A community building conflict resolution group?

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

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