In case you didn’t know, I live in the London Borough of Barnet, a council which has recently embraced their statutory responsibility to consult. I say recently, because of course, at the judicial review of Barnet’s decision to outsource most of its functions to Capita, the Court agreed that there had been no consultation whatsoever, let alone meaningful consultation.
In Barnet we have a consultation website http://engage.barnet.gov.uk/ and a twitter account which used to let you know when consultations had just closed, but now also tweets the open ones.
We have consultation, but is it meaningful? I have taken part in a lot of these consultations, and frankly I am underwhelmed. So, here is what I think.
There is a problem here. Online consultations are cheap and accessible for people who are online, but not everyone is. Nearly 3/4 of women over 75 have never been online, so if that is a group which will be affected by the consultation, then you will not reach them. If you aren’t reaching them, if you are not even trying to reach them, then that is not meaningful consultation.
The online forms lead you through the questions, but time out if you take too long think about your response, or typing it if you are not a good typist. Sometimes the boxes have word limits, which are not advertised in advance. And you cannot keep a copy of the online form easily for future reference. Personally, I prefer to read through all the questions first, so I understand where the document is going, and what each question is getting at and I like to have a copy of my consultation response, particularly if it is made on behalf of an organisation rather than me personally.
This might suit the Council, or Capita, but that isn’t really the point of consultation, is it? If what you really want is to listen to people’s views, then you make it easy for them, and put their needs first.
To be fair to Barnet, they have got slightly better. They have, for example, removed the edict that no policy issues can be discussed at Residents Forums, but they have never used those forums for consultation. They have run a few consultations at North London Business Park, inviting people in, but what they have not done is brought consultation out to the people they want to listen to.
I do not understand how you can possibly consult on a draft policy without actually providing a copy of that policy to look at alongside it. As happens here
To be fair, there is an email address, and when I used it I received a copy of the draft policy document and a copy of the questions for the online survey very swiftly. Just a shame that no-one thought to add those to the website at the same time.
This, I completely accept, is a difficult thing to get right. But I am absolutely sick of the fig leaf of consultation which allows leading questions or a complete lack of options. Back in 2012 Barnet consulted on the future of services for older people. On the positive side, it was recognised that this needed to be in paper format, given the audience, and the Council offered to come and speak to older people in day centres to explain what the consultation was about. On the other hand, the consultation paper was so long (26 pages) that no-one wanted to fill it in. Age UK Barnet rewrote it, condensing it down, and simplifying the wording. The results were very interesting. More people responded to the Age UK Barnet consultation than the whole of the rest of the borough. Not only that, but by simplifying the wording we found that the results were the absolute opposite of the results that Barnet obtained. When people understood what they were being asked and were not given leading questions, they answered differently. Very differently.
So, here is what I think. Asking leading questions because you have already decided what you want to do, and want cover to do that, is just plain wrong. People will, quite rightly, feel tricked. If your proposed policy is so great, stand behind it, make your case and let people decide. Even if it is controversial. Anything less is an abuse of trust. Trust your policy and trust people to be honest about it. People are more likely to accept difficult decisions if they understand them and have been given the chance to have their say.
And whilst you are making the case, lay out the options for people. There are always alternatives.
The consultation I linked to earlier, on defining social interests/ well-being for Assets of Community Value is a case in point. The consultation says that 8 nominations have been received and 6 approved because they have used the statutory framework. They want a local policy that meets local needs. They have decided they already have that policy – the Core Strategy planning policy. It would be easier and simpler to use that. They don’t explain what an Asset of Community Value is, so I will. It is a building or an open space which is of value to the people of the locality, for social reasons or because it improves health and well-being. You can apply to have anything listed; Friern Barnet Library is one example on the register. The Bohemia pub, as was, is another. Community centres, day centres, sports grounds, green spaces, pubs which act as local hubs, post offices, shops which sell fresh food and vegetables could all be registered at the moment.
If the asset is registered it cannot be sold without first giving the community 6 months within which to raise the money to buy it. They may be able to purchase it at a discount. Being on the register is also a material consideration in any planning decision (for example building on open space or change of use of a high street property). It won’t necessarily be the deciding factor, but it is something which has to be taken into account.
Which makes the proposed policy a nonsense. Planning law is all about balancing the rights and tensions between what a landowner wants and what his or her neighbours want. You want space for voices to be heard, and the whole point of this register, created by the Localism Act 2011, is to make a space for local people to explain why a particular place is important. If the policy by which a Community Asset is assessed is the Core Strategy, then not only does it not add any advantage in getting it registered, it actually weakens the case when a planning application is made if the property has not been registered. The Core Strategy is about a broad brush approach; the register is about individual plots, buildings and businesses. Their purpose and focus is completely different.
The draft policy also makes no attempt to quantify or assess the degree of social value. A greengrocers might not be on the register if it is one of many; if it is the only shop which sells fresh food in an area where there are lots of older people who do not drive, it might be vital. A church hall which is only used for Sunday school once a week and occasional wedding receptions might have limited social value, but if it is used for lunch clubs, exercise classes, AA meetings, mother and toddler groups and charity quiz nights, that is a different story.
So, if I was drafting this policy I would look at: distance from nearest alternative; accessibility/ appropriateness of nearest alternative; number of people who use it; vulnerability of people who use it; importance to surrounding businesses/ high street; and contribution to health and well-being strategy.
The consultation does not explain any of this. It does not provide options. It drives you, inexorably, to one forgone conclusion. The wrong one. Do me a favour and tell them that.
Listen to the answers
There are obvious ways of not listening. I took part in the consultation on fitness activities in parks. I had things to say. It closed on 4 Dec and the results were expected on 11 Dec and feedback on 18 Dec. It is now 22 Feb and there is no sign of the results.
I recently sat in a focus group on adult social care. The facilitator did a good job of allowing everyone to have their say, which they did. Some more than others, but all broadly expressing the same concerns and experiences. At the end the facilitator summed up with three different versions of “So you agree with the policy broadly, but…” all interrupted by members of the group. Although I had not commented on this point in the policy either way, it was really clear what everyone else was saying. Any summing up which began with you agree with the policy was not an accurate reflection of the consultation feedback. So I said that. There was silence and then the point was taken. If this was the conclusion drawn from a group who were sitting there, able to challenge it in the moment, then what on Earth are the conclusions drawn from raw data which no-one sees.
And then there are the consultations where the public get the “wrong” answer.
In 2011 Barnet came up with the wonderful money-spinning wheeze of hiring out our public parks for private events. Blogger Mrs Angry covered this extensively
There was an outcry and the policy was withdrawn, but it appears that it has quietly sneaked back, buried deep in this consultation on charges:
And if you fancy responding to that, do me a favour and kick into touch the proposed £21 charge for people who cannot use online or automated telephone payment options – you know, the old, the hearing impaired, those with learning disabilities and early dementia, the vulnerable people who need a little time and patience. We can give them that, can’t we?
Thank you. Rant over.