their heads down or turned towards the planning officers who led the tour. Then they returned to Council Chambers where they deliberated for approximately two hours before granting approval to NCV’s application.
Immediately following this decision, an alternative proposal submitted by The Children’s Wood, was also granted planning permission. The fact that two conflicting applications could be granted planning permission for the same site is a surprise for many people (myself included)–one that bears some consideration. As was repeatedly emphasized both within the committee meeting (which I attended as an observer) and in the planning officer’s report (available here), planning decisions are not supposed to be political. The decision to sell land rests with the landowner (Glasgow City Council), and they are only beholden to consider the opinions of residents on land use designations as part of the process for approving the City Development Plan. But official review of the new Plan is not yet complete, which means that objections to the zoning of the NKM for housing do not bear on this decision. Whether the ninety houses and “executive suites” are built thus depends solely on whether the application is judged to be in alignment with current planning policy–a supposedly objective process that requires councillors with a strong opinion one way or the other to absent themselves from the proceedings, but nonetheless resulted in a clean split along party lines (with all the Labour candidates voting in favour of the application, and the Scottish National Party voting to reject it).
Consequently, the key weakness of the NCV application–that the loss of opportunities for nature education, imaginative play, food gardening and community events can be compensated with an upgrade of football pitches at another location–is considered resolved by the assertion that current uses of the meadow are illegitimate (i.e., “informal/ancillary”) in relation to its original designation as a playing field. In other words, even though policy at the municipal and national levels favours the protection of urban greenspaces–for which the meadow technically qualifies–it need not be treated as a greenspace since it is not officially designated as such. At the same time, should the landowner decide that current uses of the meadow are desirable, they could grant permission for their continuation, thus (I think) providing the basis for recognition of an alternative “established” use. Except that the council has already signed a contract for sale with NCV, which means that the application will have to be rejected at the level of the Scottish Government for this response to become conceivable (which is apparently, what happened to an application from a different developer in 1996).
Working through the absurdities and injustices of this situation has been a useful but painful education. Leading up to the site visit, hundreds of person hours were invested in preparing the meadow and Children’s Wood for inspection: volunteers spread wood chips, repaired composters, built new raised allotments, weeded and removed debris. We worried that councillors would not see the meadow’s beauty or vibrancy in the depths of January. Colourful signs were painted, trees decorated with knitted fruit and flowers and large format photographs of the gardens, smiling children and fruiting apple trees were printed, laminated and distributed throughout the meadow on the morning of the site visit. Nobody knew the route the councillors would take across the site, and so there was some confusion about where to stand, how to make sure our signs and banners and children would be seen. But we were mistaken in all this, for in the end it mattered very little what had been made visible; the councillors were not there to look–at least not at us, our signs, or the fruits of our labours. These were after all, unauthorized and therefore irrelevant augmentations of the property in question. And so it was that rather than standing before the councillors to be seen, we followed behind them, chanting and shouting our message as opposed to showing it–only to be prematurely dispersed due to confusion about the visit’s itinerary.
In some ways this was a profoundly disheartening experience–a direct and bodily confrontation with the disenfranchisement that is built into the planning process. On the other, I think that some people understood from the moment the site visit was granted, that this was a different kind of political opportunity. A moment in which we could be seen, not by politicians–or at least, not by the members of the planning committee–but rather by an audience of journalists and voters and community members whose hearts were still available to be won. The site visit and the committee’s decision has been very well-covered in the local and national media. A petition to the Scottish government, asking them to ‘call in’ and reject NCV’s application, gained over 1200 signatures in its first 24 hours. Most importantly, and even before the visit happened, the number and diversity of volunteers actively involved in the campaign increased noticeably. I arrived on the day of the visit ready to face my fears about the meadow’s future, but I found that standing there in the rain with so many others–family, friends, neighbours and strangers–was a comfort and an inspiration even as hopes for a different outcome were so quickly disappointed. And while the work of preparing for the visit made us all more vulnerable to this disappointment, it also produced a collective experience of hope–and that is what journalists are writing about now; that is the light in which everything we have done may finally become visible in a lasting way.