Response to RICOH article

The article in last week’s Crail Matters about access arrangements during the Ricoh Women’s Golf Competition at Kingsbarns was highly critical of Fife Council and “the ineffectiveness of local political representation in controlling the action of Council officials”.

Fife Council has a duty and commitment to promote economic activity and development. In practice this means that it has to be very careful about doing things which impede such activity.

Restrictions on access and inconvenience for local communities are frequent by-products of sporting events, fairs, markets and community-organised events. These events usually contain a greater or lesser commercial element, but it is their contribution to the general prosperity and amenity of the area which is held to justify their temporary incursion on ‘public goods’ such as the public beach access at Kingsbarns.

Fife Council cannot lay down the law about the price of access – in terms either of community engagement beyond the statutorily required consultation with community councils etc, or community benefit or compensation. Fife Council does not have the legal power to extract such concessions from organisors in return for access. If it tried to do so, legal challenge would be a risk. But economic loss would be an absolute certainty as businesses turned their back on Fife in favour of more welcoming areas which did not make such demands.

Unfortunately elected members also cannot lay down the law with Fife Council: they have no authority to tell officers what to do in a specific instance. However, they do have two ways of influencing what Fife Council does. First, they can argue, persuade, cajole etc council officers because they have the ear of (senior) officers in a way that ordinary members of the public, or even community councils, do not. Elected members can also exert pressure on organisors of events, either privately and/or via the media. This is in fact what happened in the run-up to the RICOH when local councillors interceded with senior Fife Council officials and, via the media, the RICOH organisors to get them to retract their initial proposal to shut down all public access to the beach.

Kingsbarns Community Council was happy when the RICOH organisors retreated from this position and agreed to the access restrictions which were customary for events like the Dunhill competition. It wasn’t an all-out win for the community, but then it wasn’t their aim to stop the event from taking place or permanently sour their relations with the golf club. The ‘community engagement’ by the organisors, while more than statutorily required, was extremely poor, and resulted in extremely poor PR for the organisors IMG. I doubt IMG will want to repeat its mistake in Kingsbarns.

I did suggest to a member of Kingsbarns Community Council that they could ask for some kind of compensation or community benefit in return for all the inconvenience, but I was told the community didn’t want what they would deem to be a bribe.

Last week’s article ends with Crail Community Council proposing that (1) no further golf competitions are authorised at Kingsbarns that involve limiting access to the beach, coastal path and car park without formal community engagement and agreement. And (2) steps are immediately taken by Fife Council to acquire ownership of the public car park at the beach (if necessary by compulsory purchase), to ensure continuing public access.

The second way elected members could exert influence in this matter would be to try to get Fife Council to change its general policy by introducing a beefed-up requirement for community consultation, a community veto and/or community benefit. While many councillors would have sympathy with affected local residents, few, if any, would support such a move for the reasons I’ve outlined: discouragement of economic activity and legality (I don’t think Fife Council has the power to impose such general requirements; it would require a change in legislation by the Scottish Government).

Finally, even if Fife Council were to find the money and justification to purchase the car park (next to impossible given current budgetary pressures), it would still face the same pressure about having to balance unlimited public access with the duty to promote economic activity.

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