Community engagement. Consultation. Words much used by my council. I can speak for the world of cycling. The argument usually looks like this:
"We know what cyclists want. We have consulted the forum."
But what is the forum? Who runs it and what's its purpose?
In 2010 the safe cycling in Newcastle petition kicked some aspects into focus, including the council's cycling forum. It was petitioners who were instrumental in requesting better focus, and ultimately writing the terms of reference for the forum. And our thanks lies in progress that has been made. But make no mistake, it's the usual: things happen at the council nearly as always by external influence. Rest assured that council officers are The Purveyors of Standing Still.
The curious thing is, and citizens take note: in the short-term, a badly run forum or consultation actually works in favour of the council. A simple claim of "As you know, we have consulted you", then the door slams shut. And that's it. The End.
If there's only little scraps to discuss - a dropped-kerb here (you agree?), some traffic light there (you agree?) - there's no leverage. Check out the forum's minutes for my claims. There are no programmes, plans or budgets to discuss, allocate, or influence to be had. No vision to follow. Council bosses have successfully pushed aside a tangible vision for years. (Maybe 'push' is to active a term here.)
Ever been frustrated by dealing with the council? No reply? Getting nowhere? You are sucked dry to a husk at a 'consultation event'... then... nothing? Ah! What's happening here is common council practice: you've been feeding the black hole. I have been throwing little stones into dark council holes for years, and it was a rare occasion when I heard the splash on impact. The amount of un-answered questions is mounting. The heap of un-received requested information is getting higher every day. Paid for by the tax-payer? Publicly available? Council has learnt to duck behind smoke screens of totally ludicrous classifications like 'commercially sensitive' and 'available at a later date'. Their website rarely making documents available.
But also, council take note: there's no community buy-in! No community ownership, and certainly waning interest in providing further 'feedback'. With neighbourhood plans and community ownership high on the agenda, you may want to give your approach a re-think. I think that Let'sTalk is not it, or delivery is slow, or it's just badly organised.
With no long-term cohesive vision (hello, 1Plan!!), the council officers needn't (and even can't) show commitment, make promises or progress. Consultation will remain a farce, but as a traffic engineer said the other day "consultation is something that gets into our way a lot of times". The fairy-tale land of pink glasses and A Giant Rabbit Hole. It's a vessel at choppy sea with no pilot and a mooted mutiny.
So... here you have it. That is why the local cycling campaign asks for programmes. Order! Order! It's something we can check and monitor.
I remain to be convinced that council officers are up to it.
And we will work with community groups, on a good old grassroot level, filling the consultation gap.