Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Consultation Under Fire

Way back in Winter 2008 I wrote in Brent Green News about concerns about consultation in Brent. As complaints multiply about recent consultations it is worth returning to the topic.

Brent Council's website states:
Consultations give you the opportunity to get involved with decision-making in Brent.

We consult with the public on proposals and plans and take responses into account when deciding our policies for the borough
Many residents now think that consultations do not enable them to get involved in decision making - decisions have often been made before the consultation ends. Some major decisions are not consulted about at all. Residents often also feel that their responses are not taken into account.

Some residents thought that if  there was enough opposition to a Council proposal then it might be abandoned. Cllr Ruth Moher.  in the case of the adult day centres when users were overwhelmingly opposed to closure, clearly stated that this was not the case.

The question then arises about what the point of consultation is. A cynic may respond that it is to enable a box to be ticked in documentation - and no more than that. Let's look at some variations in consultation.

1. NO CONSULTATION - The Council does not consult at all but just goes ahead, often on the most important issues.  This includes not consulting on the principle of academy schools in the case of the Wembley Ark Academy. Consultation was about the plans and the name, not whether we should have academy schools. Similarly the Council did not ask whether Brent residents wanted a grandiose Civic Centre, but we could comment on the design. Currently the Council is going ahead with an all through school at Preston Manor without consultation on whether this type of school is wanted, again consultation has been limited to planning issues.
2. DECISIONS MADE BEFORE CONSULTATION ENDS - This appears to be the case with the closure of Brent libraries. The Council budget setting meeting, and Cllr Ann John herself, assumed the closures would go ahead despite consultation still having some days to run and no report available on the outcomes.
3. CONSULTATION NOT TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT BECAUSE OF THE NEED FOR SPEEDY DECISIONS - This is a new development and linked to financial deadlines such as the front-loading of cuts this year and the need to spend school places safety valve money before August 2011. In cases such as the Charteris Sports Centre and the libraries insufficient time is given to the search for alternatives solutions and the closures go ahead anyway. With school places there is not sufficient time to change the location of Preston Manor Primary School to reduce its impact on traffic congestion 'because the plans are already in place' and no time to discuss incorporating the Mission Dining Club into the new building at Newfield Primary School.The Council applied for planning permission for the Preston Manor Primary School before the Executive had considered submissions on the statutory consultation and approved it. 
4. HALF-COCK CONSULTATION/PARTICIPATION - The residents raising issues with the planning committee on Preston Manor had two site visits with the planning committee on which keys to the site were not available. On the last occasion some councillors wandered away while residents were trying to talk to them and one clambered back onto the bus.  A further problem has been the illegibility of poorly scanned documentation on the Council website. The library campaigns have taken up the inaccuracy of library visit statistics that formed a key part of the Council's case for closures and the figures on children without school places in the vicinity of Preston Manor have been challenged.
5. RESPONDENTS QUESTIONS/COMMENTS NOT ANSWERED - Again in the Preston Manor case some questions remained completely unanswered in the Council's response undermining the legitimacy of the decision.
6. PROPOSALS/QUESTIONNAIRES DISGUISING THE REAL ISSUES - The most obvious one here is the Library 'Transformation' Programme which some library users through was about redecoration and not closures! The Brent Magazine questionnaire on the Waste Strategy was less than clear that it involved a switch to fortnightly residual waste collection.
7. INFORMATION GIVING MASQUERADING AS CONSULTATION - The recent allotment 'consultation' on the rise in  rents was held after the Council approved the rise and when it had been announced before Christmas. Allotment holders were really just told why rents had risen in the context of the Council's financial difficulties and not asked whether they should have been put up or whether there were any alternative proposals.
8. RESIDENTS NOT INFORMED OF CONSULTATION - A regular issue, particularly with planning applications. It arose over Preston Manor when many residents living nearby the school were not told about expansion proposals. After initially saying that what they had done was adequate the Council did send out additional letters. Under the last administration similar complaints were made about the Wembley Masterplan.

All this really riles residents and contributes to a distrust of politicians. More importantly, it discourages active citizenship and participation at a time when local government needs all the friends it can get.


Martin Francis said...

I have received the following e-mail and replied that of course I allow comments as long as they do not personally abuse anyone or slander them!

I really enjoy reading your blog. Your articles tend to be more thorough and informative than other sources.

One question - why don't you allow comments? Even James Powney isn't that restrictive....

Anonymous said...

Martin has published my comments several times - on dodgy consultation process and other things Brent Council over the last 10 months.

James Powney only publishes comments he wants people to see - this happened with some I sent to his blog on the Fortnightly Bin Collection Consultation - they never saw the light of day.

I am never rude or slander anyone - just truthful!