The

Consulting

Industry 

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AUTUMN 2016

 

This quarter we take a look at consultations and question the conduct of the consultation industry.  It is a topic we need to engage with, read on -  this is important stuff.  

 

On this page we report on the Sandys Lecture, delivered by Sir Terry Farrell, reporting back on progress following the publication of his Farrell Review two years ago.  It was an impassioned talk with Farrell urgently wanting design education and knowledge around “Place” become much more part of our general knowledge.  Proactive planning is his aim, to see communities having a say in what they would like to see built, not just the proposals of developers.

 

A small team from the Society has studied the process of consultation in some detail; not just how Herefordshire Council consults but the entire concept of seeking views from citizens?  With the promotion of the Big Society, and communities expected to provide more services for themselves, there is the requirement for more input from the “locals”.  But to what extent and with what result?  Historically we vote for a party and their manifesto; now the intricacies of change and development have to be trawled through in great detail by us all, if we wish to participate.

 

Considering the High Town Public Realm Improvement Consultation, the Herefordshire Council – officers and members – decided they wanted to improve High Town and commissioned Balfour Beatty to come up with a proposal, and so needed to consult.

Various displays were exhibited and interested parties and the general public asked to comment.

“We welcome your comments and views” and these can be submitted via the web or by filling in and posting the questionnaire. “This consultation seeks to understand the impact this scheme will have {on everyone}…enable feedback to inform the design and delivery of the scheme.” 

 

First there were three general questions: do you support the vision, the public realm improvement scheme and will it generate economic benefits?  Then seven undefined questions e.g. “in favour of new high quality street furniture?”(But no details of style)  “Do you support phased construction?”(I’m not a highways engineer) etc.

A coloured chart followed with restricted times of  access, then questions as to preferred restricted times.  An ambiguous question “How you travel to and park in High Town” (One cannot park there!) and how many visits per week.  When you drill down these are not easy to answer in a holistic sense.

 

These consultations rarely give any information on the alternatives that might be considered – it’s all or nothing.  In the case of High Town it could be left as it is with just the necessary work done to get rid of the puddles - surely cheaper - and if money is available there are plenty of other places needing attention

The HCS, as an “interested body”, was given a priority meeting before the main consultation launch and were shown plans and received a pleasant chat. (No sign of austerity cuts here with a Balfour Beatty staff of three).  The Council is conscientious in recording feedback but how will the answers be acted upon and how will they tell us about them?  How will the views of residents be weighted with those of retailers and us self-appointed bodies (who think we know best) and data protection will blur the public presentation?  As we go to press the final decision/recommendation has yet to be announced.  We fear the analysis will be unclear, there will not be a list of changes/improvements but a general narrative which will not explain how the conclusion has been drawn.

 

This consultation, we conclude like most, is a token gesture; because an evaluation was required rather than a consultation. There was a need to weigh up the various alternatives some of which are quite technical.   Surely an expert on townscape designer should have been retained to comment upon the proposals with an evaluation of the current state of the surfaces?  An accountant to value the return on investment?  Then a rational set of conclusions could be drawn on behalf of us, the citizens of Hereford. 

However the LA is obliged to consult; but the realistic alternatives need to be clear and simple.  Democracy in this country is based on one person, one vote, irrespective of their knowledge, education or land ownership.  This is all very reasonable at a macro

 level, where individuals might have leanings to the left or right or local; but consultation on a detailed matter should also involve independent experts (1) who have the knowledge and breadth of vision to comment and advise and draw the right conclusion.

How can we all be experts on adult social care, highways, education etc. etc.?   Democracy means we can have a say but we also need the help of experts working to the rules.

(1) I.e.not Balfour Beatty commenting on their own designs which might be delivered by another branch of their company.

Hereford Civic Society is an independent local charity representing people who care about the city.Registered Charity No 503504

All material is not necessarily the view of the Society, which primarily acts as a forum for discussion around built environment matters, past, present and future.