‘CONSULTATION” and “listening” are buzz words in politics. Along with words like “engagement” and, shudder, “interface”.
The terminology is poor but the aim is worthy: to be transparent and approachable, to give the ordinary woman and man in the street the belief that their opinions count and that their views can change the policies of local government.
It is hard not to laugh at such grandiose ideas in Edinburgh, a city where a tram, which many claim never to have wanted, is about to start running. People were never consulted about it, there was no referendum. For many that sticks in the craw.
But of course by the time the tram was on the table, the council was shy of asking people’s opinions; of listening to views which perhaps did not chime with what it wanted. The congestion charge vote and the housing stock transfer, two major issues on which the people of Edinburgh were consulted, did not go the way the city council had hoped. So consultations were out.
Certainly the administration seemed to decide from the off that listening to public opinion was not what governing a city was all about. It refused to allow parents to speak to the education committee about school closures, a parent representative was barred from the “consultation committee” on the same issue after questioning decisions, the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust was told it couldn’t object to council planning decisions and the time for any deputations to the council was cut to just ten minutes.
A new administration later, and we were promised a “co-operative council”, which would change everything. Consultation was back on the agenda and ears were primed for listening.
Sometimes it has worked. For instance The Engine Shed, where young adults with learning difficulties receive vital training, slated for closure, was saved by the many voices of the people who use it.
The budget consultation provoked a big response from parents of kids with additional support needs who saw that the money spent on their children’s education was about to be slashed, from others who were concerned that school librarians were to go, from those who believed that vulnerable people were most likely to lose out.
Yet from a city of almost 500,000 people, the council’s “engagement” only reached 68,000 people and from this it received 250 e-mails, 341 responses to an online survey and 200 comments on social media.
But it worked, even on those numbers the council changed its budget – so progress has been made. Even the Mortonhall report was, frustratingly for the press, given to parents first as they had asked.
But this change is not everywhere. The consultation over the local development plan generated very few responses despite the controversial nature of many potential developments, suggesting that many interested groups knew nothing about it. This week, Cammo Residents’ Association claimed that consultation on green belt development was a farce as city planners had already resolved to unlock tranches of land for housebuilding, no matter people’s views.
The planners would deny that, but all too often that is one area where people’s views are ignored – look at Caltongate.
The other issue is trust. If people don’t believe councils listen and that their views can enact change, how can they trust the process?
Transparency is the key. Transparency of process, of thought, of detail of accountability. Without transparency of its workings, the council might as well consult with the fresh air, for no-one will ever believe that it make an iota of difference.
Likeness only goes so far
I MET David Beckham once. Or at least a bloke who looked very like him. So like him in fact that he was able to hire himself out as a pretend Beckham for those who may ever need such a thing.
We sent him, aka Shaun Campbell, to George Street on a Friday night to see just how well he could fool the Edinburgh people – and let’s just say the crowds outside 99 Hanover Street on Tuesday when the real deal was in town, were nothing in comparison. It was just a shame that while Shaun looked like Beckham, he couldn’t play like him, or our national team’s fortunes could have been very different.
ERIC Milligan, the former Lord Provost who swigged Buckfast from the bottle in a Gorgie street, who declared he’d introduce drunk tanks to deal with alcohol-fuelled behaviour, now doesn’t believe there’s a link between the number of outlets flogging hooch and disorderly behaviour. I’ll have some of what he’s drinking.
Gallery floored by job backlash
ON the subject of listening, one organisation which got it right this week was the Fruitmarket Gallery. The Market Street art gallery had advertised for eight unskilled, volunteers to help install the Jim Lambie piece “Zobop” for a forthcoming exhibition. In return they’d get a free lunch.
For those unfamiliar with the Lambie work, the job would involve the laying of strips of coloured vinyl across the floor – painstaking work, and not too good on the back or knees either.
There was uproar among the artistic community, as installers are generally paid around £15 an hour, and this “opportunity” from a publicly-funded gallery was branded as exploitation. However the Fruitmarket listened to its critics and withdrew the offer. It will now use paid installers to lay the Lambie floor. A victory for common sense and the belief that people should be paid for work.
SNP not living the promises
I’VE written before about the living wage and why it should in fact be the new minimum paid to employees – the clue is in its name. So for the Scottish Government to vote against the motion that all contractors who work on its behalf should pay their staff at least £7.65 an hour is a scandal. Fairness and reducing social inequalities is what the SNP claims to stand for. Sadly it hasn’t shown it in this case.