‘Consultation’ has become a buzz word – the government consults about the third runway, the post office consults about post office closures, the health service consults about ‘super surgeries’ or ‘polyclinics’, the local authority consults about graffiti, climate change, care charges for elders, planning including the Wembley Masterplan and the Wembley Academy.
Too often, consultation seems to offer us a way of affecting decisions but leaves us feeling disgruntled and rather cheated. What starts as an extension and deepening of democracy leaves us cynical about decision makers and politicians. Despite a fight post offices closed, despite a fight Heathrow expansion is going ahead.
“It doesn’t make a difference. They’ve already decided anyway.”
For Brent Council I suggest the questions should be:
1. What do we consult about? When do we decide a consultation is necessary? How do we justify not consulting on some issues? It sometimes seems that the most controversial issues are not directly consulted about. We had no consultation about whether the people of Brent were in favour of City Academies as a form of semi-private provision (publicly funded but private controlled), little about where it should be – but were asked about its name and catchment area. We weren’t asked if we wanted a Civic Centre and the subsequent loss of the Town Hall, but were asked (rather glossily and expensively) about graffiti. A new contract has been awarded for play-services but the clubs and clients were not consulted during the bidding process. The new provider, ‘Kids’ has an odd trio of patrons (David Cameron, Cherie Blair and Elton John) and its inadequacies have been exposed by Private Eye – Kensington and Chelsea have already thrown it out.
2. How do we consult? It is not just a question of Area Forums, questionnaires in Brent Magazine, meetings with the Youth Parliament, on line forms, focus groups etc but what information is made available, how and when. There are major questions of accessibility. Having to down-load tens of multi-paged documents is not an option for all, working out from cryptic list of documents on the planning site which are relevant is a full-time job, trying to get hold of documents at libraries and one stop shops can be a marathon under-taking. Timing is crucial major increases in care charges were consulted about over the Christmas holidays when day centres and voluntary organisations were closed. The most telling recent case has been the Wembley Masterplan when local residents and businesses (small and large) were forced to form the Wembley Community Association because they were so enraged by the Council’s failure to reach the people most affected. They managed to force an extension of the consultation process so that they could put their case against the opening up of North End Road and for a more realistic project to be completed sooner. An approach reinforced by Quintian’s comment that the Masterplan was ‘unrealistic, undeliverable and unaffordable and the Govt Office for London demanding more convincing evidence of ‘realism and deliverability’.
3. How good is the quality of information we use for consultation? This includes the quality of questionnaires and whether they enable credible, useful information to be gained (e.g. school places question on school size gave no opportunity to state a preferred size – only to agree/disagree with Council policy); the quality of the often expensive reports carried out by consultants; whether reports actually do the job they are supposed to (the traffic survey for Wembley Academy assume Wembley Primary and Preston Manor pattern of trips to school when children will be travelling from South Brent, flood report says no evidence of local watercourses from street names when Brook Avenue and Kenbrook are nearby - duh!)
4. How fair are our consultation procedures? This relates to accessibility of information as above but also who is consulted and to what lengths we go to reach everyone. The Climate Change Strategy, Wembley Masterplan consultation, and the Care Charges consultation have all had to be extended to give people more time to respond – and it is to Brent Council’s credit that it has bowed to public clamour and done that. But there have also been complaints about the geographical limits of consultation and the need to write to more people and involve the ‘hard to reach’. A colleague has also raised the question of payment for attendance at Focus Group meetings, whether such payments are just known to those ‘in the know’, and how such payments stand ethically. How do you get on a focus group and how are they constructed to give a fair representation?
Perhaps more important is the question:
Does consultation raise unrealistic expectations about changing or reversing decisions? If consultation is really only about small, often cosmetic changes, perhaps it is best to say that at the outset rather than mislead people into thinking they can make any substantial impact on a decision and alienate them by seeming to ignore their well-thought out arguments. After all the ultimate consultation is at election time but if people are fed up with consultations, and thus also with politicians by then, they probably won’t vote.
What we (the people) should be demanding:
Don’t be humbly grateful to be granted a small say – instead:
Demand Council learn from recent problems:
· Widen consultation
· Ensure accessible and high quality documentation
· Ensure procedures are fair with adequate time lines
To strengthen democracy and accountability