The Council and Consultation

Argus title : People, not politicians, deserve a proper say in how our city will develop in the future

There’s a kind of listening that isn’t listening at all.

We’ve all met people who do it. They ask questions, but don’t wait for the answers. Their gaze wanders and they talk through the reply or fill the first pause with a conversation-stopping non-sequitur.

They may ask question after question of the people they’re not listening to, driving them into frustrated silence.

It’s a particularly confusing form of monologue, because if challenged the questioner can always say “I’m interested. I’ve asked you what you think, haven’t I?”.

It’s a form of communication that is not unknown in marriage. But it reaches its apogee in relations between local politicians and those they represent.

Ken Bodfish, the affable Leader of Brighton & Hove Council, has taken a hammering recently. He lost a vote of no confidence this year over the way a decision on the future of the city’s Council Housing was reached.

I disagree with Ken Bodfish’s position on Council Housing. I hope that when the matter comes to the ballot, Council tenants will vote overwhelmingly to keep the stock in Council ownership.

I nonetheless feel sorry at the personal tone of the attacks on him. He is not just being attacked openly and legitimately for his policies, but privately by some others for his ‘leadership style’ and alleged ‘failure to listen’.

Councillors appear to have forgotten that they are collectively responsible for the direction of the Council – and that as a group they are not famed for their commitment to consultation. Those who feel aggrieved might usefully reflect upon just how well they listen to the people of Brighton & Hove.

In pursuing the best interests of the wards they represent, many councillors do take account of the constituents who elected them (though I believe they took more when local elections were held every year). However, it’s rare to find councillors who are genuinely responsive to the views and needs of all the city’s people.

At this point councillors may be choking over their morning coffee. They may object that the council is involved in a myriad of ‘partnerships’, regeneration, community and otherwise.

They may point to the “Local Development Framework”(LDF), the Government’s newly agreed planning system for local authorities, and highlight the recent invitation in the Council’s newspaper “City News” to contribute to its “Core Strategy”.

All this is true. And no doubt such consultations involve a great deal of time and money. But as most residents of Brighton & Hove know, for ordinary people they just don’t cut the mustard.

This is because strategic partnerships tend to involve only senior employees from a narrow range of organisations. The majority are public sector representatives with a sprinkling of influential business people and occasional representation from prominent individuals within the voluntary and ‘community’ sectors.

The people who are not there are ordinary residents whose only recourse is via public consultation. However, many council consultations are conducted in such as way that most people are either unaware of them – or can’t participate.

Nobody reading “City News” could deny that the Council invites comment on numerous issues. The question is whether it is done in a way which really welcomes answers.

The LDF will affect the life of the city for 20 years to come and yet most people – unless they read “City News” cover to cover (and few do) – will not know about it. Those who do read about the key “Core Strategy” in the November edition will have only until 16th December to express a view on a densely typed complex document which is 33 pages long. Few are likely to do so.

There is no established tradition in Brighton & Hove of citizen involvement in strategic planning. Individual residents become involved only when campaigns against – or in favour of – particular schemes are set up. In such cases, residents’ views tend to be articulated, not via the Council, but through the pages of the Argus.

In some cases, such as the campaign to site a football stadium at Falmer, the Albion, the Argus, the Council and residents appear to speak with one voice.

In others, such as the King Alfred development, the Council has promoted the Ghery design, while a highly organised and articulate campaign against it has provided an outlet for enraged local residents. There have been similarly forceful and high profile protests about proposed demolition of large family homes in Hove, an energetic campaign against the proposed waste transfer centre in Hollingdean and fierce objection to the proposed development of a high rise tower at the Marina.

There are four things which characterise these often remarkable campaigns:
• They are reactive rather than proactive, usually responding to plans that are already well advanced
• They are organised and supported by a broad range of talented residents with knowledge, commitment and excellent ideas
• They are disparate localised campaigns with no overarching organisation and little opportunity for residents to meet others outside their area.
• However knowledgeable the campaigners, they are routinely greeted by accusations of ignorance and ‘nimbyism’ and traduced for not having the ‘bigger picture’.

The government now requires councils to consult, and that is to be welcomed. However, it doesn’t bode well that the “Core Strategy” – which the Council says “will set out the main objectives that all the other documents and plans will have to follow” – has the appearance of a final draft rather than a genuinely exploratory document. Tellingly, the Council refers to it as “A vision of how we intend (sic) the city to be in 2026”.

It’s a pity that the council did not harness the energy, knowledge and experience of the city’s residents at a far earlier stage, so that they could be involved in determining the framework for debate. Now, citizens are playing ‘catch up’ with a council that has apparently already decided where it wants to go.

If we had had those earlier discussions, there might not have been 2 separate campaigns opposing proposed high rise blocks at both ends of the city’s seafront skyline.

If we had had open discussion about housing matters we might not now be facing so severe a housing crisis. Given that, over the past few years, many young local families have been forced out of the city because they can no longer afford to live in it – and homeless people are being excluded from services if they have no ‘local connection’ – ordinary residents, if asked, would almost certainly have discouraged the council’s and business sector’s drive to attract affluent ‘second homers’ and their commitment to provide additional services for them.

We might have discussed why – when so many shared student households occupy privately-let large homes which might otherwise accommodate families – our universities take so little responsibility for providing student accommodation (and parking).

We could have had city-wide debate about the future of council housing, which is, after all, a public asset.

Had we been asked we might have objected to untrammelled expansion of the “night time economy” predicting it would lead to increased drug use and public drunkenness, violence and sexual assault.

“Brighton & Hove City Forum” meets regularly at Brighton College to eat dinner, listen to speeches and discuss the future of the city. Its members are politicians and influential members of the public and private sector – ‘stakeholders’ as they are quaintly termed. Ordinary residents aren’t there.

It seems Brighton & Hove may need an independent ‘people’s forum’ – to inform individual citizens who want to make a difference and support them to influence policy.

Perhaps, as a first step, there could be just one meeting to discuss key issues facing the city.

I don’t know who could organise it. But we could buy in fish and chips.

It could be fun.

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