Friday, 12 December 2008

Hand in glove

Hallelujah! The long-awaited consultation on the sale/lease of public land to property developers Squarepeg has finally begun. And when some poor PhD student decides to write the history of dishonest and sham 'community consultation' excercises, I am sure it will be top of their list of case studies.

A casual reader of the consultation website might think that this excercise was being carried out by Bristol City Council themselves. After all, we are talking about the fate of the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, which the website claims is 'an outstanding urban escape route' (whatever that may be). OK, so they did try to turn it into a bus lane not so long ago, but we're a Cycling City now, doncha know? So you'd be forgiven for thinking that listening to local views would be something they'd want to do themselves, having cocked it up so spectacularly less than a year ago. The eagle-eyed, prepared to click through to a PDF file and scan the small print, will notice that the consultation is in fact being run by PPS. Sounds pretty innocous? The investigative blogger's friend reveals that they are in fact, drumroll, 'the UK's... foremost supplier of lobbying, communications and consultation advice to the property industry'. Oh.

Satisfied clients include Barratt Homes, George Wimpey, and Persimmon Homes. And no wonder. As PPS's website astutely notes:

Pre-application consultation on major schemes is fast becoming a fact of life for all involved in development...[We] have enormous experience of how to make the provisions of the 2004 Planning Act work for you. Get it right and you can bring the community with you. Get it wrong and you will face heightened local concerns.

So, you may ask, how exactly can legislation be 'made to work' for multi-million pound developers? What exactly does 'getting a consultation right' involve? The Bristol-Bath Railway Path consultation isn't a bad place for a masterclass.

1. Create the appearance of democratic legitimacy by giving the impression that the consultation is being run by a public body.

2. Prejudge the issue by praising the development as 'much needed' and listing its many virtues.

3. Include pictures of the derelict factory site rather than the historic hedgerow that the development will destroy.

4. Base the consultation around spurious, quasi-rhetorical questions such as:
  • Do you believe the area should remain as it is, or receive further investment?
  • Is regeneration important for Easton?
  • Do you believe development can co-exist alongside green spaces?
  • What would you like to see happen to the two plots of land?
It is important that you ignore the fact that it is perfectly possible to answer yes to the first three and still be against the development in its present form. The object of the exercise is to blackmail residents of a deprived area into giving up scarce green space for private profit.

5. Pretend that green space in Frome Vale is relevant to residents of Easton and Lawrence Hill.

6. Ensure that the consultation period falls over Christmas and New Year, effectively giving interested parties only three weeks to respond.

This consultation is biased beyond belief in favour of the developers. Pinch yourself and remember that it's being run on behalf of the council. And we're paying for it.


Glenn Vowles said...

Yes, I strongly agree. Nothing they say seems consistent with the multifaceted notion of value as applied to green spaces in the Parks and Green Spaces Strategy.

Having attended several meetings to begin drawing up the Area Green Space Plan for Knowle/Windmill Hill/Filwood I know that this consulation is a very poor substitute for the process outlined in the policy - why cant they go through that process now?? Why not bring forward the Area Green Space Plan process??

Anonymous said...

Well found, Greengage. And beautifully deconstructed too. Watch out, they'll be offering you a job next.

Pete Goodwin said...

A nice bit of digging from a footsoldier! Practically behind enemy lines, too.

I still can't understand why they should employ a professional manipulator to do this, though. I've been looking at the West of England's South Bristol Link consultation, and it's clear they can do the manipulation in-house every bit as well.

For instance:

Play down the negative impacts. eg "MAY increase traffic on King George's Road ". You can be bloody sure it would!

Don't mention negative impacts, even though they've been assessed. eg projected new traffic and pollution loads throughout the South Bristol area

Talk up the positives eg "likely to reduce traffic on some key routes (including Kings Head Lane, Winterstoke Road, Parson Street and through Barrow Gurney)" without producing anysupporting evidence.

So why privatise the spin when WoEP can do it just as well? Could it be that Squarepeg are footing the bill?

sued said...

Brilliant blogging, Greengage. Very well spotted and beautifully put. It seems there are dark forces at work in this poor city, with the PR vultures working as henchmen to developers and councillors who are becoming indistinguishable from one another.

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