Recently, Sheffield City Council issued an apology to the courts to whom they lied during the tree felling debacle. This follows on from apologies to the people of Sheffield and personal apologies to the tree campaigners. Sadly, no individuals ever took responsibility for this shocking episode, and nobody in charge fell on their sword.
In Plymouth there are mutterings of lessons being learned, but so far words and actions remain stubbornly few and far between.
The most recent consultation run by Plymouth City Council (PCC) on the Armada Way project, which saw the removal of over 100 largely healthy trees, was yet another tick box exercise in a series of disappointing ‘engagement’ ventures – each, in different ways, seemingly designed to trick the public into supporting a scheme which PCC is hell bent on pushing through.
Now, as you’d expect, there are rules on consultations. Councils don’t always need to run them, but when they do, they must do them properly. Doing them properly means, amongst other things, providing the respondents with sufficient accurate information on which to form their opinion, and giving them the opportunity to properly have their say at a formative stage of the decision-making process. The recent ‘Let’s Talk Armada Way’ consultation did neither of these things.
Just weeks after the close of the consultation PCC revealed that the true cost of the project was not the £12.7m the public had been told it would cost. Now, the estimate had ballooned to a figure in the region of £36.8m! To be clear, this eye-watering amount of public money is for just one street. Not only did the project team keep this under their hats for the entire consultation, but – it gets worse – full financial details were not available for the scrutiny committee last week; the very committee that was supposed to, er, scrutinise it. And it doesn’t look as though they will be available for the cabinet members who are responsible for voting on it this month.
The design team even admitted that they can’t say for certain whether the final cost will be even higher. At last week’s meeting the Council said that they “wanted to be open and transparent as to the scale of the figures now”. Why were they not ‘open and transparent’ with the people of Plymouth when it mattered, i.e. during the consultation? I’m afraid ‘better late than never’ is just not good enough in this situation. And why were they not ‘open and transparent’ in showing how they had reached this ludicrous sum, a sum that has tripled in the space of nine months?
Sadly, it seems to be the case that the people making the decisions in PCC are not in the habit of responding to public pressure, however reasonable. The rather depressing and regularly heard phrase by Plymothians is “the council just do whatever they want”. Where there is such deep-seated resistance to listening to constituents, legal challenges appear to be the only option. This is why STRAW has sent a letter to PCC, via solicitors, outlining why we believe the ‘Let’s Talk’ consultation was unlawful. Information in the consultation material was misleading and inadequate. Don’t you think respondents will have had an opinion on a threefold increase in costs at a time where public services are stretched to breaking point? Additionally, PCC told us that six trees must be translocated otherwise the scheme is “not possible”. This turned out to be untrue. Not only was there misleading information, but the survey was also heavily biased in favour of the scheme. For most elements of the project, respondents could not tick a box indicating that they were even indifferent to that element, let alone that they didn’t like it.
The cabinet should not be making a decision on this scheme with such vague financial details, and should not vote to accept the results of an unlawful consultation.
Public consultations are important, not just because consulting people is simply the right thing to do and injects a bit of civic pride, but also because it can actually make projects like this better! If done at the start, the result can be more interesting designs. What’s more, when listened to, the public really get on board and are more likely to truly appreciate a scheme. Importantly, it is less likely that there will be a costly objection to plans further down the line. Councils and companies can actually save money.
It’s a convenient line for PCC to trot out – that everybody just wants it done and dusted asap – and it’s the only line they seem to think they can use to point the finger at the STRAW campaign(Save the Trees of Armada Way) and to distract from their own mismanagement. If they actually asked, they might find that most people would rather this project (and future projects) were done properly, not just quickly.