Embers of hope burn on…

by | 14 Dec 2021

There isn't much positive news around, so I will take great comfort in the wonderful and victorious campaign run by the people of Biggar to save our historic bonfire

There is always hope. I felt it again (briefly) yesterday. The community of Biggar won (mostly) and we’re going to be allowed our bonfire this year – give or take whatever Covid measures are about to be announced.

This gives me hope because it was a perfect story of a community coming together in the face of corporate arrogance and public sector fear, fighting their fight and winning. That we did it with good grace and a positive mindset makes it all the better.

A quick recap – a bonfire has been held in my small town of Biggar every Hogmanay for as long as anyone can remember, a tradition of local fire festivals almost certainly dating back to the Druids. It has always been on the same site, a site that 30 years ago the gas mains operator decided to put a gas pipe under (offering full reassurances that this was perfectly safe).

And we held our bonfire there every year for 30 years, gas main and all. No incident, no problems. But in the intervening time the UK’s privatised utilities network does whatever it wants and in this case sold off the infrastructure to another corporation. It’s still ‘public infrastructure’ but corporations buy and sell it at will and with little real public interest oversight.

So now it’s Scottish Gas Networks who own the mains and two years ago they decided they didn’t want a bonfire. They seem to have lobbied others to their position and the subcommittee of South Lanarkshire Council tasked to look at this have been stonewalling the community all year.

Why not? None of its members are elected, half are corporations, and most of the corporations are monopoly providers so it’s not even like we can boycott them.

But Biggar did not stand down but stood up. We had a public meeting which was well attended and determined (not to say angry at times). We set up a Save Biggar Bonfire Committee even though we had less than two weeks until the final decision, so we had a limited range of things we could do.

We held a vigil which ended up being in the middle of Storm Barra, and yet hundreds of people turned up anyway, twinkling lights held aloft (it would have been a candlelight vigil if there was any chance of a candle surviving the gales…).

This was a perfect story of a community coming together in the face of corporate arrogance and public sector fear

We commissioned a technical assessment of risk in which two independent experts dismissed the risk altogether (heat doesn’t travel downwards through solid ground very far or very fast and it takes a phenomenal amount of heat to ignite natural gas in a oxygen-free environment).

And we ran an email-writing campaign in which people in Bigger shared their own thoughts and memories of being beside the fire with the members of South Lanarkshire Council’s Licensing Committee. I was copied in to them; there were loads of them and they were very moving.

The meeting happened yesterday, and with a little bit of a compromise for one year (the first is going to be smaller this year until the gas pipe is moved) we won. In fact we didn’t actually have to do much to convinced the elected councillors because they were clearly all on our side. Because they represent communities, not bureaucracy and not corporate interests. And they understand what makes a community.

Meanwhile in a incident apparently scripted by Mr Bean, Scottish Gas Networks turned up in town yesterday and started digging. This is almost certainly because they didn’t actually go to the bother we did to commission any technical report to explain exactly what it was they were claiming wasn’t safe. Apparently we were meant to take their word for it.

But while one wonders why it took them six months of stonewalling to turn up and do the basic investigation, what made this whole event so damned funny was that after a day of digging (drum roll) – they couldn’t find a pipe anyway (I can’t confirm this but multiple sources in town said none of the holes dug revealed any pipework).

The fact that the corporate world doesn’t seem to keep records for, oh, 30 years (we have more knowledge of the bonfire from 1836 than we do from the installation of a gas main in 1993) but is happy to try and close down a community’s traditions anyway is not irrelevant here – it’s the arrogance of power and privilege.

It’s just so encouraging to remember that democracy is still there somewhere and that a community can win out against the arrogance of power. It feels, oh, good to know that we are not solely the playthings of corporations and bureaucrats.

What kind of a democratic process puts a community through this for no good reason?

But why did we go through this? Why was the community seemingly treated contemptuously for months of negotiation and only at the last minute when we went public did these turn into the kind of problem-solving negotiations they should always have been? What kind of a democratic process puts a community through this for no good reason? Why do we need to produce a scientific report to prove a threat when the corporation objecting has not produced any science to demonstrate risk exists?

It is all down to the privatisation of the fabric of the western nation state and the constant roll-back of democracy that has accompanied it. This should have been dealt with in a town council which represented not the region in which we live but the town in which we live. That would have taken this seriously back in the late summer when the roadblock was being reached.

What of towns that don’t have our capacity to put up this fight? We happened to have a ‘handy’ senior oil and gas engineer and someone who works for a think tank in our midst, along with experienced campaigners and a graphic designer, all of whom could make time for this at short notice. What happens to a community without our resources?

For now, never mind; wins are hard to come by just now and this one is to be celebrated. Democracy can work, communities can win, tradition can survive. That is something warm to heat yourself by. Well, until it gets cancelled because of Covid in the next hour or two when the new restrictions come out…

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