What causes community anger?
Two news stories in this week’s newsletter illustrate how upset communities can become when they dislike proposals affecting their local area.
In South Shields, the row is about plans to close a poorly-performing school of 550 pupils, and where the Council is proposing a very quick (6 weeks) consultation followed by only two weeks for analysis and consideration before rushing to a decision on 14th November. No wonder parents are concerned.
In Ormskirk, the Police had to attend a Council Cabinet meeting as residents objected to a Local Plan to de-designate green belt so as to allow for up to 16,000 new homes by 2050 as part of a Local Plan.
Elsewhere, throughout the country, there are NHS organisations who face a barrage of criticism from patients who disapprove of hospital reconfigurations, and whose public meetings can often become heated. Talk to infrastructure providers like HS2 or Crossrail. Or Airports who wish to expand and/or change their flight paths. All experience difficult confrontations with angry people who wish to exercise their democratic right to protest.
What all these have in common is that, without exception (Corby CCG was a recent aberration, it is true!) a formal consultation is part of the process. What objectors appear to be saying is that they do not want the proposals … period, and that no amount of consultation will be acceptable. They want unpopular policies withdrawn – not even considered. The concept of ‘red lines’ in a negotiation is similar. Shorthand maybe for Do not even think about it! A secondary theme is that people have very limited faith that consultation can ever make an impact, and certainly only rarely dissuades public bodies from going ahead with the most controversial of proposals.
There is no quick-fix, but here are four things that smart organisations can do:-
1. Ensure better public involvement at the options development phase. The NHS is statutorily bound to do so – but other public bodies have less clear requirements. Experience shows that public stakeholder participation at this point eliminates a lot of costly mistakes. Leaving this to the experts is risky. Co-production works too.
2. Identify the impacts early, and reach out to discuss them with people. Many of the complaints in the stories featured this week stem from communities only just having woken up to the implications of issues which have probably been in discussion for some time.
3. Strengthen the credibility of consultation. If a Council has a poor reputation for listening, then it is hardly surprising if opposition focuses on preventing the idea from being discussed through a consultation. Clued-up organisations publicise those occasions when proposals are modified or withdrawn in the light of consultation responses. Without this, people will just assume it is a rubber-stamping exercise
4. Make the listening more visible. Asking for comments on proposals through an online survey may gather some useful data, but does nothing to demonstrate that decision-makers pay any attention to what is said. New ideas like Public consultation hearings that can be video-streamed can make the arguments more public, and are far better than a crowded public meeting that can generate more heat than light.
None of these solve the conflicts of interest that are inherent on the difficult decisions that have to be taken. There is a tension between those who want more houses and those who want to preserve the green and pleasant land next to their existing homes. There is tension between those who want to build new groups of academy schools and those who cherish existing schools in spite of their problems. Ditto the potential passengers of new railways and the communities who will be affected by building and operating them.
Democracy is about finding the most appropriate mechanism for taking these tough decisions. Consultation is the way in which we ensure that those given these choices to make – are fully informed of the implications and the balance of competing arguments. We invest in better consultation because it makes the eventual decisions better, and more defensible. We neglect consultation – and we fuel the kind of anger this week’s stories illustrate.