Public consultation: a necessary evil for the Council?

Author: Cyril Richert

'Excellent! So that's all agreed, then! All we need do now is draft the consultation document.' (cartoonstock.com)Wandsworth Council, like all other public authorities is used to run consultations. Some might consider that consultations are un-necessary: local elections are providing elected Councillors who have the legitimate power to make decisions. But most will argue that the consultation is part of a vibrant democratic process where the local government needs to seek (and not dismiss) the support of the residents to implement preferences. The fact is also that most of the consultations are mandatory as part of the local authority statutory duty.

In the Oxford dictionary, a consultation is the action or process of formally consulting or discussing. But even a statutory consultation has only one obligation: to be organised… and can perfectly be ignored afterwards.

“When not pleased with a consultation result, then dismiss it” seems to advise Wandsworth Council

During Wandsworth full Council on Wednesday 9 December 2015 Cllr Osborn highlighted that “62% of residents said they were opposed to future Formula E races in the park” in response to a consultation organised by the Council on its own website. The Leader of the Council, Cllr Govindia responded with this  remark (1st question of this paper):

“Let’s be quite clear about the maths: 62% of the 1,366 respondents to the Council’s survey expressed this view – not 62% of residents. That equates to 847 people. As a percentage of the Borough’s population of around 310,000, that is 0.27%, somewhat distant from Councillor Osborn’s claim of 62%.”

Following this view might challenge the own purpose of consultation and democracy. Let’s be quite clear about the maths: Mr Govindia was elected as a Councillor last May 2014 by only 2134 voters, which mean “as a percentage of the Borough’s population of around 310,000, that is” 0.69%. Shall we say that the leader of Wandsworth Council is only approved by 0.69% of the Borough’s population?

A similar contempt for a consultation result organised by the Council is shown in the recent proposal for Northcote Library. The presentation of the consultation results was totally biased in the Council’s report. It is worth quoting the figures laid out in the report (Committee report paper 17-286), page 7:

Support for the overall development:
Short form 298 responses: positive 71%, negative 17%, neutral 11%
Long form 496 responses: positive 36%, negative 50%, neutral 14%

and no less than 61% of respondents did not like the Chatham Hall development part of it, 58% against the provision of new flats and 70% opposed to impact on Alphabet Nursery.

The conclusion of this, from the Council prospective is… :

“These results demonstrated that there is support for a new library and community hall; […] The long form results do reveal a lower level of positive support but overall the negative responses do not outweigh the positive and neutral responses.”

Seriously? Most of the stats in the report (page 7-8) for the longer questionnaire come back as negative  (i.e. people did not want a large building development to happen here) or neutral, and yet the overall result has been illustrated by the Council that a majority support the proposed scheme. At the Shaftesbury Let’s Talk meeting on 9th October 2017, Cllr Cook (deputy leader) repeated the false statement that a large majority were in favour of the Council’s plans.

Despite a letter sent on March 3rd 2017 by Cllr Cook stating: “Whether or not this scheme proceeds will depend largely on the results of the public consultation“, the Conservative Councillors voted unanimously in favour of the plan supported by Cllr Dawson to destroy the current library and Chatham Hall.

But the contempt shown by the Council on a consultation result is even worse when it is added to the little respect shown for “Statutory” Instruments [i.e. Required, permitted, or enacted by statute. Oxford dictionary] supported by legislation.

On Thursday 10th April 2014, the Wandsworth Society organised a local election hustings with the representatives of the Conservatives, the Labour, the Libdems, UKIP and the Greens. To the question (I, Cyril Richert, asked): “If the adopted Local and National Planning Policies are only treated as loose guidelines which can be ignored at will, then Wandsworth Council should state that such is the case”, Cllr Govindia, answered:

“Yes, the keyword is ‘guidelines’“.

Following the comment, Battersea Society Secretary Harvey Heath said: “This is full admission that the Council considers that Policies are just rules that can be bended and ignored“.

Contempt and mockery from Wandsworth Council?

At the end 2015, according to local residents who fought (victorious) against the use of Battersea Park for the formula E events, Cllr. Cook made remarks in the press, implying that people living on the edge of the park were nimbies, and that they would not have objected had they lived in leafy Hampstead.

Back in 2014, when several community groups and amenity Societies launched a campaign to denounced procedures and ‘localism’ practice failures, a council spokesman (Cllr Cook maybe?) said:

“It is always regrettable that some people have a more NIMBYist approach and choose to hurl false and groundless allegations around when they don’t get their own way.”

More recently, Cllr Cook (again) spoke to the headmistress of Alphabet nursery (who will have to move following the likely redevelopment of Chatham Hall, Northcote Road). He mentioned York Gardens library (2 miles away/25 min bus ride) as a possible alternative site for the local premise. When she said this would be too far for local residents, he replied (perhaps a tribute to Norman Tebbit) [1]:

“What do these parents not travel by bus?”

Is dismissing consultation results, treating statutory instruments as guidelines, disregarding community groups and showing contempt to the local residents the norm for Wandsworth Council? You can make your own opinion, the comment box below is open.

[1] For the record, I asked the question to Cllr Cook at the (very lively!) Let’s Talk meeting for Shaftesbury ward on Monday 9 October and he responded solely “no”, i.e. it was not a tribute to Norman Tebbit.

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One thought on “Public consultation: a necessary evil for the Council?

  1. Wandsworth Council’s approach has been so high-handed, insensitive and dismissive of their residents; the Council has made its decision unilaterally (with relatively minor amendments to the proposal originally put forward, and still not provided residents with hard facts to support its case).

    The Council has failed to convince many local residents that it has been
    a) listening to the residents’ (justifiable) concerns properly, and weighing their points of view in an open-minded way; and
    b) acting fairly and reasonably during the process (the opposite in fact!).

    This comment relates to the Northcote Road Library and Chatham Hall site development – my first experience of Wandsworth Council in such a situation.

    Depressing and scandalous.

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