Last week, yet another major consultation ended. Did you know England’s Economic Heartland (EEH) was consulting on the transport strategy it intends to deliver when it becomes a statutory Sub-national Transport Body?
EEH is a partnership of local authorities from Swindon to Cambridgeshire, working to deliver economic growth. It will become the sixth government body with transport powers in Greater Cambridge, joining the county council, Greater Cambridge Partnership, combined authority, Highways England and Network Rail. This is the very antithesis of transparency and accountability, cornerstones of honest democracy.
EEH has insufficient resources to engage widely and deeply with the population it represents. In any case, people’s capacity and motivation to engage is at a low. The challenges just of everyday life can be overwhelming, from bringing up children to working long and often stressful hours, all now under the heavy veil of COVID-19. Those who are trying to engage face a tsunami of consultations on local and national strategies, policies, plans, schemes and developments. Documentation for these can run to more than a thousand pages.
Most critically though, people’s experience of consultations is that their input does not make a significant difference.
Meanwhile, economic stakeholders have both the motivation and resources to engage and lobby to further their own or their clients’ interests. Those include landowners, property agencies, investors, developers, construction companies and other large businesses. They drown out the small voice of residents and their local councillors (who are themselves almost totally consumed in dealing with hyperlocal issues).
We need more transparency about who engages with, lobbies and advises government bodies – formally and informally. Government must also take steps to give citizens a voice by providing resources to enable community groups to organise themselves and employ experts – just as economic stakeholders do.
That investment in people would be tiny compared with the millions of pounds routinely wasted in local government to acquire local knowledge via professional consultancies. Deeper and more open-minded engagement would yield better outcomes, and avoid delays and costs of trying to deliver ill-conceived schemes in the face of strong opposition by hurt and angry residents.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 14 October 2020.