Roger Tomlinson asks: ‘When is a consultation really a consultation?’
Government in the UK – local, regional, national – can be ambivalent about ‘consultation’. On the one hand it wants consultation to help engage communities in the issues facing them, on the other it doesn’t want adverse views and criticisms to get in the way of moving projects forward as quickly as possible. And there is a special fear of NIMBYism (Not in my back yard) stopping progress.
Something like the advisory referendum on the EU becomes apparently a definitive decision to Brexit, but consultations of the public on planning and transport are definitely “advisory”. Indeed, the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) is anxious to emphasise that the various consultations it is running across Cambridge are neither referenda nor binding expressions of public views.
You would think councillors would use expressions of public views to inform their decisions, but the three councillors taking the “Executive” decisions for the GCP Board publicly stated the contrary in 2016. Does that mean that something like their “Big Conversation” across Cambridge is just a cosmetic “public relations” exercise? The short answer is of course Yes and No. Yes, because unfortunately GCP will have chosen some schemes they want to push through regardless of public views. And No, since one of the ambitions of the GCP is to help people understand the dilemmas in growing Cambridge and to help them be more informed about proposals. That is difficult to reconcile in practice while pushing fixed ideas.
‘Phase One: the assault on the Green Belt and the West Fields’
You can watch this coming apart in slow motion on the Cambourne to Cambridge Better Bus Journeys consultation, now running until 29 January 2018, which ought to be entitled ‘Phase One: the assault on the Green Belt and the West Fields’. This story actually started in 2014, when, without consulting the public, various options for a guided busway route from Cambourne to Cambridge were considered, and officers made a selection, in the process eliminating some which the public later thought would be better routes. Note from the start the emphasis on buses, excluding other transport options such as light rail or trams. Then in October 2015 there was the first public consultation on their chosen scheme, complete with misleading information, inaccurate maps and poor descriptions of the options, with a fatally flawed paper and online survey – don’t worry they said, ‘staff have been advised how to interpret the responses of the public’!
Forward to November 2017, for a second, and crucial, round of consultation, but restricted to only the route from Madingley Mulch to Grange Road; there is no explanation of why the whole route is not being considered. In the meantime, the Local Liaison Forum that GCP set up, a key device to engage the public and local communities, has been working with the GCP officers on the details of the options and development of the schemes. That hasn’t gone well, because trust has evaporated with GCP through recurring evidence of misleading information, slanted studies, inaccurate data from both officers and consultants. Consultants Atkins, engaged by GCP repeatedly, even said they were preparing a rebuttal of the public’s views! So you would think this was a key second chance moment to re-establish trust and make sure the consultation was conducted in a way to secure public engagement and achieve integrity of results that would be believed.
The Local Liaison Forum has a technical group with a couple of well-informed Parish Council reps and a District Councillor and they offered to review the GCP documentation to be issued to the public. When they saw the draft, they responded with nearly a dozen pages of corrections and comments. Unfortunately, when the 28 page consultation brochure thumped through letterboxes on 13 November it still had quite a few errors, didn’t present the information in a fair and balanced way, and contained a spectacular typo confusion of the route descriptions, only spotted when over 1,900 had already been delivered. Time to stop the process, quickly re-print and re-issue with a covering letter and some stickers. Unfortunately some people had already responded to the printed and on-line surveys, the latter needing changing too. Time for another ‘don’t worry, staff can recognise the affected responses of the public’!
no longer a consultation, but simply a selling mission
If there is concern about the adequacy of the information in the consultation brochure, then there is a touring exhibition – in a specially commissioned bus or in local venues – with officers on hand to answer questions and supplement the information. ‘Mystery shopping’ these has found some of the wrongly printed brochures are still in circulation, complete with the covering letter! But sadly the bigger challenge is the responses to questions asked of the officers and their consultants present supposedly to help. This is no longer a consultation, but simply a selling mission, pushing the guided busway and criticising all other options, often challenging opinions based on hard facts. Sometimes the statements are plain daft: My favourite is still that a hedge alongside their concrete guided busway will increase bio-diversity (! compared to uninterrupted green fields?). For me, this just beats the answer that the guided busway will make no difference to the Green Belt because Madingley Road already goes through the Green Belt and so is just as bad. And talk about misunderstanding: a question about “how would the busway be allowed to go through the Green Belt’ got the supposedly re-assuring answer that transport infra-structure can ignore the Green Belt and planning rules, so not to worry, it would be built anyway!
Quite why consultants from Mott McDonald and Atkins should be helping advocate for the busway is unclear. No one can answer why this is a “Phase One” which makes no sense without the phases to connect to the City Centre or Addenbrooke’s etc. Weary officers, brow-beaten by the public, admit they are simply being paid to go through this consultation process to get the Park+Ride site fixed and the busway through the Coton Corridor and the West Fields.
Given all the above, you won’t be surprised that local activists are distributing their own information to set the record straight. One example above.
So another communication through the letter box, this time GCP Transport Director Chris Tunstall protesting about one of the leaflets. Just how much are they spending on this? And just how serious are they about getting it right? After more criticisms, on 24th November they responded again, listing no less than NINE more “clarifications.” None of this will help address the fatal flaws in the consultation survey forms. By not asking for postcodes, or email addresses, the forms can be completed multiple times and there is no collection of where respondents live. Questions are poorly structured, so answers are unreliable. It really suggests the process is not taken to need any rigour or geographical analysis.
There is no room here to go through the numerous problems in how the public have been briefed about the options, such as ‘how do you make a fair comparison of routes if you exclude land purchase from the calculations of cost’, or ‘why you don’t explain which Park+Ride sites and Route options are in the Green Belt’. What is certain is that any hope of genuine public engagement is lost. Instead the process seems to generate anger and disagreement, with officers ‘selling’ in the face of people trying to ‘fact-find’. Community and residents groups want to be heard, their views taken into account, and respected.
Apparently GCP officers don’t want to be harassed by the public – this sign was spotted at one consultation – but don’t seem to understand that they are blatantly ignoring public views, and often fact-based challenges. And any hope that the results of the consultation can be treated seriously is also lost. This completely negates all the effort put into this. GCP say the consultation counts for a very small percentage in the evaluation of the schemes.
The consultation effectively counts zero.