Degrees of consultation
Local councils are required by law to undertake a formal period of public consultation before planning decisions are made. That much is straightforward, but from there on it can get complicated with different procedures – amended this way and that by statute – for different types of planning issues. The rules for bog standard planning issues might differ from those affecting listed buildings and conservation areas. And planning authorities have discretion as to how they tell people about planning applications. Chapter and verse can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/consultation-and-pre-decision-matters
The government tells local councils that ‘publishing information online in an open data format can help facilitate engagement with the public on planning applications’, which is what most planning authorities now do.
But is it possible that the consultation bit becomes simply just a part of the whole tedious bureaucratic business of bashing out a proposal, putting it out in the cold light of day, and hoping that by the closing date for responses not too many mischief-makers have spotted that the grand plan has more holes than a lace curtain?
This topic was raised at the March meeting of Bath & NE Somerset Council when – in the bit when members of the public are allowed to have their time-limited say – Bath businessman and former Conservative Party candidate Martin Grixoni told councillors he wanted to talk about something over which he strongly sensed it needed to be held to account.
‘It is,’ he said, ‘by my estimation the poor level of consultation we are experiencing in the city. I was minded to do this after an ever-increasing series of examples and the online clammer was breaking the noise levels.
‘There is too big a proportion of the things being put through [by the Liberal Democrat controlled council] that are not clear in your own manifesto and that appear to be more of a hidden agenda. There is not sufficient or sometimes any consultation, and all too often the time allowed for responses is too short, or the questions are too skewed. I am suggesting that Bath really should have better consultation.’
These were some of the examples he gave:
The North Road bus gate – ‘No meaningful consultation-gate’ might be a more appropriate phrase! Neither the public nor the stakeholders on the hill such as King Edwards School have been consulted correctly.
Entry Hill – ‘Not properly consulted on, and there was a complete failure to model properly on Dispersed Traffic pollution. Specifically, and pretty worryingly, I have been informed that the new residents association excluded non-Liberal Democrats from attending or speaking. Result: A council U-turn.’
High Common Approach Golf course – ‘No consultation at all. In this case it was claimed that a Frisbee course was the same as a golf one! Thousands disagreed, which resulted in a climb down by the council.
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – ‘Questionnaires, done no doubt by expensive London agencies are in my view very poor value for money. There is massively insufficient “internal reliability” and they are therefore psychometrically flawed. There were no questions on political views, household incomes, or education levels. The report itself notes that the level of bias introduced is “unknown” but concludes that this was not a serious issue. It is. This type of questionnaire would be laughed out of town if submitted academically; a well-trained undergraduate student could have done a much better job. Result? It’s all gone a bit quiet
‘There are so many other examples,’ Mr Grixoni concluded, such as the excessive ‘Ring of steel’ anti-terrorist traffic proposal for the city centre. I will leave you with the council’s own Community Engagement Charter, which states what it will do: Discuss a proposal when it is at a formative stage; provide sufficient information to allow intelligent consideration; ensure there is adequate time for a considered response; conscientiously take responses into account; and provide feedback on our comments. Can I request that you follow your own charter and just ‘do better by Bath’?
For ideas on how planning authorities and developers can improve the consultation process, this input from Canada might be helpful …