What exactly are you asking me … and why?
Consultation can be vulnerable to a confusion of motives.
It happens when consultors represent a range of different interests, or when different organisations – or even departments within organisations – look to a consultation for something different.
Last week, we had a marvellous illustration of this. A campaign group called Talk Fracking won its case in the High Court, persuading Mr Justice Dove that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)’s consultation had been unlawful. Public attention will naturally focus on the impact of the case on the future of shale gas extraction in England, using the contentious technology that both Wales and Scotland have banned. For those with an interest in public engagement, however, its significance lies in some serious implications for those organising public consultations.
What happened here, is that the MHCLG consulted upon a new version of the all-important National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The original version was in 2012 so the 2018 draft incorporated a range of new policies affecting housing, sustainable transport, neighbourhood planning, the Green belt and other changes. When it came to Fracking, the NPPF included new words paraphrasing a 2015 Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) – from a different Government department – backing exploration and the exploitation of the controversial technology. When the consultation invited views on ‘all aspects of the chapter’, Talk Fracking argued that the science base for the Government decision had changed. And the Paris Climate Change Agreement had made the greenhouse gas targets more demanding. It responded in good faith, but the Court found that its views were not given conscientious consideration. It was therefore unlawful.