Independent Research shows Wandsworth planning consultation method failed

Author: Cyril Richert

A new research on Wandsworth planning consultation concluded that “citizens are not discouraged to further participate by the way the consultation tools works, but rather by the council’s attitude towards their views“.

And it says that Wandsworth is “either not aware of the problems or is not interested in improving the service delivered“. The study found also that Wandsworth Borough Council (WBC)  did not request any feedback from its citizens, “which means that a communication channel does not exist betweens the Council and its residents“.

Last month, Adelina Grigoraş published a study called “Technology as a Tool for Public Participation in the Planning Process: Lessons Learnt From the London Borough of Wandsworth” (download HERE) as part of her degree at the University College London, Faculty of the Built Environment.

The purpose of this research was to examine the way public consultations are undertaken in the context of the current modern society, where information communication technology (ICT) is used in all activity fields,  to assess the extent to which this was achieved in the London Borough of Wandsworth and analysing people’s level of trust in the planning system overall.

The research explains that the most important ingredient for successful consultations is the trust of citizens in the planning system, which can be achieved by demonstrating people that their views matter. The conclusion of the study shows clearly that WBC is failing to achieve that.

Successful consultation is not exposing a fait-accompli

Consulting the community gives two direct advantages, according to the document. It saves money by avoiding building the wrong building at the wrong place, and a widely accepted proposition is unlikely to be challenged. Another argument cited in favour of promoting public participation is valuing local knowledge, much more so than an individual planner could develop.

In a case for early consultation, it says that citizens must be asked to participate in decision-making from early stages, when their insights can make a significant change, not just asking them whether they agree or disagree with certain proposals.

The study found that WBC current strategy is called ‘Decide and Defend’ (DAD). This consists of announcing the location for a development and then building arguments in order to defend the decision (cf Rydin, 2011). Therefore, the public is not left with any option other than oppose the development or agree with it. It says:

“If developers’ strategy would encourage people to engage more in planning issues from the early stages of a planning application instead of using the DAD approach, NIMBY behaviour may be avoided.”

The issues of public consultations in Wandsworth

All individuals agreed  that the information available online is a very useful feature of the consultation.

Having interviewed planning officer, Adelina Grigoraş found that the Council is happy enough with the softwares used on the planning portal because it makes their job easier (save money and time). They blame the lack of use on the fact that people cannot be bothered to remember their passwords. They only recognise that public consultations could be improved by organising social meeting… although the Council did exactly the opposite by cancelling all planning forum meeting since last year.

On the other hand, members of the community gave very similar responses (while not directed in any way by questions) showing that they face the same problems when using the planning portal: lack of formatting possibility, scanning letter impossible to convert into Word documents, lack of notification when changes occur, documents do not have proper descriptions/titles. All issues very easy to fix.

The author said:

the fact that this problem persists for a few years now means that the council is not interested in improving the services they deliver“.

She added:

“Some measures need to be taken so that people are encouraged to further participate in planning decision-making, instead of just providing them the means to do so.

People are mostly annoyed by the council’s attitude towards their views and by the fact that they feel that some decisions are being imposed on them rather being unhappy with way they are consulted. It is not enough just to provide people with the tools to use a certain service, but it is also necessary to promote the service itself. The most efficient way to achieve this is by gaining the local community’s trust through showing them how their views actually make a change, instead of making them feel as a tick-off exercise.”

The formatting issue is a striking example as the study says it shows that

“Either people are right in assuming that their views actually do not matter to the council more than the law stipulates or the council did not consider the formatting issue such an important matter.”

And having noticed that no communication channel has been built between the authority and the citizens, the study says:

“Improving the services delivered will be challenging in the future if the flaws of the process are unknown to the policy-makers”

 A striking conclusion against the Council’s attitude

The conclusion of the research is very hard on Wandsworth Council. It says:

“People often feel that the cost of their participation to public consultations in terms of energy, time and money does not meet the results achieved. In fact, they felt that their views were rather dismissed and ignored and that some of the information provided by the LBW was purposely obfuscated. Part of the objectives of a democratic governance are transparency and openness, which are clearly not achieved when citizens feel ignored and believe that some things are hidden from them.

And the final part of the study concludes:

“Yes, the online service is adequate, but this is not sustainable. A deeper analysis of the public consultations revealed a bigger picture: the tool used for consultations works, the method does not.”

It’s the occasion to look back at what we were officially complaining about in April 2014:

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