Home Page How about an election with a turnout of one per cent? That's what we've just had 01/05/15

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Hart of the Matter

On Thursday, 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.

The last 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.

But when 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.

How wonderful it will be to see real democracy at work, people will cry. This time we can really trust the result, they will argue.

How would 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 similar exercises.

It doesnít 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.

You bring 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 yourself.

However, 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.

I presume 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.

But that 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.

I am 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.

After all, 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.

Of course, it might have helped if the questions on the questionnaire had been more approachable or, in some cases, comprehensible. But thatís planners for you.

To be 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.

Only once 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.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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