The law as if people and the planet matter

By Elf

Martin Polden OBE and Diana Schumacher OBE reflect on ELF’s 30th Anniversary

There is a happy coincidence of anniversaries in that the 30th year of Schumacher College coincides with that of the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF). The concept and creation of ELF emerged in part from the ethos expressed by E. F. Schumacher that local activ­ities and local stimulus are likely to be more effective than those dependent upon central government.

A wide range of matters are brought to ELF: issues con­cerned with the built environment as well as rural concerns; assistance to parish councils; protection of village greens and wildlife habitats; nuisance concerns of pollution, whether from noise or smell, sewage or chemical release. In an impor­tant case supported by the charity, the Supreme Court laid down by way of binding precedent what an Environmental Impact Assessment should comprise as to content and form. This decision is likely to have far-ranging consequences for future generations. Another example in setting of an impor­tant precedent is that parish councils can apply for Aarhus Convention Costs Protection in pursuing environmental casework. In short, ELF tackles issues and challenges stem­ming from the rough and tumble of modern-day living.

The beginnings of the charity emerged from discussions in the late 1980s. Diana made the point that, whereas develop­ers, industrialists and other vested concerns could call upon their network of experienced and expensive professionals to progress their interests, the people and local communities at the receiving end had no such access to affordable profes­sional help in defending their neighbourhood environments. There was a real gap in ‘the system’.

So it was, in the spirit of Schumacher’s fundamental prin­ciple ‘…as if People Mattered’, and after withstanding a degree of scepticism about our prospects, that ELF was launched in January 1992. That was itself an unusual occasion, with bankers, lawyers, leading environmentalists and scientists sharing a public platform. We emphasise this aspect because conditions and attitudes were very different then from what is recognised and in place today: professional attitudes were highly compartmentalised at the time and ELF was in the vanguard of change!

Today ELF runs an outreach programme through which it has established connections with a significant number of universities, eager to assist in setting up dedicated law clinics for law students. This university activity has recently been augmented by the creation of Young ELF, which engages with schools, colleges, universities and young professionals. It is also collaborating with Forum for the Future’s campaign that engages 14–19-year-old students in debate and action.

A project at an early stage is in association with Imperial College, London, directed at monitoring, with a view to restricting, the increasing pollution of rivers and inland waterways as well the coastal shoreline. Such pollution in turn impacts on public health and wildlife habitats, on the lines of the huge issues relating to the world’s oceans, albeit on a smaller level. This follows a well-supported initial event – more are being planned – and all interested are welcome to contribute. (Please see the ELF website for updates.)

ELF’s trustees are a mix of lawyers, environmentalists, academics and those with associated expertise. Its articles provide for a balance between legal and non-legal experts, the chair always a lawyer, but with recognition of the manifold needs presented. Importantly, the charity is most fortunate in having His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales as its president.

Through its membership network of senior environmen­tal lawyers, scientists and other experienced professionals, ELF provides pro bono representation and advice, thus giving local communities an authoritative voice in protecting their quality of life and that of generations to come.

Martin Polden OBE and Diana Schumacher OBE are co-founders and now Honorary Vice Presidents of ELF.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2022  issue of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.