To complete our coverage of local councillors’ responses to the on-going controversy over the new visitor centre at the Meedies, we are reproducing the written response of the Lochs Ward councillor Mary Bain Lockhart, which she made public at tonight’s meeting of Benarty Community Council.
The recent and ongoing controversy over the proposed new Visitor Centre for Lochore Meedies has generated heated online discussion, two public meetings, several media articles, and a great deal of anger. Although I am on record – in the minutes of Benarty Community Council and elsewhere – as having been appalled by the consultation process which took place on the development earlier via the Advisory Board, and which seems to have ended in February 2016,1 have declined to make further public or social and mainstream media comment. I wanted to listen to the outcomes of the two Public Meetings, to take soundings from the wider community in Kelty and Benarty, and to consider the recommendations of the ad hoc consultation group established at the first Public Meeting.
It remains my view that the consultation process and responses to criticism of it were seriously flawed. Now that the post Public Meeting consultation process appears to be over, and I welcome the opportunity afforded by the Benarty Forum, and the Benarty Community Council, to make a full statement.
The issue of the Visitor Centre had been raised with me by a member of the Advisory Board during my campaign to be elected as councillor.
That member was not a constituent, but someone I respect, who told me that the Meedies Visitor was likely to become an issue during the course of the bye election campaign. One concern was the suspicion that the Advisory Board had been meeting without community representation. I pursued this, and was told that the Board had not met since February. Nothing new had happened since that meeting, and that no Advisory Board member had requested a meeting. I suggested that the member of the Advisory Board should seek a meeting of the Board to see what the position was.
I was elected councillor on 25 August, having spent 6 weeks knocking on doors, speaking at meetings and the Ward Hustings, and hearing people’s concerns, complaints, and ideas. Not one constituent raised the issue of the Meedies with me during that time, and I was surprised it did not arise at the hustings, by which time I had tried to guess what some of the issues might be, so that I could give an informed opinion.
After my election, I made a list of the issues which had been raised during the campaign, and held a public meeting at the Benarty Centre to invite constituents to rank them in order of what they considered were priorities. I had left space for other issues to be raised and ranked, and at this point, the issue of the Meedies was raised by another interested party who did not live in my ward, was not on the advisory board, but was well informed, and helpfully gave me a copy of the Meedies Development plan, which I read, and many of whose proposals I liked. The Meedies came 6th on a list of 12 priorities at that time – mid September.
The first meeting of Benarty Community Council which I attended was in the same month, and when I arrived (having first been at Kelty), a presentation on the Visitor Centre was underway. Drawings were on the table, and questions were being asked. These seemed to be about the internal configuration, and the size of the building, and I recall a discussion regarding the flexibility of the space, and the modular nature of the building which was welcomed. One member of the Community Council was particularly keen that when the building was expanded, there should be a Mining Heritage Centre, and I took note of this, and subsequently raised it at the meeting of Cowdenbeath Area Committee.
Objections, Public Meetings, Ad Hoc Consultation
I became aware of the opposition to aspects of the proposed building when I saw a version of the front elevation posted on the Facebook page, “Benarty Matters”. The principal objections of those commenting at that time concerned the flawed consultation process, the colour, and the size compared to the existing building. I had intended to raise these issues at the Cowdenbeath Area Committee, but this was pre-empted by a letter from the Benarty Forum in the Central Fife Times. (The date of the Benarty Forum meeting which preceded this had been changed, and I was not made aware of this until it was too late for me to be able to attend.)
I raised the issue of the Visitor Centre with a range of constituents, was telephoned by 7 people on the subject, and attended the Public Meeting with a diversity of views from people who were unable, or did not want to attend, but wanted their views to be heard. I attempted to speak, but was not called to do so. At that meeting, volunteers were called for to form an advisory/consultative group, which would try to reach consensus with Fife Council and the FCCT, and whose recommendations would determine how to proceed. I volunteered to be part of this group. However, this was ruled against, because of “a conflict of interest”.
I was disappointed by this. I am a local resident who has walked in the Meedies for decades, played on the bings which the Country Park happily replaced, has professional experience of consultations, planning and developing visitor attractions, and of event management. And I had been elected to represent the people of Benarty, Kelty and Kingseat less than 12 weeks earlier. However, I had no choice but to accept the ruling, and continued to seek views, and to listen to what people were saying.
The major issues for most people to whom I spoke at that time were that the community had not seen the architect’s drawings; there had been no display boards at the Benarty Centre; nor had the community been given the opportunity to discuss and ask questions – and I found only three who liked colour of the building.
I understand that meetings took place during the 3 weeks following the first Public meeting, but I was not invited, nor was my view solicited.
At the second public meeting, a presentation was given by FCCT, and questions were asked and answered. The presentation was good, and the questions answered thoughtfully by FCCT. People were keen at this stage to ask questions of officers of Fife Council. None was present. The meeting was advised that they had been instructed not to attend. The meeting – including me – was outraged. I heard several people say it was a disgraceful demonstration of the contempt in which the Council held the people. The two Councillors who had been invited to form part of the platform party were left to try to answer questions which should have been addressed by senior officers.
After more heated discussion, a vote was taken as to whether the Visitor Centre should go ahead as it stood and as planned, or whether a halt should be called to allow more ambitious plans and a different building to be developed, with funds being raised possibly via the Benarty Forum, the FCCT, in association with Fife Council.
Prior to the vote – by show of hands – it was clarified that whatever happened, the meeting wanted the new golf/football facilities for the Golf Club and Benarty Astros to go ahead. The vote itself was by show of hands, and there are varying estimates as to the proportion of those who vote to call a halt, and those who voted to go ahead, but there is no doubt that more people voted for a halt than to continue.
I did not believe that the vote was representative of the people of Benarty and Kelty as a whole, and the reason for that opinion is that in my experience, more people go to Public Meetings because they are strongly opposed to something than because they support it, and because I had kept a tally of those I asked for their opinion, and it indicated a range of opinions from “Keep the old visitor centre” to “Just get on with it” to “It’s a monstrosity” to “Not bothered!” But I did not have a clear sense of a majority view. Except of those at the Public Meeting – and the no-attendance of Council Officers at that meeting had angered even those formerly minded to support continuation.
My personal preference was for the new building to go ahead, with the cladding a different colour, and a promise that the Visitor Centre was Phase One of an ongoing project on whose future development the people would be consulted at every stage and their views acted upon. Like many in the community, I think we should develop ambitious plans for the Meedies, that the role of the surrounding communities should be formalised and built into its development strategy, and that the lessons of the community consultation process should be learned and addressed by this.
I feel it is important to state that I think there is also a difference between the views of people in the Benarty part of the Ward 7 from the views of the people in the Kelty part. It is my clear impression that whilst there is a strong and organised group in Benarty opposed to the currently proposed new Visitor Centre, in Kelty there is general support.
However, I believe that at the first Public Meeting, an undertaking were given that the proposed new visitor centre would not go ahead if, after the 3 weeks for Consultation Group to deliberate and report back, the meeting voted to halt the project. There as those who dispute that undertaking was given, and I am not aware that anyone had the authority to give it. When I heard it apparently given, I had tried to clarify whether it was a binding agreement, but was not called to speak.
But in my opinion it was given, and if it was not, my sense is that those at the public meeting sincerely believed it was. So, with great reluctance, when asked by colleagues for my view as to what should be done now in November 2016,1 said that I believed the old Visitor Centre should be restored to its condition prior to the asbestos checks; planning permission and re-funding submitted immediately for the Football/Golf Pavilion, and work started before March 31; and a group set up of representatives from the Community Councils surrounding the Meedies to work on raising whatever is needed to develop the kind of new facility they want. That remains my view.
I do not know what will be decided – whether to go ahead in accordance with existing planning permission, or to call a halt or postponement with one of several options in the interim. That decision will be made by Fife Council’s Executive, of which I am not a member. But whatever the decision, I want to be able to move forward on to what could and should happen from now on, and into the longer term.
Addressing some issues of the recent past I have already mentioned some lessons to be learnt. In addition to those, there is the issue of communication between Fife Council and Community Councils. I think the emailed list of planning applications sent to Community Councils is too generalised, and too widespread. Local proposals should at least be highlighted, and if they have community impact, send as paper copies. Planning proposals with community impacts should also be sent for display to Community Centres and local libraries.
In this statement, I have not named any individual – be it constituent, officer, or fellow councillor. During the process, two Community Councillors were named by Council Officers, in a context I do not believe to have been either necessary or desirable. I think they are due an apology.
From now on, the development of the Meedies and its facilities must be advanced with full consultation and engagement of local people. The FCCT has withdrawn from the Meedies, and the need for a new structure may provide an opportunity to re-unite a divided community and develop more robust and clearly defined aims, objectives and strategy.
The new structure should have democratically delegated community representation on its board, in addition to fully engaged and accountable councillor representation. There should be immediate reassurance for the staff-all the staff-employed at the Meedies.
I have many, many ideas and ambitions for the Meedies which I hope to be able to discuss and take forward in future as part of my community, whether I am re-elected as a councillor in May or not. As a local councillor, I believe it is my job to represent the people on Fife Council, not Fife Council to the people.
And whatever my personal preferences or views, that is what I have done, and will endeavour to continue to do in respect of the Meedies.