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.
Er...no. 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?
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.