August Consultations- No rest for the Consultor!
As we’re into September, we thought we’d have a little look back at the major consultations announced across the UK (and one from the Irish Republic) in August. In total 83 were launched, so here’s our pick of the bunch, with one from each jurisdiction.
Potentially the most wide-ranging of the August consultations was the UK Government’s consultation on the new proposals for a National Data Strategy. Launched during London Tech Week, the consultation considers the fundamentals of how data should be utilised, protected and shared across the United Kingdom, and what approach the government should take to support a new data infrastructure. Necessarily broad in scope, the consultation is interesting not only because of its important content, but also because it provides an exemplar (as you would hope) of how to handle data issues in your initial consultation documents.
Although it is common in Government consultations to have a section devoted to data control and privacy issues, this consultation features a slightly extended and detailed variant laying out very clearly the key elements. Hardly surprising perhaps in a consultation that deals significantly with data, but certainly nice to see. We wonder if we’ll see a similar exposition cropping up more frequently in other non-data related consultations?
In Scotland, the government is looking to the future in its consultation “Budget 2021/22: Supporting the COVID-19 Recovery”. Focussing on how the Scottish Government can use its taxation, reserve and borrowing powers to bolster the economy, the first half of the document outlines the powers held by the Scottish Government, before detailing the challenges faced by the Scottish economy.
The consultation is interesting on two grounds; first because such engagement comes hard on the heels of the Scottish Government’s “Programme for Government 2020-21”, which made commitments to taking a more consultative approach on tax policy by consulting in advance on the 2021-22 Budget. Although almost all budgets are consulted upon to some degree, as creatures of political policy, it is unusual to see Government budget consultations in advance. More commonly, a budget proposes actions, which are then consulted upon. In Scotland, where there have been moves towards more active community participation in decision-making through the Community Empowerment Act, it is perhaps less surprising then that this sort of consultation might be deployed.
The other notable feature is that it is not difficult to read this consultation as having some ulterior political motives. This is nothing new or unique of course; consultations are documents on policy after all, and many of them feature political statements – with various levels of transparency. In this consultation document, there are references to the ‘limited’ taxation, reserve and borrowing powers of the devolved administration. The ministerial introduction highlights the constraints placed upon them by the UK government, remarks about having “greater fiscal powers”, and suggests that this would have enabled different results. There are other instances too, where it reads as subtly trying to advance its political agenda. Promoting a political agenda in such a manner is not in and of itself a ‘cardinal sin’ of consultation, except perhaps where it is sufficiently egregious as to obscure the stated function of the consultation. In this case, it does not do so, but it is interesting to ponder the implications nonetheless.
As we have explored recently, planning reform is on the cards in England in a big way (make sure you sign up to our round table on 16th September for more on that), but similar moves are also in the offing in the devolved administrations. In Wales, a consultation is currently considering new quality standards for new homes. The document states that the new standards are designed to simplify the previous requirements.
The consultation is not the first time the new proposals have been put before the public, an earlier version having been consulted on in 2015, before the Independent Review of Affordable Housing Supply advocated a total replacement of the standards with a more streamlined version. In developing the new standards, the Welsh Government drew on the previous consultation’s outputs and the findings of various workgroups, eventually coming up with the new standard, entitled “Beautiful Homes and Spaces”.
This consultation also fields a question that we suspect will become much more common in the coming months, about the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic might have on decision-making in the future. In this case, the question is directed at what additions should be made to the standards in light of the pandemic, but we expect that other variants of the same question are likely to start appearing as part of the ‘new normal’.
In Northern Ireland, we’re going to take a slight diversion away from consultation proper, into a more process-related point. On 17 August, the Department of Health NI embarked on an exercise to update its list of consultees and stakeholders. A combination of updating existing contact details and bringing in new contributors, the details were listed with the other consultations on the DoH website.
Knowing your stakeholders is a vital part of consultation- it’s one of the reasons the Institute talks so frequently about the importance of stakeholder identification, profiling and mapping. By publishing this update call on the main consultation website, the Department of Health should ensure it captures most diligent respondents for its consultations and anyone who checks the site frequently. A laudable effort, certainly.
Republic of Ireland
In the Republic of Ireland, we’re currently seeing an example of an international consultation. Most often seen in cases where infrastructure developed in one country is likely to have a significant impact, or potential impact on the environment in another, these are undertaken largely at the behest of the Espoo Convention 1991. Sometimes also, the Aarhus Convention will apply, too. This particular consultation is related to the application for developmental consent at the Sizewell C Nuclear Power Plant in Suffolk. The Ireland consultation brings together the relevant documents for consultees and invites submissions. Transboundary consultations are always intriguing, and we have seen many court cases – and much media excitement – where they go wrong. Add in the nuclear power factor, which inevitably ends up being controversial, and there’s the potential for significant complications.
 Technically the United Nations Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context