Hart of the Matter
one hopes, there will be a reasonable turnout at the elections. The General
Election seems to be close enough that people may feel their vote really
counts. That, in turn, will have spin-off for local government.
time there was a purely local government election - for Suffolk County Council
- I believe wards were doing extremely well if they achieved a 30 per cent
turnout. If you remember, the election for the police and crime commissioners
was lucky to reach 15 per cent.
local elections coincide with General Elections, itís a different matter,
because even a poor one will turn out well over 60 per cent, and a good one
over 70 per cent.
it will be to see real democracy at work, people will cry. This time we can
really trust the result, they will argue.
they view an election, or a referendum which achieved a turnout of less than
one per cent? Travesty! Disgrace! Waste of time and money! And so on.
And yet we
have just seen the equivalent of one of these. The grand first consultation on
the Haverhill masterplan process saw 212 questionnaires returned out of a
population of over 20,000, even if you leave out those under voting age.
Ah, but there
were lots of comments from people at the displays and public engagement events which
were held. Maybe, but the relevant population base is also a lot higher than
just the town. After all, part of the point of it all is to increase footfall
from outside, particularly the surrounding villages.
So I donít
reckon the consultation has got anywhere near even five per cent turnout in
reality. This, we have been told, is remarkably good, when compared with other
seem like that to me, and I donít believe it seems like that to our local
representatives. However, they have to trust the consultants. That is the
problem with consultants in general.
them in because you are not an expert in the field of what you want them to
manage, and then you are stuck with trusting what they tell you even if it
seems barmy. After all, you donít hire a dog at vast expense and then bark
after experience of a number of exercises in public consultation down the years
in Haverhill, I have managed identify some common strands which can create some
useful rules of thumb when trying to analyse what is going on.
Rule One to
remember, is that I can never remember any consultants saying that the response
to their consultation had been anything other than good, and nearly always
remarkably good and better than other similar exercises elsewhere.
that other towns are told that they are a lot better than Haverhill, and so on.
This has been the case since time immemorial. Suffolk County Council were even
quite pleased with the 100 or so replies they got to their consultation about
the high street pedestrianisation.
In the end
that proved to be a big nail in the coffin of their scheme because no one Ė and
I mean no one Ė else believed that represented a good response. Ideas
predicated on that just could not be justified.
This time we
have got, by an ironic coincidence, exactly twice the number they achieved, for
a much wider consultation.
I presume ONE
Haverhill is happy with this result, and they will, of course, point to the
fact that this is just the first consultation, about the issues which should be
in the masterplan, and not about the masterplan itself.
masterplan is even now being drawn up based on the results of that
consultation. If it fails to include issues we consider important, this will be
as a result of the first consultation and it will be difficult to change it.
guessing the consultants managed to speak to a lot more people than 212 at their
various events, but if that is the case then why release the figure for the
questionnaire responses and not the rest? It doesnít instil a feeling of
confidence in the result.
it canít be that difficult. The town council managed, for almost no cost at
all, to get over 700 responses to their poll about pedestrianisation, just by
standing in the high street on a Saturday.
It would be
premature to judge the end result on the present progress, because the consultants
may come up with some brilliant ideas thanks to the responses they received. Weíll
have to wait and see.
But I would
have hoped for a response of, say ten per cent, as a minimum to work on and
call the end result something in which the public had had a real say. That
would mean 2,000-3,000 returned questionnaires or recorded comments at events.
Maybe they got that, but I doubt it.
it might have helped if the questions on the questionnaire had been more
approachable or, in some cases, comprehensible. But thatís planners for you.
honest, in nine out of ten cases I donít believe consultants actually have the
least idea how to consult the general public. Their clients consult them, but
they donít appear to consult anyone very much - just enough to cast a cloak of
justification over themselves and their fee.
can I ever remember consultants who really made an effort to connect with
residents. It was for a social impact study to back up the Single Regeneration
Bid for Haverhill made around 15 years ago. The bid failed but the study is
still worth reading.