ELF rallies lawyers to help save Thames from the developers

The luxury apartment boom along the Thames is good for wealthy househunters but potentially bad for the environment. It is a phenomenon that the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) is trying to mitigate.

The ELF is devoted to preventing environmental damage. It was instrumental in helping local communities provide submissions on the future of the river, and is now awaiting the Lord Mayor of London’s Spacial Development Strategy document.

Through the ELF, 2 Harcourt Buildings barristers Greg Jones and Robert McCracken QC prepared submissions, and Jones appeared on behalf of local group Thames Bank for two days. ELF outreach coordinator David Whiting said: “The question was really, ‘Will poorer communities get access to the Thames as part of the natural environment, or will it be available only for serviced apartments and penthouse suites?”

The charity
Established in 1992, the ELF is a UK charity providing legal advice to those facing an environmental threat. According to Whiting, its main purpose is “to encourage access to environmental justice through legal remedies”.

The ELF operates two main projects: an advice and referral service and a community outreach programme. Under the former, the public can phone volunteer caseworkers. Where the matter involves a legal or scientific issue, it can be referred to ELF members – law firms, chambers or technical consultants which provide pro bono advice.

The ELF holds Q&A sessions across the UK every six weeks, where law firms and chambers, alongside technical consultants, provide legal and scientific advice free of charge.

Last year, the ELF levered around £75,000 of free legal advice. However, as Whiting said: “That’s a bare minimum figure. Many of our members draft reports, take matters to the planning authority or provide counsel opinions.”

In 2003, the advice and referral service took 1,000 initial inquiries, of which 250 were referred to members for further advice – a 28 per cent increase on 2002. Whiting attributes the rise to planning problems and pressure on the planning system. Indeed, in 2001-02, 60 per cent of referrals made by the service were to do with planning issues. “There’s a lot of pressure, particularly in the South East, with local governments wanting larger areas allotted for housing in already limited space. Local communities have no formal ability to complain or to contribute to the process,” said Whiting,

No wonder, then, that its membership is stretched. “There’s a fantastic opportunity for lawyers to contribute to the right of every person to live in an adequate environment,” said Whiting.

The Lawyer verdict
Whenever the ELF refers a case to lawyers, it asks community groups to estimate the number of people affected by the problem. In the past year alone, an estimated 350,000 people have benefited from pro bono work carried out through the charity. As its pro bono programme proves, you do not have to chain yourself to a tree to have a positive impact on the environment. Lawyers can contribute their unique skills to benefit whole communities and their environments. This is a well-constructed programme that benefits not only individuals, but whole communities – present and future.