Make responding to Cambridgeshire’s consultations easier through standardising & co-ordination (Part 3 of 3)

At the third time of trying…

The guidance from the Local Government Association applies. It answers:

  • What is consultation?
  • Why Consult?
  • Is consultation always necessary?
  • How long should consultation take?
  • Whom to consult?
  • Ways to consult
  • Communicate the results
  • Evaluate the results

These look similar to the seven consultation criteria from Cabinet Office published back in 2008 below:

  • When to consult: Formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to influence the policy outcome.
  • Duration of consultation exercises: Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible.
  • Clarity of scope and impact: Consultation documents should be clear about the consultation process, what is being proposed, the scope to influence and the expected costs and benefits of the proposals.
  • Accessibility of consultation exercises: Consultation exercises should be designed to be accessible to, and clearly targeted at, those people the exercise is intended to reach.
  • The burden of consultation: Keeping the burden of consultation to a minimum is essential if consultations are to be effective and if consultees’ buy-in to the process is to be obtained.
  • Responsiveness of consultation exercises: Consultation responses should be analysed carefully and clear feedback should be provided to participants following the consultation.
  • Capacity to consult: Officials running consultations should seek guidance in how to run an effective consultation exercise and share what they have learned from the experience.

See also the shorter document but longer list of criteria from Cabinet Office from 2018 here

On their own, if institutions can manage the expectations of what is and what is not within scope, they should not have too many problems. That’s assuming the politicians have got the politics right. There’s no point trying to consult on the detail of say a controversial busway if the public are against the principle of busways. At the same time, there’s no point consulting on a tramway if central government has not authorised the spending, and Parliament has not authorised the creation of legal powers to provide the legal authority to proceed. This was a major criticism of the abandoned CAM Metro.

Cambridgeshire’s issues with consultations stem from an over-complicated governance structure of public services

Many of you will be familiar with this diagram from the now retired Smarter Cambridge Transport.

Any hope of simplifying, consolidating, and condensing the above diagram (that does not include town and parish councils, or other public service providers) has been vanquished by Michael Gove, the Cabinet Minister responsible for local government.

Government refuses to establish a Royal Commission to overhaul the governance of England

This was in response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (made up of both Labour and Conservative MPs, the latter in the majority) concluding that the governance structures for local and regional government were a mess and needed an overhaul. See their report here of 31 Oct 2022. Furthermore, the Secretary of State refused to appear before the Public Administration Select Committee in good time despite repeated request from its chairman, the Conservative MP William Wragg.

Above – a furious sign-off [in Whitehall speak] from the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

Consolidate, co-ordinate, simplify – overcoming Cambridgeshire’s consultation problems

At present it seems like there is little co-ordinated forward planning between Cambridge’s public service providers on policies and projects that will require public consultations. As a result it feels both haphazard and overwhelming when news appears out of the blue, or when multiple organisations issue big consultation documents at the same time. For example, take these three:

The problem is that none of these documents seem to be co-ordinated with each other, let alone the institutions.

The future of transport and housing are two of the most important and most political of subjects in any community or settlement. What ever is built will affect the lives and behaviours of people for generations to come. Think of the railway stations we have today, and how long ago they were first constructed. To what extent have the routes changed in recent decades?

On public service provision, health and education are inevitably at the top. However you choose to provide those services, whether 100% privatised to 100% nationalised, the decision will always be a political one.

On our response to the climate emergency, we’ve lived through a number of hot summers and droughts in recent years. Whether you have a nationalised or privatised water industry, the decision on ownership and regulation are inevitably political ones. We cannot take the politics out of it.

Politics should not be a bad word – it’s the process by which societies decide how to meet multiple needs and demands using limited resources, without resorting to violence. (Some people do resort to random acts of minor dissent – such as Mark Thomas describes in his book)

Above left – Politics for beginners. Above Right – Mark Thomas’s mischief-making guide!

“Why have past consultations in/around Cambridge failed?”

That depends on your success criteria. For those charged with delivering a transport system or a new property development, the fewer awkward responses you get, the better. It means a faster process from start to finish with no one getting in the way. On the other hand, if the finished result is one that leaves lots of people unhappy, I believe there is a very strong public interest in reviewing the processes that led to it.

Messrs Jones and Hall wrote a book about the multiple town planning failures in their critically acclaimed book Hideous Cambridge (Thirteen Eighty One – 2013) …only for developers to go and build a whole host of more ugly buildings leading to demands (from me at least!) for a second edition! One review of the particularly ugly building, The Marque, at the top of Hills Road, Cambridge – which came second in the Carbuncle Cup Awards for 2014 found a host of mistakes, errors, and shortcomings resulting in the monstrosity which the Cambridge Station designers seemed to take inspiration from.

Above. Ugly.

Reasons for the failures – 1: Consultation responses count for very little in the planning system.

Time and time again – even in the face of huge campaigns such as the one to save the Flying Pig Pub on Hills Road, which gained 15,000 signatures, was ultimately bludgeoned through by the developer to a national planning inspector who overturned the City Council’s refusal resulting in the developer being able to bank the planning uplift and sell the site to a pension fund. When things like that happen, why bother? This explains why I left an invitee-only consultation event early on proposals for the scandalously-managed old Hobson Street Cinema when it became clear to me that the architects and developers wanted to demolish the cinema and replace it with bland offices instead of creating a sizeable community space.

Reasons for the failures – 2: Past experiences of consultations where input counts for little means the public becomes cynical about future consultations.

The public has to see the results of their input if they are to have confidence in the outcomes. That means communicating how their input had an impact. If that does not happen, or if the consultation is treated simply a tick-box process, the short term ‘efficiency gain’ eventually comes at the very long term cost of a disengaged community that wants nothing to do with politics or local democracy. And that’s when things can get very dangerous.

Reasons for the failures – 3: Lack of public awareness

We are now in a very different age to the one I grew up in during the late 20th Century. Instead of a handful of TV and radio stations alongside widely-read local and national newspapers (The Cambridge Evening News printing multiple editions, selling over 40,000 copies daily even in the year 2000), everything is much more fragmented. Therefore newspaper articles no longer suffice. This reflects a wider problem faced by many cities: how do its people and institutions communicate with each other – and work with each other to solve shared problems?

There are more reasons for failures, but those are three that stand out.

Indirect reasons that contribute towards those failures

For me these include:

  • Low political literacy
  • A weak and fragmented (or even non-existent) civic culture / low trust
  • The problem of mis/disinformation

Low political literacy – especially for generations that were not taught citizenship in school (i.e. my one (Secondary schools in 1980s and 1990s)

In August 2022 I wrote about the importance of civic education as part of our culture of lifelong learning. Or rather what we lost.

Above – by Arthur Greenwood in 1920 : The Education of the Citizen. Greenwood would become deputy leader of the Labour Party and a future Cabinet Minister.

Note that when Greenwood was writing, we did not have universal suffrage – that only came in 1928. Furthermore, there was not the universal secondary education that we take for granted. The easily-forgotten social history of Britain tells us just how rich a culture we used to have (Have a browse of this book from NIACE 1996, and also Thomas Kelly’s history up to 1962 – the chapter headings speak volumes).

Weak, non-existent, or fragmented civic cultures

In one sense this is about a history of urban decline and decay. It’s also a symptom of the gross failure of national government policies when you see the results of that decline. The massive inequalities are also a symptom of it too. Cambridge is the most unequal city in the country. What are we going to do about it?

For many of us, we feel there’s very little we can do about it because the economic forces lined up against us are simply too great to stop. Ask any campaign group that tried to save a community facility or space from being turned into something that benefited someone else financially without providing anything more than the bare minimum the law and planning guidance would let them get away with. It’s not just affluent places like Cambridge. The concept of the [Supermarket] town where a disproportionate amount of spending takes place in a single large store means that the institution can have a disproportionate influence on what can and cannot happen in a geographical area – especially if a poorly-supported town council is the only institution trying to hold its managers accountable.

Even with strong neighbourhood forums with a critical mass of affluent / educated / networked people, they/we are no match for the full time professionals that developers backed by fund managers responsible for £billions in assets can bring to bear. Cambridge’s new housing estates are even more at risk – as I heard one resident a few days ago tell councillors:

Have a listen to Paul Colbert of Trumpington Meadows Delivery and Action Group

“We were tasked with getting better performance from suppliers, including Barratts [the house building giant] over poor build quality.”

Paul Colbert to South Area Committee of Cambridge City Council, 06 March 2023

What hope do new residents have in building a thriving new community and embedding a strong sense of civic pride and a shared neighbourhood culture if the support available from austerity-hit local councils is so low?

The problem of mis/disinformation

Almost inevitable in this present social media age of ours – aided and abetted by the present generation of politicians in ministerial office. The Office for National Statistics has some interesting findings about trust in society. It’s also worth noting that there was no golden age of noble and trustworthy politicians. What’s particularly noteworthy of our present age is that the conventions that political institutions, institutions of the state, and civic society institutions assumed would protect the country and society from the worst abuses turned out to be very weak indeed.

At a local level, we have seen various comments about current and future proposed projects resulting in some of the strangest of conspiracies being taken very seriously by some people – just as the repeated reassurances by the state-funded institutions get dismissed out-of-hand. For example the repeated statements by Peter Blake that any road user charging will not come in until Greater Cambridge has seen a substantial improvement in bus services. Does that mean the GCP is in the right and the people dismissing the reassurances are wrong? Not necessarily. This is where contemporary history and the collective memories of communities really matters – especially in a part of the country with a high population turnover. (Amongst other things, this is to the nature of high-skilled University-linked employment where non-renewed fixed term contracts mean the only new work available for researchers in their specialist fields might be on another continent).

The exclusion of foreign nationals from our democratic processes

If you don’t have a vote, there’s no incentive for politicians to make the effort. The institutions automatically exclude you even though you pay your taxes and share the same community services as everyone else. In Scotland they brought in residence-based voting. England has not. You will have to ask your MP why this is, and what they are going to do about a group of tax payers and fellow residents being banned by law from taking part in a major part of our democratic system.

So….after all that, what’s the solution?

In the short-medium term:

  1. Bring together communications representatives from as many local public service providers together as possible, and create an annual calendar of future consultation dates so as to avoid major clashes
  2. Create a single system for multiple organisations – one that does not require people to have to fill out the same basic information every time. With proper data protection systems in place, it should be possible for consulting institutions to extract the anonymised information that can provide information on age ranges, parts of towns, income brackets and so on, enabling the public to focus on the consultation questions
  3. Create a consistent template for multiple organisations so that the process of filling out consultation forms becomes familiar to the users.

Those are the practical actions the institutions can take. Everything else will require a huge amount of work over an extended period of time ranging from hard graft at a local level to a change in the law at a national level. But then no one said building great towns, great cities, and great counties was going to be easy.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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