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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Consultation or Indoctrination

Yesterday I visited the indoctrination consultation roadshow for Cornwall Council's Core Strategy at Pool Innovation Centre. There was a nice set of display boards with various key pieces of information and several planning officers available to answer questions.

One of my concerns about this whole process is the nature of this whole 'consultation' exercise.

The fact is that there is no consultation on the main concepts of the strategy (such as whether we need a minimum [see the PS below] of 48,000 new houses). This was quite openly admitted by the planning officer that I spoke to when I asked whether there was any real point to the consultation.

Then again, what is the point of consultation if it is ignored? During last year's round of consultation, CoSERG submitted detailed proposals with a strategy that indicates that much less housing is needed (14,000 houses at the time). This had apparently been ignored because it 'was not backed up with evidence'.

I asked what weight would my opinion carry if the council weren't prepared to listen to the advisory panel specifically set up to advise the council and who used the 'evidence' that planning officers themselves had provided. The reply was that the councillors on the panel had not acted in line with the evidence presented to them and that the figure of 48,000 was the correct one from the evidence base.

However, when I questioned whether the 'evidence' of the last few years of low numbers of new house building warranted 48,0000 houses I was told that this evidence wasn't accurate because the planners expected demand to pick up in the long term. It all seems a bit selective to me?

We should also remember that last year one of the options that we were 'consulted' on was a growth figure of some 30,000 odd houses. What 'evidence' were the planners using when they thought that this was a viable figure to use in the core strategy and why isn't it applicable now?

Another problem that I have with the current consultation is that the documents provided are couched in planning jargon and full of meaningless or ubsubstantiated assumptions. For example, I had to ask what 'Transformational Regeneration" was. As far as I could follow (even the planner had difficulty in providing an explanation) it is regeneration focussed on providing regeneration rather than simply as part of other aims and objectives - a kind of regeneration plus - or, to a cynic llike me, development max.

The document is also littered with vacuous phrases such as 'We are part of it, not apart from it.' Most worrying is the totally uninspiring and vapid 'achieve a leading position in sustainable living' - most worrying because this is the Council's 'vision' that is supposed to be the bedrock on which the whole strategy is based. Apart from this gobbledygook much of the document is simply a long wish list of nice things - it might be a perfect portfolio for a contestant in a beauty show (who wished for world peace and an end to hunger everywhere) but it doesn't really cut the mustard as a document which is supposed to tackle issues of deprivation and social injustice and shape the way that Cornwall will meet the future.

If you ignore the question of whether there is a point to this consultation or if any evidence that is provided will be the 'right kind of evidence' there is still the problem of indoctrination rather than consultation.

The current round of roadshows are happening across Cornwall. At each roadshow are great looking display boards with bright colourful graphics depicting 'key facts'. There are several professional planners available to answer questions and assure the public that the council knows best.

But where is the alternative view?

Now I'm no expert on planning technicalities but I have been learning to question some (or most) of the information and 'facts' that the council puts into the public domain. Most of the 'key facts' that were being presented were simply opinion or not as important or relevent as they were being made out to be - they just sounded impressive.

What is needed for this to be a true exercise in consultation (as opposed to indoctrination) is for an alternative point of view to be available alongside the council's slick propaganda. Opposition groups should be given the opportunity (and funded) to attend alongside the professional planners (who are paid for their time as part of their job). This would give ordinary people who attend the roadshows, and know nothing of planning or local government, a chance to have a balanced picture of what they are being consulted on - instead of the loaded messages and selectively presented facts that are being used to encourage the particular synthesis that is the Core Strategy.

Finally, the planning process should be about policy shaping the future rather than the past shaping policy. We need politicians who will put Cornwall first and are prepared to put the interests of the people of Cornwall ahead of being seen to be getting something done.

What I mean by this (my very own bit of vacuous gobbledygook) is that politicians need to be brave enough to say that Cornwall should be planning to meet the needs of the people of Cornwall rather than those elsewhere. We need to end the situation where public funding is dependent on gleaning the scraps falling from the developers' banquet. Instead of encouraging hyper-development so that politicians in the council cabinet can be remembered for getting things done, we need to have faith in, and listen to, our communities who are screaming out for a respite from growth and a chance to recover.

PS the word 'minimum' has appeared in the core strategy document as a direct result of the gung-ho, 'presumption-in-favour-of-development' Tory led (with Lib Dem whipping boys trailing behind) coalition's Loclism Act. You see it is no longer possible for the council to plan for 'just' 48,0000 houses because the Cornish public could always call for more if they so wished!

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