(When consultation doesn’t tell you what you wanted to hear.)
The news this week that a developer has been accused of hiding ‘embarrassing opposition’ to their plans was met with a yawn at Woodland Trust HQ (before we got really annoyed, but more on that in a moment). This is just another good example of an issue we face a lot: when consultation is not really consultation, but tokenism.
Wikipedia defines public consultation as;
“a regulatory process by which the public’s input on matters affecting them is sought. Its main goals are in improving the efficiency, transparency and public involvement in large-scale projects or laws and policies.”
What’s supposed to happen next is the results of your consultation inform your final plans. Sometimes though, the responses you receive don’t always match what you wanted to hear. And there can be many. When this happens, it seems a default reaction is to attempt to underplay the value of these responses by lumping them into one.
This is often seen when a number of responses that are received say the same thing (for example a petition), or express similar concerns (for example emails generated by a campaign), or when a lot of responses come via a single route (for example when facilitated through an organisation). In a similar vein some MPs, government departments and various local planning authorities have also been known to question the validity of what they call ‘mass emails’ and petitions.
The consulting body in this case, Gatwick’s fund manager owner Global Infrastructure Partners, has produced a report on its consultation results. It describes the 4,092 responses which the Trust facilitated to its consultation on the three options put forward for a new runway as ‘an organised campaign’, in an apparent attempt to understate both the volume of responses (53% of all the responses GIP received) and the result – a resounding ‘no’ to a new runway, on the basis of ancient woodland loss.
Unfortunately this report also includes several fundamental misunderstandings about ancient woodland ecology and management. We’ll expand on this in another post. GIP also ignores the fact that many of these (1,058 to be exact) took the time to add further, personal comments on the plans. This is possibly what’s annoyed us the most. Ancient woodland, like the rest of the natural world, can’t speak up for itself. Not all of these people are Woodland Trust members, as GIP have assumed, but they do all have one thing in common with the Trust; a belief that ancient woodland is an irreplaceable natural resource that needs to be given proper consideration in planning proposals.
All this is important, because the report will be given to the Airports Commision which will use it as part of its recommendations for aviation expansion next year. It should be accurate.
If the public response you receive doesn’t reflect what you really wanted it to say, then man up – don’t hide it. And if you didn’t really want to know, why ask?
For the record, we will be making doubly sure that GIP takes heed of what those 4,000+ people said about the plans for a second runway, if we have to hand them in to their offices ourselves!
Why do you take part in consultations through campaigns like ours? We’d love to know your views: