Monday, 29 September 2014

Knowle relocation project: What exactly is 'consultation' in East Devon?

The question as to what exactly amounts to 'consultation' is rather important when it comes to legitimising decision-making...

A lot of these exercises are not only top-down
Public and councillors clash over consultation on Winchester developments (From Hampshire Chronicle)

... but also don't even try to connect with the people they are professing to address:
Enough already: or why we should ban 'top-down capacity building' and 'third sector interfaces' | Herald Scotland

In East Devon, the District Council has responded to a Freedom of Information Request on the 'consultation process' around their relocation project.

One interesting comment on the WDTK website is:

P Freeman left an annotation (25 September 2014)

The FoI Act requires EDDC to:

1. State whether they hold the information requested or not;

2. If they hold it, to provide it.

The FoI Act does NOT allow EDDC to restrict the information to that already published if there is more information available (provided of course that the additional information is not confidential).

So, for example, I cannot believe that the "illustrative" timeline already published constitutes the whole information held by EDDC on the timescales for the Knowle move, and to withhold the additional information (or indeed to withhold details of whether additional information is actually held) is contrary to the FoI Act.

The overall implication in the answer provided by EDDC here is that they consider all information that is not already public to be confidential - whereas the law requires them to treat each piece of information individually and to justify why each piece is being deemed confidential.

This is IMO prima facie evidence of secrecy and should be used as evidence to the First Tier Tribunal.

Meanwhile, a review has now been requested following the response from the District Council:
Clarification of the public consultation that took place about The Knowle relocation project - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow

The full list of questions and responses to the District Council's 'communication events' on their proposal to move from Knowle back in July 2014 is here:
EDDC - Moving and Improving - Communication Events - July 2012

Meanwhile, the Deputy Leader of the District Council has been quite vociferous about the 'lack of consultation' when it comes to proposed health reforms:

Andrew Moulding, county councillor for Axminster, said there “had not been a two-way dialogue” prior to the publication of the plans.

“GPs feel there is no substitute for 24-hour care – two have contacted me since the decision to vent their concerns and said there has been a lack of meaningful discussion,” he told the meeting at County Hall.

“The consultation seemed to be a reporting mechanism for decisions already made – in other words a done deal.”

NHS Devon | Western Morning News

Looking at the national picture...

In a recent article by Mark Steel in the Independent, spotted by the East Devon Alliance blog, the issue is highlighted as to how an obvious but unofficial 'consultation' processes can be totally sidelined by the powers that be:


September 29th 2014

some thought- provoking thoughts from an EDA member:
An argument often used by EDDC Councillors when they wish to ignore local opposition to an unpopular decision is to appeal to their instinctive knowledge of the real wishes of the “silent majority”.

Here is a cautionary tale of an attempt to turn a school in Sussex into an academy using just such an argument which appears to have backfired. The story appeared in the Independent last week written by columnist Mark Steel. Mark Steel’s style is to intersperse facts with wry comment – here are the facts extracted from the article:

“In March, the head…… announced his plan for the school to become an academy, subject to a “consultation”. Because the rules decree there must be a consultation……. A meeting was called in which parents, students and teachers expressed outright opposition, but the consultation went on, in the form of a series of presentations by the head and his executives. These included an “artist’s impression” of the gleaming structure – linked with magical walkways and smiley children – that the school would surely become once it was an academy.

On the other hand, we were told, if it remained as it was, that there would be “no money” for repairs, and we were shown a photo of a decaying art block...

Despite this, hundreds of our children wore badges in opposition to the plan, posters went up in countless windows, there was a march, and the teachers went on strike. Then the local council, sticking to the obsolete definition of “consultation”, arranged a ballot of parents. The head and his allies contacted parents personally to win their vote, but the result was 29 per cent for the academy and 71 per cent against, on a turnout of 40 per cent...

Immediately those pushing for the academy responded by insisting the vote was irrelevant. A local Conservative councillor told me: “It counts for nothing, because if you add the Yes vote to those who didn’t vote that’s a majority for those in support”...

Still the school, backed by the Department for Education, marched on with its plans...

But, amazingly, and who could have predicted this, their response made people even more furious. More strikes were planned, elections for vacant governor posts were won overwhelmingly by opponents of the academy, and on Monday this week it was announced that the plans had been dropped entirely, due to the scale of opposition.

Full text here:


Paul says:
September 29, 2014 at 1:22 pm

The moral of this story is that if we want change, then we need to make it happen in the next local elections. Which is exactly what Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said in a recent letter in answer to a question I asked:

“Local authorities are independent bodies and accountable to their electorate rather than Ministers, and it is right that councils are properly held to account by their electorate. To help the public hold their councils to account we have, for instance, changed the rules on openness and transparency of council decision making, most recently putting in place new rules to allow the public to report on council meetings. I consider this approach [i.e. localism], rather than centralist, top-down control, is the right one and allows an informed public to hold their council to account when exercising the ultimate sanction at the ballot box.

That is why it is important that when there is an election, the public take the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

So, there you have it!!! Stated in plain english, pretty much as bluntly as it can be phrased, by a senior Government Minister, a Secretary of State no less! If you don’t like secrecy, alleged corruption, lack of consultation, lack of accountability etc., then the only solution available is to use YOUR vote at the next local council elections (in May 2015) to vote in a different set of councillors.

On whose side is the “Silent Majority”? What is “consultation”? | East Devon Alliance
We’ve won the battle to prevent our school becoming an academy - Comment - Voices - The Independent

Indeed, central government is proposing less 'top-down' and more 'bottom-up' decision-making;

Cutting red tape to breathe new life into local communities

From: Department for Communities and Local Government and Brandon Lewis MP First published:31 July 2014Part of: Making the planning system work more efficiently and effectively, Giving communities more power in planning local development and Planning and building

Local residents to have a greater say over the future development of their area.

Local residents will have a greater say over the future development of their area, under plans announced by Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis today (31 July 2014).

Radical reforms of the planning system have been made as part of the government’s long term economic plan - scrapping top-down targets, giving people a greater say over planning decisions that affect their neighbourhood, and reducing 1,300 pages of disparate policy into one 50-page document.

Today’s wide ranging proposals are the next stage, making it easier for communities to devise neighbourhood plans, help builders get onto sites with planning permission without delay and reduce bureaucracy and red tape.

Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis said:

Since 2010 we’ve made significant strides in reforming our planning system from one of draconian top-down targets, to one where local people are in charge and it’s working well. Last year alone, planning permission was granted for 216,000 new homes.

Today’s proposals will help scrap even more red tape and make it even easier to get the homes and shops communities want built, while at the same time breathing new life into our vital industries.

The proposals include:

Giving more local communities a greater say over development

Already more than 1,000 communities are making use of their new right to produce a neighbourhood plan or neighbourhood development order - today’s proposals would speed up the process to encourage more to follow suit. New measures include requiring local planning authorities to decide whether to designate certain neighbourhood areas within 10 weeks and removing the minimum 6-week consultation and publicity period. But parish and town councils and neighbourhood forums would still need to consult and win a local referendum on the final neighbourhood plan or Order.
Making better use of land to deliver more homes

There are currently permitted development rights to allow offices to be converted into new homes. Today’s proposals would put this on a permanent footing, as well as making it easier to convert empty and redundant buildings into new homes. New measures would also ensure planning conditions are cleared on time so that new homes that have planning permission can get built without delay.

Supporting the Great British high street

The current rules governing change of use from a shop to a restaurant, and from a shop to leisure use, would be relaxed in order to help high streets adapt to changing customer needs. Payday loan shops and betting shops would be excluded from a new, wider “retail class”, so councils have a greater say over these being set up in their area.
An end to EU gold-plating

Today’s proposals would remove the unnecessary gold-plating an EUdirective which slow down the process, by reducing the numbers of homes and other urban development proposals that would be screened unnecessarily for environmental impact assessments. This would reduce both the cost and time taken to get planning permission for these projects.
Improving the way major infrastructure projects are planned

Proposals for a more flexible and streamlined system so practical changes can be made to planning proposals where these are beneficial and developers can use a “one stop shop” for more of the consents they need.

Cutting red tape to breathe new life into local communities - Press releases - GOV.UK

And there are projects to include the public more actively in local bugdeting decisions:

Participatory Budgeting at the Consultation Institute Annual Conference

DulvertonJez Hall of PB Partners is running a workshop at this year’sConsultation Institute annual conference on the 22nd October 2014, at the America Square Conference Centre, London. The conference, entitled "The Power of the People", is one of the most high profile events in the UK consultation world.
Speaking in the workshop section on the the theme Power in Practice –  Local Communities , Jez will consider how Participatory Budgeting can add value to existing community engagement work, and mobilise 1000’s if done well. People like it when they have a say, and know when they don’t.
Adding PB into your consultation mix can radically change the normal top down dialogue. moving from ‘what do you think of what we are doing for you" to "tell us how we do this more effectively", and even "we need you to do our job better".
Reflecting the often forgotten reality that public servants are just that. Paid by citizens to spend their money wisely.
Participatory Budgeting at the Consultation Institute Annual Conference – PB Network

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