Gina Davidson: If a tree falls in the woods is anyone consulted?

Local residents from the Dumbiedykes area Jim Slaven, Fiona Henderson, Dorothy Tough and Wullie Buchan. Picture: Jon Savage
Local residents from the Dumbiedykes area Jim Slaven, Fiona Henderson, Dorothy Tough and Wullie Buchan. Picture: Jon Savage
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LAST week I met with Fiona Henderson, a woman who lives in the flats at Dumbiedykes. She’s an intelligent person, has a good job, and has lived there for decades, raising her family.

We met because she was shocked when around 70-odd trees were chopped down in Braidwood Gate, land close to her flat. Land which she, and the majority of those living in Dumbiedykes, have long thought of as their back garden. Land on which her daughter and her friends used to play.

The day we met was miserably cold; the haar over Arthur’s Seat as heavy as a blanket left out on the line overnight. It was hard to image the woodland we stood in was a green oasis in the summer. Trees were bare of the leaves which lay scattered around on the ground, as crunchy as empty crisp packets. The whole place looked like it needed some TLC.

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Standing out harshly from the muted winter shades, however, were the naked orange stumps of the trees now gone. They’d been removed, she’d been told when asking those doing the chopping, to make way for a new bike park.

This was news to her. And it transpired news to many living in Dumbiedykes.

There had been, she said – and hundreds of others who have since signed her petition to have the scheme halted agree – a distinct lack of consultation with those who live there and use the woods. How could this idea be approved by the council without people knowing about it?

But the plans for Skelf, Edinburgh’s first mountain bike park which will consist of trail runs and an ashphalt pump park, had been on the go for the last four years. There had been a planning process, and as part of that two years ago a letter had gone to 300 homes. There had been presentations to various neighbourhood groups and associations, an annual biking BBQ at the local sports centre, even reports in this paper and in other media sources about the Skelf idea.

And yet, and yet . . . and yet people like Fiona still did not know it was happening.

Consultation is supposed to be the bedrock of democracy. It is what brings the political process together: those exercising the power on behalf of the people with the people who cast their votes. Elections are one giant consultation.

Of course even in elections poor turnout shows a lack of engagement, and it’s fair to say that a lot of people feel that way about politics and its systems at both national and local level. It’s been a gradual process over decades but the disconnect between people and politicians has never been greater. Why? Because people feel they have no voice, that their concerns are dismissed offhand (classed as “mad” or “moaners” by politicians), their views worth much less than those which represent business or lobby groups.

Consultation, though, is at the heart of the planning process. Your

neighbour wants to build an extension? You’ll get a letter through the door, letting you know how to object if you desire. A developer wants to build a major new housing area at the end of your street? It will legally have to consult with all affected – residents, community councils etc – 12 weeks before even submitting a plan.

The Skelf plan didn’t fall under “major development”. The people behind it did what they considered was a lot of consultation, no-one at the council suggested otherwise. No-one thought it odd that only ten responses were made to the planning application – five for, five against.

But we all know that letters can go unread or be mis-delivered (Fiona claims she never received one), that organised events can go unnoticed unless you pass by on the day or are included on an e-mail list. There was no community council for the Dumbiedykes area but other groups were told – did they pass that

information on? What processes are there for doing that?

There is nothing wilful in being unaware of what’s going on in your community. Not everyone wants to be on committees or has the time or inclination to run clubs, and sadly not everyone reads this paper. But leaflets through letterboxes or in kids’ schoolbags, posters on lampposts are easy means to let people know. Knocking on doors, holding well advertised public meetings – another two.

The rights or wrongs of the Skelf idea are neither here nor there. The people of Dumbiedykes have long wanted the land to be enhanced – though a bike park was not top of the list.

This is a problem of communication, of consultation. A problem the new Community Empowerment Act with its focus on giving people a stronger voice in their communities might help resolve.

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