… Public Consultation
Everyone knows you can’t change a man, but if you’re trying to win arguments then the ones you have with your partner are the easiest. There are only two views to consider and everyone has their say.
Anything larger, like a group of friends deciding where to go, and yours becomes one voice amongst many. Your powers have diminished! Better form some alliances if you want to have final say.
As the size of the group grows, the ability to consult everyone goes down. Levels of government are introduced so that a few can represent the whole. Schools have PTAs, Housing developments have a Resident’s Association. Everyone knows who those representatives are and how to contact them, so wider consultation is possible.
The next level up must be local government. Suddenly yours is one voice in 10 000 or 100 000.
100 000 people, each with their own interests, agendas, and apathy.
‘Public Consultation’ is a phrase you hear a lot from local government. But the clue is in the name – it’s ‘Public Consultation, not ‘Consultation of 100 000 people’. The local government doesn’t want to know what 100 000 people think. They want to know what ‘The Public’ think. “Go away, Public, and don’t come back until you’ve made a decision”.
Let’s give this a context (public toilets, YAY!). Imagine the district council propose closing a village toilet. They’ve counted how many people use it and the cost to run it, and it’s £4.20 per use. It’s also getting run down and they’d have to invest in it this year to bring it up to scratch. But they’ve got to meet the spending cuts, so closing it will be best for the council as a whole.
It’s a logic we’ll be hearing a lot from our councils about all sorts of public services. It confuses cost with value. The argument didn’t consider who was using the toilets, just how many.
In the village of my scenario, the toilets are used by the bus drivers when beginning their route in the market place to take the locals into town, the street cleaner (who also cleans the toilets), and many older villagers who go into the village centre to do their shopping, go to the bank and catch up on news. The canal brings in tourists, particularly walkers, so they might use the toilets, and the occasional mother takes her children in if they can’t hold it when walking home from school.
The rest of the villagers haven’t used the toilets. So we’ve got two groups – those that use them, and those that don’t.
We’ve got at least 5 groups.
- Those that rely on the toilets
- Those that regularly use the toilets
- Those that occasionally use the toilets
- Those that might use the toilets in the future
- Those that won’t use the toilets
Each group attributes a different ‘value’ to the toilets.
What will happen if the toilets close?
The bus drivers will complain to the bus company. The council will have to make alternative provision for the street cleaner. The tourists will ask to use the pub toilets, if they’re open (and the tourism guide will make a note of the lack of toilets so others don’t make the same mistake).
The older people, well, some of them will have to go back home after buying their groceries and not look round other shops, stay for a coffee or chat to other locals. Soon they’ll stop enjoying the village and only go to the shops if they need to. They might find it easier for relatives to bring their shopping from the out-of-town supermarket, but then they’ll never go out at all.
Hopefuly, before closing the toilets, the council will consult the public. After all, it’s the public’s council, the public’s village, the public’s toilets. And the public don’t base their decisions on what they use; they base it on what they want.
These are not the same thing. Someone who doesn’t use them might still want them there because they think they’re a valuable provision that the council should provide and knows that others do rely on them. Equally someone who regularly uses the toilets might sympathise with the council and know of other toilets in their daily routine that they could use instead. They’d rather lose the toilets than something that they value more.
And surely it’s the responsibility of the residents to inform the council of their views.
So, why hold a public consultation?
Well, the difference that an ‘official’ public consultation makes is, well:
- It will make the public aware of the issue (that is, if the public read the council press releases)
- It will make the council look good (“we listen to the people”)
- It will mean that the council can decide how the public are consulted. A survey? A public meeting? Letters? Who is invited, and how are their opinions measured?
Those that put the most effort in have the loudest voice (community groups, societies, associations). Those that care a little less, but still care, might add some buzz in the background (sign a petition or fill in a questionnaire). Those that don’t care will, for the time being, cease to exist.
Local Activism seems to be Public Consultation seen from the perspective of the public. Local activists don’t need to wait to be invited to participate. But I think the council still have a responsibility to promote ‘official’ public consultation to ensure that as many people as possible who do care, know about the issues and have to opportunity to voice their opinion. By continuing to ‘inform the public’ via the same old routes (Press Releases, direct invitations) the council might fulfill a criteria but they’re only informing people who would have found out about it anyway!
For example, a local Society might be a long term voice ‘for local people’ with a good relationship to the council, but who are they representing? Well, people who like joining Societies, for a start. It’s a moot point if the general ‘local people’ outside of the Society members agree with the views of the Society, but what happens if they don’t? (or if they don’t care?! If the council want to close services then giving an equal voice to the apathetic would be a real winner!)
And what is a Society anyway? Can a facebook group be a legitimate voice for the people? Will it just represent the people in the group, or can a small group represent ‘the wider local area’? If it has thousands of members will the council treat it as a petition (those that care a little) or a community group (those that care a lot)?
Happily, there’s lots of local activism in public toilets!
I’m end by showing you the Google News Alerts that have come up over the past month; a little fun, non-scientific research. I’ve found 7 different campaigns in 7 different places, demonstrating a healthy level of local activism (and also the levels at which councils are trying to close toilets! but we’ll ignore that for now…)
Here’s a brief summary:
In Rhos-on-Sea in North Wales they’ve collected 200 signatures to stop paddling pool toilets closing. Consequently they’ve got a public meeting scheduled.
Charnwood Borough Council in Leicestershire have been presented with a petition of 2000 people(!) after reviewing 10 public toilets, and a further 500 have responded to a consultation.
Anothor petition (seems to be the way to go!) of 200 people was presented to, I assume, Manchester City Council, over the closure of 1 public toilet.
Epsom and Ewell have been having quite the debarcle! They closed 3 toilets and were first presented with a petition, then a public demonstration of 100 people! In light of this the opposition councillors managed to force a special meeting to reevaluate the decision. And the council decided to keep the toilets… closed.
In Ringwood it’s not the council who want the toilets knocked down, it’s the public! (and then rebuilt better…). Some locals have set up a facebook group demanding improvements to provision.
Glusburn and Cross Hills Paris Council sound like a sensible bunch. They took over the running of Cross Hills public toilets from Craven District Council (I have no idea where these places are!) and asked the village if they should keep them open bearing in mind that they cost £11000 a year. The letters of support ‘from local groups’ indicated yes.
The South Lakeland District Council have had a public consultation on 13 public toilets (to quote a councillor: “I can’t imagine what else could’ve been done to try and involve and enable people to take part in that process,”). It must have worked as there were 2500 signatures on a petition for one toilet. They’re still getting rid of the toilets, but interested parties such as parish councils, businesses and community groups have the option of taking them over.
And finally an example which is a few years old but sticks in my mind because it’s creative and I grew up there. (They did eventually open the toilets. They even had a grand opening! Attended by the council, the newspaper, villagers such as my parents and “the mates of the guy in the images who came down from the pub”, to quote my mum.)