David Sutton, planning expert and activist

Born: November 26, 1952;

Died: May 26, 2020.

DAVE Sutton, who has died aged 67 after a short illness, was a man of principle who believed in social equality and fighting injustice, particularly where the rights of individuals or the community were under threat. Ever generous with his time, he would take up any cause where people were in trouble or struggling to have their voices heard.

In Scotland he was Strategic Planning Manager with North Lanarkshire Council and he later headed Glasgow Building Preservation Trust. He was also a frequent contributor to The Herald’s letters pages.

Belfast-born David Sutton qualified as an architect in Sheffield and obtained an MA in Regeneration Studies. Working initially in south-west England, he was a local authority Design and Heritage Officer, ran housing and building cooperatives, and was a board member of Bristol Civic Society.

His support for the marginalised in society was most evident in his work with Bristol’s black community following the St Paul’s uprising in April 1980. As a ward councillor, his passionate advocacy helped the St Paul’s Community Association to campaign for funding to remedy serious defects in the construction of the Malcolm X Community Centre. Equally important was his mentoring of young black leaders, many of whom have spoken movingly of his influence on their lives.

Bristol’s Deputy Mayor, Asha Craig, says: “Dave’s passing is mourned by many people in Bristol, especially the Afro-Caribbean community, for the loss of a great man, a brother and a friend. Remembering Dave now is even more poignant, with the recent fall of Edward Colston’s statue, as it demonstrated our wish not to honour selfish, unsympathetic individuals, but to celebrate genuine charitable, wise philanthropists like Dave Sutton.”

As an epitaph for Dave, councillor Craig recalled the words of the 13th century Persian poet, Saadi Shirazi: “If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name human you cannot retain”.

Dave’s commitment to public service in many fields continued when he moved to Scotland in 2007. As Strategic Planning Manager in North Lanarkshire he worked on design and heritage issues, town centre regeneration, and the Local Plan.

Retirement in 2013 saw no slowing down in his contribution to his field. He was Director and then Secretary of Glasgow Building Preservation Trust, a member of the Scottish Branch of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, and a board member of Friends of Douglas Park, which was set up in Cambuslang to prevent local greenspace from being sold to developers by the local authority. He continued his political activism as a member of the Labour Party and a former Chair of the South Gloucestershire Branch of UNISON.

For those of us who knew him during his time in Scotland, Dave was particularly passionate about planning democracy. He believed that many planning processes and decisions were not fair, transparent or locally accountable. Indeed, he felt strongly that the past decade has seen the balance of influence in Scottish planning tilt away from citizens and communities to serve the interests of developers and government authorities.

His principled stance on the developer-orientation of planning led him to freeze his Royal Town Planning Institute membership in protest at its unwillingness to support Equal Rights of Appeal for those affected by development to have the same rights as those who proposed development.

Scottish Parliament TV footage even shows him holding up a placard saying ‘Scottish Planning RIP’ during an evidence-gathering session of the Local Government and Communities Committee on the Planning Bill in 2018.

As a member of Cambuslang Community Council, Dave was robust in challenging what he saw as poor practice in local authority planning processes. He provided extensive advice and practical support to Cambuslang and Halfway residents on contentious planning issues. He spent many hours poring through council documents, lobbying for access to information which he felt belonged in the public domain, submitting FOI requests and challenging planning decisions.

He was also an advisor to Planning Democracy, a charity set up to campaign for a fair and inclusive planning system in Scotland. He mentored groups and individuals, helping them to navigate their way through the Scottish planning system. He advised campaigners to be scrupulous in checking planning documents, saying that in all his years as a planner, he never came across one that did not have a mistake in it, and that sometimes such mistakes could be deliberate.

Over a decade, his letters to the Herald highlighted deficiencies in the regulation of house-building, road maintenance, unadopted streets, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, the Fatal Accident Inquiry system, and environmental impact assessments. In each case, his letters illustrated his detailed command of the subject, knowledge of relevant legislation, and references to data or personal experience.

Albert Einstein once said that “only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile”. Throughout his life, Dave always lived for others, and many have benefited from his truly worthwhile life. He is survived by his wife Nancy, daughter Jessica, sister Valerie and brother Kenneth.

John Bachtler (Cambuslang Community Council) and Clare Symonds (Planning Democracy)