Sunday, 26 February 2012

Consulted till boredom do us part

Community engagement. Consultation. Words much used by my council. I can speak for the world of cycling. The argument usually looks like this:

"We know what cyclists want. We have consulted the forum."

But what is the forum? Who runs it and what's its purpose?

In 2010 the safe cycling in Newcastle petition kicked some aspects into focus, including the council's cycling forum. It was petitioners who were instrumental in requesting better focus, and ultimately writing the terms of reference for the forum. And our thanks lies in progress that has been made. But make no mistake, it's the usual: things happen at the council nearly as always by external influence. Rest assured that council officers are The Purveyors of Standing Still.

Osborne Road - hard crossing Holly AvenueThe curious thing is, and citizens take note: in the short-term, a badly run forum or consultation actually works in favour of the council. A simple claim of "As you know, we have consulted you", then the door slams shut. And that's it. The End.

If there's only little scraps to discuss - a dropped-kerb here (you agree?), some traffic light there (you agree?) - there's no leverage. Check out the forum's minutes for my claims. There are no programmes, plans or budgets to discuss, allocate, or influence to be had. No vision to follow. Council bosses have successfully pushed aside a tangible vision for years. (Maybe 'push' is to active a term here.)

Ever been frustrated by dealing with the council? No reply? Getting nowhere? You are sucked dry to a husk at a 'consultation event'... then... nothing? Ah! What's happening here is common council practice: you've been feeding the black hole. I have been throwing little stones into dark council holes for years, and it was a rare occasion when I heard the splash on impact. The amount of un-answered questions is mounting. The heap of un-received requested information is getting higher every day. Paid for by the tax-payer? Publicly available? Council has learnt to duck behind smoke screens of totally ludicrous classifications like 'commercially sensitive' and 'available at a later date'. Their website rarely making documents available.

Cycling along Sandyford Road (westbound)But also, council take note: there's no community buy-in! No community ownership, and certainly waning interest in providing further 'feedback'. With neighbourhood plans and community ownership high on the agenda, you may want to give your approach a re-think. I think that Let'sTalk is not it, or delivery is slow, or it's just badly organised.

With no long-term cohesive vision (hello, 1Plan!!), the council officers needn't (and even can't) show commitment, make promises or progress. Consultation will remain a farce, but as a traffic engineer said the other day "consultation is something that gets into our way a lot of times". The fairy-tale land of pink glasses and A Giant Rabbit Hole. It's a vessel at choppy sea with no pilot and a mooted mutiny.

So... here you have it. That is why the local cycling campaign asks for programmes. Order! Order! It's something we can check and monitor.

I remain to be convinced that council officers are up to it.

And we will work with community groups, on a good old grassroot level, filling the consultation gap.


  1. As I tweeted I agree with you .. Almost!
    No one represents, or asks, the person who just bikes to the shops, or the park. They jump on their bike, ride on the pavement (slowly!) 'cause the roads look dangerous and that's it. They never sign up to any campaign. Therefore activists need to be very careful in claiming to represent the views of such folks. I don't believe there is a way around this as our society ignores the majority and avoids asking them questions.

    After all, who speaks for this strange group - "the motorist"? The AA or RAC (both are businesses), MPs, The Daily Mail , the British Drivers Association .... And so on. In truth none of them do, but some drivers may agree with some of the statements from these sources, at times.

    As an example slightly away from the point, Northern Rail bid for and got around £1m to encourage cyclists to cycle to stations, park their bikes and ride on the train to work etc (NB most of the provision is in the Leeds City Region). Cyclists have long been asking for enhanced facilities - though many would prefer room for bikes ON trains, but this isn't going to happen (it doesn't in NL either). Many local authorities were supportive and over 100 stations bike racks, shelters, even some lockers were put in. Despite this effort and publicity take up at many stations is poor, though some are well subscribed. So how do we know we ARE representing the views of Joe or Joanne out there on their bikes - we can only make educated guesses!

  2. founding a campaign with clear aims, objects and priorities. Open and transparent so that you know what you are sining up to as a member. Annual priorities to be agreed by the membership at the AGM, and day-to-day stuff to be organised and structured by a committee. Simples.

  3. Kat,

    Understand the frustration, but I think there's maybe an element of dummy throwing here.

    1. Community engagement & consultation. I know the feeling that a local authority is only paying lip-service to this, but in many ways it depends on the people involved in running the process, and the terms of reference used. We had a very good community engagement process in Darlington a little while back re Tesco wanting to open a town centre store. The proposal, backed by the council, got strong opposition and the council followed the results of their consultation and dropped the plans. On the other hand a lot of consultation about cycling policy is as you say unfocussed and patchy, giving little opportunity for a meaningful dialogue. Which brings me on to

    2. Policy Coherence. What you describe above is the result of officers working with a limited vision of where they are going. I think the problem most UK local politicians have is they are still trying to please all these real or imagined pressure groups all the time, with only the very few willing to stick their heads above the parapit and state clearly their political aims. If this was done, then the consultation process would have more meaning. To take an obvious example, if the local authority stated clearly that it aims for a 20% cycling modal share of trips under 5 miles by 2021, then the focus of consultation should be about how to achieve this. The aim is established politically (ie voted for at the polls), the means the focus of public involvement (active citizenship).

    I don't know where Newcastle Council are right now on this, but maybe your experiences as detailed above stretch back a few years, ie to before the change in regime. Or maybe they are more recent, and the politicians need to be told to get their act together, and bring the draft cycling strategy forward - what has happened to that, wasn't it meant to be approved in December? And even if the new regime includes councillors with some vision, how good are their officers at actually pushing to implement it? Employee inertia is a problem shared by both politicians and activists. I've always argued that you need to find the enthusiastic staff, however few they may be, and build bridges.

    I'll stop rambling on for now, but I guess I'm saying that the Cycle Forum could work well if the aims are as clear as the draft strategy suggests they could be, and if there are a few politicians and officers with the will to push. The fact that you've managed to get the Strategic Routes on to the forum agenda is surely evidence that this council is wanting to listen and engage. Don't let the bastards grind you down, but don't miss a chance for a productive relationship (or indeed a beautiful friendship).

    1. Cycling stuff: council direction generally fine. It's the structure which is missing. If administration changes, officers are at risk getting stranded again because there - as yet - aren't any firm plans and programmes in place translating the bigger vision.

      That's the fully-trained project management professional speaking.

      I'll bring you up to speed in July over a Valerian tea... are you around then? Germany?!