Council has failed in the process of enabling people to participate in an informed debate, say Kareen Boyd and Jane Milner-Barry.
In June 2013, a group of senior Council officers, councillors and members of the public got together to draft a consultation policy for Swindon Borough Council.
The consensus was that the consultation process had major shortcomings, processes were inconsistent and community engagement was poor, none of which engendered public confidence in the outcomes. Nor was there a process to halt or review a proposal in light of new or changed evidence. The cost of dealing with issues arising from all of this was also a considerable concern. The time had come for change.
After several months of hard work the group arrived at an agreed consultation policy, and on 5 February 2014 it was adopted by the Council’s cabinet.
The policy document begins with a confident statement of its purpose, which is “to clearly set out the Council’s commitment to effective and efficient public consultation and set the expectation that this commitment will be consistently applied, particularly in relation to the Council’s key decisions”. The document listed the principles long established through case law, which include:
• that the consultation must be at a time when proposals are still at a formative stage;
• that the proposal under consultation must give sufficient reasons to enable intelligent consideration and response;
• and that the findings of the consultation must be conscientiously taken into account in making the final decision.
It also listed a series of Council commitments, including “enabling people to participate in an informed debate”.
A job well done, you might think. But at the very time when officers and councillors were engaged in drafting the new policy, the council announced a consultation on the future of its leisure centres and golf courses, and, sadly, this consultation was marred by pretty well every flaw that the working party was trying to outlaw.
Then on 3 March 2014, a month after the policy had actually been agreed, a statutory consultation on the disposal of Croft and Dorcan playing fields was announced (very quietly, in the back pages of the Adver). This second consultation failed to abide either by the council’s own agreed policy, or the guidelines issued by the Department of Education.
The consultation on the future of the leisure centres and golf courses began on 5th January this year. But the shiny brochure inviting bids for 99 year leases on the leisure centres and golf courses had been published in October 2013.
What possible purpose could be served by a consultation at this stage? Why did the council waste our money in carrying it out?
It is interesting to note that the survey form is mostly taken up with questions about the respondent, such as “How often . . do you visit each of these different leisure facilities?”
Could it be that the interested parties who were talking to the Council in the “online data room” were asking for information that the Council did not have to hand, and someone at the Council had the bright idea of killing two birds with one stone?
They could — rather belatedly —go through the form of carrying out a consultation, and at the same time collect the demographic information they needed about the people using the leisure centres.
People living near the Croft sports centre were particularly aware of the shortcomings in the Leisure consultation in this part of Swindon.
The Council usually makes public announcements affecting an area by posting public notices nearby. This is a simple and very effective way of notifying people. There were no public notices posted at the entrances or gates to the Croft Sports Centre or in adjoining streets, though other public notices were on show there, including one about the forthcoming renovation of the Croft children’s play area.
For the first six weeks of the eight week consultation, the notice and survey forms at the Croft sports centre were pinned up not in the reception area but in an inner corridor which some visitors would never pass through. And there were none on show at the central library, which would seem an obvious place to publicise such a “key decision”.
People whose properties adjoined the Croft playing fields should surely have been notified of a proposal which might lead to a change of use of the sports centre and field. However, no leaflets were distributed, and here’s a comment from one local resident: “My daughter who lives in Tismeads Crescent and is on the side backing onto the field received two notifications about alterations to a bus stop on Croft Road, yet nothing about the sale of the field”.
And what about the information given to enquiring citizens, to enable them to give a considered opinion? It was sadly inadequate.
The information on the form itself, whether paper or online, referred only to inviting companies to “take over the running” of the leisure centres. “Please take a few minutes to answer our questions” suggested the form — hardly an invitation to study any information in depth.
Enquirers following directions to www.leisureinswindon.co.uk would only find only a reference to “long-term leases” and a little tab labelled “FAQs”. This looked more promising. In answer to the first FAQ, the council states “the change programme is looking at a whole range of options for making the Council’s leisure and culture provision sustainable”.
But readers wanting to hear more about the whole range of options were disappointed; that was all we heard about them. The council had already made up its mind. The rest of the FAQs were concerned with more important questions such as “Will I still be able to book online?”
At some point after the end of the Leisure consultation, and during the Playing Fields consultation, the FAQs were expanded to include four questions on important clauses in the proposed lease, such as “Why has the Council chosen to have a 3—year keep open clause?” A tacit admission that the FAQs that supported the Leisure consultation had been inadequate?
Residents who wanted to find out what they were actually being consulted about needed stamina and determination. They needed to click their way through to a Council report dated July 2013, or to seek out for themselves the on-line brochure. The on-line brochure is still available, by the way, and well worth a look. You can find it on www.pipersarea.co.uk
The consultation form was faulty in another very important respect. As the form itself points out, “It’s anonymous”. Anonymous, and so completely open to fraud. Anyone with strong views either way could have given an assortment of postcodes and filled in dozens of forms.
On 3 March, the last day of the Leisure consultation, the Council embarked on ANOTHER consultation. This one was on the disposal of the Croft and Dorcan playing fields, and it was a statutory consultation required by the Department of Education. The council seemed to take the view that as they had just consulted on a closely related disposal, this consultation was just a matter of form. This attitude could have led to a serious distortion of the responses sent to the Department, because the Council was obliged to send them only the results of the statutory consultation; the results of the Leisure consultation were of no concern to the Department.
The Department of Education provides guidance on how they expect the consultation to be carried out. Among the groups to be consulted are “parents of pupils attending the school (that uses the field)” and “the local community generally”. But once again, there were no leaflets, no public notices, the notice at the Croft Sports Centre was tucked away in the corridor, and parents at local schools cannot recall receiving any notification of the disposal via the schoolbag route or in any other way.
Some local residents distributed a leaflet inviting people to attend a public meeting on 2 April organised by ward councillor Nadine Watts. Around 100 people turned up and they were all very concerned. Few of them had heard about either the leisure consultation or the playing fields consultation, and very few of them knew how they were supposed to make their views known.
“Is this the consultation?” asked one puzzled resident. There was a council meeting on the following day and many local residents were sitting in the public gallery and asking questions.
That, in brief, is the story of the Leisure Centres and Playing Fields consultations so far. The consultations have not conformed either to Swindon’s new consultation policy or to the Department of Education guidelines.
The Council did not consult “at a formative stage”. It did not provide sufficient information to enable “intelligent consideration and response”. As the council has already made its decision, it can hardly take “the findings of the consultation . . . into account”.
SBC is currently minded to take what could be an irreversible decision in June 2014 which affects the public’s property and could impact generations to come, without having gone through a meaningful consultation process. The Council would be well advised to halt these two consultations for a minimum of six months after the election in order to conduct a full, open, transparent and legal consultation on the future of leisure facilities across this borough.