Consultations are considered valuable for getting community and stakeholder perspectives. There is even an expectation, from the Government, that where applicable consultations may take place. However particularly in transport, some councils can use them to block change. In contrast as an alternative other councils, especially during Covid, tried out schemes. Then the public could experience the proposed changes and decide if they like them.
It is becoming increasingly clear that relying on consultations has limitations. The more council consultations, you are involved in, the more the failings become apparent. These include :-
Question Bias. Written to deliver the ‘desired outcome’. By writing questions in a particular way the options are limited. Such as the one for local cycling, where there was the choice of nothing or designs that were substandard. Not what the ‘users’ wanted. There is often no easy way to specify a different or better solution. If you choose ‘nothing’ the funds are then lost.
Limited Representation: Consultations attract those who have strong opinions and miss out the majority. On top of this, certain marginalised communities with limited resources, may not have equal access. Leading to an incomplete understanding of the community’s needs. As an example the bus consultation along Seaside is through one of the most deprived wards in the town and has low car ownership. Should the local residents be given greater weight than those who are more vocal but live elsewhere ?
Tokenism: A recent consultation on the town centre had 64% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the proposal. The County Council still proceeded. This leads to frustration and distrust among participants for future consultations.
Lack of Expertise: Public consultations often involve those who may not understand the complexities of planning issues or the regulations . Unfortunately not everything can be simplified.
Manipulation : Consultations can be susceptible to manipulation or bias. Those with greater resources or more power may dominate the outcome, drowning out the opinions of others. Special interest groups can exert undue influence and this is often true on both sides of a debate
Constraints: Consultations can be both time-consuming and resource-intensive, requiring significant effort to organise and manage. This can lead to delays in the planning process and using up valuable funds that could be used to deliver real change . It can also be used as a tool to allow councils not to proceed, which may have been their original preference. This can often be the case with anything that adversely affect car drivers. There is pressure for councils to develop ‘green’ plans that they do not really want. This happened during Covid when the county was funded by the Government to implement temporary solutions. If councils can show that there are negative comments they can drop the scheme and keep the funds.
Resistance to Change: Public consultations may reinforce the ‘status quo’, as many people are resistant to any change. Often only a narrow cross-section of the local demographic tends to engage in council consultations. Often with a preponderance of older people taking part, whilst the views of young people and students, who are mostly reliant on public transport, are not usually represented well enough. However often controversial schemes are then accepted and most would not want it back the way it was.
Social media – Assuming many residents do not fully understand or even look at the documentation, there is the strong evidence of people being influenced by ‘simple summaries’ on social media. This is an increasing problem. As an example a recent local social media campaign had the suggestion that, in the current bus consultation, all of Seaside would become a bus lane and there would be no parking. This is not even close to reality. However these simple messages can then be the main source of misinformation for people completing the online consultation.
Compromise : There is little scope, for those with different views, to come to some common agreement. Often the consultants will speak to the different sides in isolation. When perhaps, through a wider meeting, a compromise could be achieved.
Consultations can be used in a number of ways :-
- genuinely find residents opinions
- ensure the desired outcome from the council’s perspective
- allow councils to drop schemes they did not actually want
- rubber stamp a decision that had already been taken
Paul Humphreys EEAN Transport Group