Tag Archives: Community engagement

Doing Council business differently: Part 1 – Engagement

In several previous posts, brought together in Can the Council be a leader?, I have illustrated why I believe Exeter City Council needs to change its political and administrative culture if it is to succeed in harnessing the energy and talents within the city to make it a truly liveable place in the 21st century.  I’m not suggesting Exeter’s  council is unique in needing to change:  I focus on it because I live in and care about Exeter.

In this and successive posts, I suggest ways in which the Council can change, using four headings:

  • Engagement
  • Leadership
  • Openness
  • Governance

This first post addresses what could be done to engage better with the communities the Council exists to serve.

Why engage?

In the age of deference, it was enough to elect MPs and councillors, then leave decision-making to them, informed by central and local government professional staff.  That age has passed, but a readiness in some quarters to leave the elected representatives to get on with things persists – though driven more by apathy and despair at the quality of our governance rather than by any deferential attitudes.  Where the pip squeaks is when a council – and it is usually a council – takes a decision that upsets, inconveniences or affects the quality of life of individuals.  The fact that these decisions appear to come out of the blue brings our governance further into disrepute.

Good engagement between decision-takers and communities helps address this.  Decisions are supported by a much richer and locally-specific evidence base; and communities feel engaged with the decisions and more understanding of the factors affecting it.  It is a part of a wider necessary democratic renewal.

What is engagement?

Real engagement with communities – whether they be residential, business, sports, public service, local interest groups and so on – is not something that comes naturally to Exeter City Council.  The Council claims that it consults on many issues; and so it does.  The problem is that “consultation” doesn’t tick all the boxes, as the following table shows:

CONSULTATION by Council ENGAGEMENT with communities
Asks for comments (often as multiple-choice answers) on a proposal that has already been worked out in detail. Council explains the issue (eg, problem to be solved, development to be pursued) and seeks views on how best to solve/advance it before putting forward proposals.
Feedback, when it occurs, is limited to summary of voting numbers and some identification of common concerns.  No or minimal explanation of how the consultation has influenced the final decision. A continued dialogue is maintained, with the Council explaining how the engagement process has influenced their thinking, followed by a willingness to continue to engage as proposals evolve.
Respondents are self-selecting, often confined to those with a developed interest in public affairs or happen to be in the High St and drop into an exhibition. Participants are actively sought out by the Council.
Consultation exhibitions are typically on one day, in the city centre, and consisting of a few explanatory boards and an encouragement to fill out the response form there and then. Flexible arrangements for engagement events are mutually agreed
There is limited scope for individual or community learning – essentially an isolated activity, although some organised groups do prepare considered responses Opportunities arise for people/groups to improve their understanding of issues and for action learning (see comment below on the Heavitree project)

 

Engage on what?  Macro or micro?

There is evidence, albeit anecdotal, that too many people only wake up to the consequences of a policy decision when it hits them personally.  Planning applications are a common example (see below) but so are school and hospital closures [1], car park charges increases, park closures for special events, new student accommodation, and so on.  The common thread here is the event is invariably a consequence of a policy decision taken a year or more ago, with minimal consultation, let alone engagement.   Who remembers the Car Parking Strategy when the charges go up in line with it? [2].

Then there are the really macro policies, above all the pursuit of economic growth.  It spills out of every strategy, it’s the justification for housebuilding, it underpins policy support for the steady spread of the city eastwards into the Business Park, the Science Park, the Skypark, the large retail sites (including IKEA, arriving any time now) and the consequent loss of open space and increased traffic.  The City Council’s Chief Executive wrote in the local paper last week [3] that Exeter is striving to be “world class” and that we all share in this endeavour.  Perhaps we do, and perhaps being “world class” is a good thing; but when did anyone last take the trouble to explain what it means, how far achieving it is dependent on continued economic growth and – crucially – ask us if that a future we all want?

Constraints on engagement

Good engagement is not cost-free: staff time, meeting costs, and intellectual effort are all impacted by it.  The choice for the Council is whether these modest costs are outweighed by the benefits of good engagement.  Nor is engagement free of time constraints, though the Council’s aim should be to build engagement into their project planning as an integral element (not just a line at the end saying “public consultation”).

Engagement on planning applications presents particular challenges, because of the time limits for taking decisions.  What is important here is that planning policy – the yardstick against which individual planning decisions are taken – is drawn up using good engagement principles in place of the present outrage in which planners give themselves 18 months or more to draft a plan and expect those of us whose lives will be affected by it to comment in 6 weeks [4].  Small surprise that there are storms of protest from Pinhoe when an application for another 150 houses comes in.

Who does the Council engage with?

The list is endless, though the constraints noted above impose practical limits.  But engagement is not about talking to the usual players, such as the NHS, the University and the Chamber of Commerce – they employ people whose job it is to influence the Council.  Real engagement involves a wide range of interested parties, some of whom will be organised single-interest groups with an understanding of lobbying.  Others will not be so organised, will have multiple interests and will need to be sought out and engaged.  But the key is for the Council to work out at the beginning who will be impacted by what it is thinking of doing, and being them into the process from the start.

For this, new mechanisms are not always necessary.  Area-based community associations exist around the city, but they vary in both ambition and effectiveness.  Given a helping hand, all could become forums for bringing together interested members of their community to discuss emerging issues with councillors and officers before ideas become set-in-stone proposals.  Set up attractive events, designed to encourage people to get engaged.  These can be city-wide or local, depending on the task in hand.

There is also a huge amount of professional expertise around the city to be tapped into.  Retired doctors, policy analysts, service managers, engineers and academics are just some of the people who could be engaged in helping the Council work its way through issues.  They would not be paid but would have the time, free of the distractions and self-interest involved in earning a living.  They would be far better value for money than the firms of consultants to which the Council is so addicted.

One caution.  The people in the Council who need to do the engaging are the people responsible for the issue in question.  Having people who understand communications and event management is useful, but their role is behind the scenes.

Can any of this work?

The Heavitree Community Partnership, involving the City Council, Exeter City Futures, the University and – above all – local residents and schools – is a possible pointer to a better future [5].  The jury is still out on its longer-term impacts, but there is evidence of genuine engagement on how to solve traffic problems in the city as well as spin-offs in learning techniques for the residents (eg how to measure air pollution).  It may not be the exact model for every situation but it is hugely promising.

To scale up Heavitree, or something like it, into the normal way the Council conducts its business will require new approaches to leadership, to be discussed in a future post.

NOTES

[1] Schools and health are handled by Devon County Council and the myriad NHS bodies respectively; but the principle is the same.

[2] The City Council’s Car Parking Strategy 2016-2026 does demonstrate some consultation bordering on engagement (see pages 15-18), with a 70-strong stakeholder workshop.  Users were represented by a small (20 respondents) focus group selected by a market research company.

[3]  Express & Echo, 26 April 2018, page 21.  The paper’s website – Devonlive.com – defeats my attempts at finding the online version of the article.

[4]  Although there are encouraging signs that pressure for a longer consultation period on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan is bearing a little fruit.  8 weeks, rather than 6, is being proposed in a report to councillors (page 30).

[5]  A report on the project was presented to the City Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee on 8 March 2018.

Can the Council be a leader?

Exeter City Council’s default position is to look inwards on itself, but it can’t show the necessary 21st century leadership until that culture changes.

Most people from the City Council who’ve read as far as this will already be outraged at what they see as a misrepresentation.  They will argue that Council consults on proposed policies, publishes information about spending and services, holds most of its committee business in public and has a network of ward councillors to feed in residents’ concerns.  Well, that’s all true.  But is it sufficient?

Let’s explore further the notion that the Council is inward-looking.  As always, examples are illuminating.

The non-development at the bus station site

I’ve blogged at length about the planned redevelopment of the bus station site [1] and the subsequent refusals of the political leadership to reconsider the publicly funded flagship leisure centre project.  This, despite rising costs, public scepticism and the plug being pulled by the private sector developers on their part of the site. A recent external peer review of the Council pointed out that the status quo is more than a bit dodgy, reaching such conclusions as [2]:

  • “many stakeholders – external and internal – are not clear on the purpose and priority of [the redevelopment project]”
  • “there is an ongoing need to engage with partners and stakeholders to reiterate the purpose and benefits of the scheme.”
  • “it may be worth the council developing contingency plans and keeping an open mind about the best use of this site (and alternative potential locations for a new improved leisure centre), in case better redevelopment proposals come forward.”

Couched in the polite language of these reviews, this is a serious slap on the wrist for the Council’s tunnel vision.

Lack of public clarity on spending plans

The 2018/19 budget for the City Council is set out in a 130-page report, including many financial tables.  So when a member of the public asked at a recent scrutiny committee what would be the impact of the 30% reduction shown in spending on advisory services, she was told that it wasn’t a reduction because the way in which accounting for overheads had been changed [3].  Our sole Green Party councillor received a similar response from the Chief Finance Officer when he asked about an apparent cut in the recycling budget.  No doubt this was explained in the small print, but there is no way a busy non-expert could easily work it out.

So I asked another scrutiny committee if they would support a rule change which required future budget tables to explain, for each budget line, whether spending changes were real changes or accounting changes, and if the former what would be the impact on services.  The response set out the various opportunities councillors had for scrutinising and questioning draft budgets in detail.  Nowhere in the response was there any suggestion that the wider public – whose money is being spent – might have an interest in understanding these tables as well.

Disrupting the community grants arrangements

Exeter Community Forum is a City Council-supported bottom-up initiative aimed at strengthening the voices of community-led organisations in the City [4].  Among its activities is the operation of the Grass Roots Grants scheme, a function delegated to the Forum by the City Council.  The grants panel includes one councillor from the Executive and is serviced by the Council’s communities programme officer.  The Chair and 3 other panel members are drawn from the Forum’s community membership.  Award decisions require ratification by the Council, so there is no loss of control over public funds.

Earlier this month, and completely out of the blue, some Labour councillors on a scrutiny committee of the Council proposed that a review should be carried out of the Grants panel “to consider whether there was a need for greater accountability and scrutinisation (sic) of its processes and to examine if a change of approach through increasing the involvement of Members was desirable” [5].  The recommendation was rubber-stamped by the Executive the following day.  No evidence was brought forward to justify the review, which by implication slurs the competence and integrity of the volunteers on the current panel.  No one, including the Council’s own programme officer and the officers of the Exeter Community Forum, was involved in any prior discussion.  But then mature informed engagement is not the Exeter City Council way.

Lack-lustre approach to improving air quality

Then we have the draft Air Quality Action Plan currently out for comment [6]. The Council proudly laid on a consultation exhibition at the Guildhall.  It consisted of half a dozen uninformative poster boards, and the usual questionnaire of the “do you agree” tick box variety, which didn’t even have a return address on it.  But perhaps the most telling example of how the Council sees itself was the first line in all the publicity: “Exeter City Council has a statutory duty to measure air pollution and to produce an Action Plan with measures to control the air quality in and around the city.”  In other words, it’s all about them the Council, and not about us the citizens.  Couldn’t they have opened with a line like “Exeter City Council is asking for your help to find new ways of making our air cleaner” ?

Top down planning policy

Public involvement in planning policy consists of being given an opportunity to comment on draft plans for which the main themes have already been agreed behind closed doors [7].

The leaking Housing Development Company

The Council’s plans to set up a Housing Development Company to build much-needed housing are public only to the extent that we know they want to set one up, and that they have commissioned further studies into the extent of private sector involvement in the company.  A FOI Act request to see the business case has just been turned down by the Council, although the peer review report had already leaked – inadvertently or not – a very useful summary of the business case into the public domain [8].

 

These illustrations of how the City Council does its business are not meant to suggest the organisation is inefficient.  Indeed, deciding things internally and pushing them through with a minimum of public involvement can be held up as an efficient process: low input, big output.  But it is most certainly far less effective in achieving Council and community priorities.

It’s the lack of real community engagement that seems central to the Council’s problem.  All the examples above show that the Council is set in a way of doing things that relegates community engagement to a low priority, if indeed it acknowledges it all.  Nor is this an issue confined to Exeter: the Local Government Association found that across England satisfaction with levels of council-community engagement was relatively low compared to other satisfaction indicators [9].  The survey identified that the four most popular changes councils could make were:

  • Explain more clearly how it is using your money
  • Make it clearer how residents can get involved in decision-making
  • Demonstrate more clearly how it is acting on residents’ feedback
  • Explain more clearly its decisions when they affect you

These are very modest changes, though very much in the right direction.  Yet Exeter City Council could – and should – go much further.  Its vision for the city is [10]:


Our Economy

  • A prosperous city
  • A learning city
  • An accessible city

Our Society

  • A city with strong communities
  • A city that is healthy and active
  • A safe city

Our Environment

  • A city that cares for the environment
  • A city with homes for everyone
  • A city of culture

This is a good vision, and if realised would be transformative.  To get there, strong civic inclusive leadership will be needed.  A style of leadership which is far removed from the current ways of doing public business and which will overcome not only the inwardness culture but also the “old politics” I described in The Old Politics no longer serves us well.  Over the next couple of months, and drawing on the strengths that do exist in Exeter City Council, I will try to set out what this leadership might look like.

 

NOTES:

[1] See Off the Buses and Scrutiny can work.

[2] From the report of the Exeter Corporate Peer Challenge, one of a programme of reviews sponsored by the Local Government Association, is available at item 35 of the minutes of the Executive meeting on 13 March 2018 at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=112&MId=5305&Ver=4

[3] People Scrutiny Committee, 12 March 2018, item 12 of minutes at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=626&MId=5976&Ver=4.  To get the full question and response, you need to download the pdf of the “Printed Draft Minutes”.

[4] For information on the Exeter Community Forum, see http://exetercommunityforum.net/who

[5] People Scrutiny Committee, 12 March 2018, item 16 of minutes at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=626&MId=5976&Ver=4

[6] See https://exeter.gov.uk/aqap/

[7] See my post Our Planners’ Cat is out of the Bag.  Further evidence that GESP is already done and dusted is on page 9 of the Corporate Peer Challenge (see note 2 above) where Exeter’s housing need is summarised.

[8] Also on page 9 of the Corporate Peer Challenge (see note 2 above)

[9] See survey findings at https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Feb%202017%20Resident%20Satisfaction%20Polling.pdf pages 15-16.

[10] As set out in Exeter’s Sustainable Community Strategy 2009, aka the Exeter Vision.  It is no longer available on the Council’s website, but is referenced as Appendix 5 of the Core Strategy adopted in 2012 (https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/local-plan/core-strategy-development-plan-document/ ).

Our planners’ cat is out of the bag

Consultation on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP) looks like being an expensive and time-wasting ritual.

Beware of too sublime a sense
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that’s done
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The folly of his expectation.

(From The Retired Cat by William Cowper, 1791)

Last week CPRE Devon arranged a public meeting to discuss the emerging Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP).  The room was packed with over 160 people, thus giving the lie to those who believe that people aren’t interested in spatial planning.

The formal presentations – one from the Growth Point and one from the GESP team – didn’t add much to the store of existing knowledge.  After all, the Plan doesn’t exist yet, so how can anyone say anything about it?  What we did discover is that the GESP timetable is slipping badly:  at one time their website stated the consultation draft would be out in January 2018, but today’s timetable is that it will appear in “Autumn 2018”.  We also discovered something else that I don’t think we were meant to discover, about which more in a moment.

The last platform speaker was the East Devon MP, Sir Hugo Swire.  I don’t usually have a lot of time for his views [1] but on this occasion he said some sensible things.  Like pointing out that writing a plan to predict our needs 22 years hence – the plan is to cover the period up to 2040 – is an unrealistic endeavour given the pace of technological change which affects social behaviour, service provision and employment patterns.  Or reminding us that there is brownfield land for housing within and immediately around Exeter which could be used up without building on green fields and forcing people to commute even further into the city’s employment zones.  And having a pot at the volume housebuilders and their standard house designs which are out of keeping with any of our vernacular architectures.  He then joined in the area’s favourite sport of bashing Exeter City Council’s ruling Labour group.

After the coffee break and the departure of the MP we were treated to a party political broadcast, masquerading as a question, from the Labour county councillor for Alphington and Cowick.  Then I caught the Chair’s eye and asked two questions.  The first related to my hobby-horse on housing density [2] which attracted no response from the platform or anywhere else except from an audience member who seemed not to understand the difference between high density and high rise.

The second was on the GESP planning process.  I have a rule that I don’t publicly criticise civil servants or local government officers by name, on the grounds that unless they’ve gone rogue they are doing their political bosses’ bidding.  So I shall simply refer to the recipient of my question as The Planner.  Prefacing my remarks with a well-received (by the audience) statement that planning in this country was done to us, not by us, I asked The Planner whether he thought the paltry 6 weeks being allowed for comment on the GESP consultation draft was fair.  The Planner said it was indeed fair, on the grounds that people never responded until right at the end of the consultation period however long it was.

Stumped by the non sequitur of the reply, my supplementary question was that they should at least now publish the completed evidence studies commissioned in support of the plan.  That way, those of us who couldn’t pay for armies of consultants to read the stuff could do some preparation ourselves before the consultation draft came out.  And this is where the cat’s head became visible in the opening of the bag.

The Planner paused for thought, presumably recognising the reasonableness of the question.  He then conceded that it might be possible to publish some studies, but not those which would give any clues as to what would be in the draft plan.  Hang on, I said, from a sedentary position– the Chair was a man of tolerance and wisdom – you’re saying that some planning policies have already been decided and the evidence has been commissioned to back up those decisions?  You’re putting words into my mouth, said The Planner, but I didn’t hear him deny it.

So now we know what the secretive Greater Exeter Visioning Board [3] was doing two years ago.  It was deciding the outline content of what is to become the GESP.  And the evidence was then commissioned to back up those key decisions, not to expose them to challenge.  It’s an easy process:  you just tell the consultants what assumptions and constraints to build in, and you end up with an impressive-looking piece of “evidence” that will be a wow at a public examination of the plan.

I wasn’t alone in complaining about the 6-week consultation period.  A practitioner far more experienced than I am commented that the mandatory period used to be 12 weeks, and 8 weeks was regarded as the minimum for best practice purposes.  How were organisations whose committees met every 6 weeks going to prepare their comments?  That cut no ice with The Planner either.

Interestingly,  Exeter’s chief planning officer recently told our Green Party councillor that the 6-week period was necessary because the GESP had to be produced as quickly as possible so that the City Council could put in place a new local plan to replace the current one declared by the Planning Inspectorate as not fit for purpose.  Being not fit for purpose means that developers can build pretty much where they like.  Well, the delays in producing the first GESP draft don’t exhibit much of a sense of urgency.  Given that the main content of the GESP has already been decided, why don’t we just skip all the expensive and time-consuming process of producing a formal, approved strategic joint plan?  Just tell the district councils what they’ve already secretly decided between themselves and they can then amend their local plans to conform.  As things stand, we’ll have developers running riot in Exeter until 2022 at the earliest.

No, that’s not very democratic is it?  Not in the spirit of engaging communities in deciding their own futures.  But until the attitudes exhibited by The Planner and his bosses are set aside, democracy and engagement don’t look having any place in our planning system.  Has no one learned the lesson of the Brexit referendum – which is what happens when people feel locked out?

NOTES

[1]  See for example my post https://petercleasby.com/2015/03/02/the-trouble-with-this-election-is-that-the-voters-might-think-for-themselves/

[2]  See my posts at https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/11/14/wider-still-and-wider/ and https://agreeninexeter.com/2017/03/27/how-dense-can-we-be/

[3]  See my posts at https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-1/ and https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-2/