“We value your views”, “We’d like to know what you think”, “Have your say.” Consultation is thriving - since 2012 Kent County Council has hosted over 300 consultations on its website. No public policy change is complete without a consultation but what does it all mean?
Are local authorities genuinely seeking input or are they looking for support for something they’ve already decided to do? Will they “note” views and carry on as planned? Will they publish responses to consultations in full and set out the “weight” of different opinions or will they summarise and cherry-pick?
Of course, you can’t please all the people all the time but if you ask for their views then you must demonstrate that you are listening and responding - even if it’s to explain why a different approach has been taken.
The process varies across the country but best practice is to use a dedicated online portal, where everyone can see what others have said, including those with particular vested interests such as land owners and developers. Yes there are resource and data protection issues but these are not as onerous as we are led to believe and this is public information. It shouldn’t be necessary to lodge a Freedom of Information request to find out who is influencing public policy and decision making.
The alternative is that people lose what residual faith they have in national, regional and local government and particularly in the planning system. We’ve probably all sat in public meetings where someone calls out: “It doesn’t matter what we say, they’ve made up their minds.” There will be protestations from the platform that “nothing has been decided” but the accusation sticks because people have been let down … and they remember.
When promises that mineral workings will be returned to green fields are broken; when the new housing development that was only ever going to be 200 houses expands to 500; when the “protected” wildlife habitat turns out not to be safe; when the promised “affordable” housing, road or school fails to materialise, it’s no wonder we become cynical … or just realistic.
The suspicion is that money talks and the views of “ordinary” people are frequently discounted. This is why at the first sign of a threat to their home or neighbourhood, such as the sand quarry at Ryarsh identified in KCC’s Minerals Plan, people go into campaigning mode. The problems are exacerbated when one party dominates a council, everything is agreed outside of formal meetings and then nodded through “advisory boards” and “cabinets” where the proceedings are mostly unintelligible to the public gallery.
Next time you respond to a consultation, please take the time to check how and when the responses will be published. Proper consultation is a good thing and can change policy but it needs to be complete, accessible and transparent.
Richard Byatt, treasurer and media lead, Tonbridge & Malling Green Party
This column first appeared in the Times of Tonbridge 27th June 2018