However hard you try to represent people, the chances of their feeling well represented remain small. That’s not a reason to despair. It is a reason to remember that there is a gap between those who consult and those who are consulted, between those who provide and those who are provided for, which is likely to appear bigger to the latter than to the former. So it is more likely that you will think you have run an effective consultation than that those consulted will feel that they have been heard.
I have the modest good fortune to be a beneficiary of the Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme run by Lambeth Council last year. Thanks to Dave Briggs, I have discovered that the LGIU has just published an evaluation of the programme under the confident title of People Shaped Places.1 They are pretty positive about it. I am in some ways too, but I think they have a slightly rose tinted view.
For me, this is a fascinating but rare example of a programme where I have a very immediate interest – I can see one of the concrete results just by looking out of my window – but an interest which is purely as a user. The result, sadly, has been to leave me feeling less empowered than LGIU think I should be.
This post unavoidably includes a lot of local minutiae which you won’t have the slightest interest in, unless you happen to be a close neighbour. But the detail is there to illustrate a much broader point which should interest all of us who care about democratic engagement and collaborative decision making.
There is no doubt that neighbourhoods have been enhanced as part of the programme, including the creation a few streets away of Van Gogh Walk, which has its own website and has won a stack of awards. That’s one of the two case studies in the evaluation report and is undoubtedly a real success. But as the report notes:
In many ways, the Van Gogh Walk is quite different to the NEP – operating on a larger budget, a smaller geographical scale and a longer time scale.
Interestingly, and perhaps slightly unexpectedly, it is the time, rather than the scale or the money which got in the way of that success being replicated.2
Elsewhere, though there was less time and less money, there was still an admirable attempt at engagement and at identifying improvements. That seems to have worked pretty well in some areas. A few streets away in another direction, the scheme has provided planting areas on the street, and the local community is busy filling them up and looking after them.
That though seems to have depended on there being a neighbourhood group with a clear and consistent view of what it wanted – and for that to be within the scale and scope of the Council’s prior conception of the scheme.
My neighbourhood was messier than that. Not because there was less clarity about what was wanted but because what was wanted turned out not to fit with the pre-defined constraints of the scheme.
The dialogue went something like this:
Council: Tell us what you would like.
Residents: We want to stop speeding and rat running. And have better communal bins. And some other stuff. And a pony.
Council: That’s too difficult. How about we just send the traffic on a more circuitous route round more narrow residential streets in the hope that people will give up and go away. And there’s nothing we can do about the bins. Or the pony.
Original residents: Err, that sounds as though it might make things worse, not better.
Newly affected residents: Keep your traffic, we’re not having any of it.
Council: Sorry, we’re out of time. We have to spend the money quickly so we are going to put in some random chicanes and cross our fingers.
Or in the rather drier language of the evaluation report:
Residents tended to propose and prefer traditional area improvements to some of the more creative solutions. This is despite a wide number of best practice examples being available online and discussed through the Made in Lambeth event.
In other words, this attempt at empowering local citizens was let down because those citizens were remiss in not realising how little empowerment was on offer.
That’s partly because key parts of the problem are not under the control of Lambeth Council in the first place, which results in a structural inability to address the underlying issue.3
It’s also because it became clear that were some standard approaches that Lambeth was going to fall back on almost regardless of the problem: if in doubt, put a patch of grass in the road.
And here indeed is our local patch of newly installed grass. It’s not clear whether it solves the old problem, but there is no doubt that it creates several new ones.
- Part of the initial problem is cars racing to get through green at the traffic lights at the top of the picture. For that purpose, the grass patch is on the wrong side of the road, the cars most slowed down are the ones which have just turned the corner and aren’t going very fast anyway
- As can be seen from the road markings, the road is a designated cycle route. It used to be perfectly safe, but now cyclists coming from the top of the picture are forced across the road, endangered both by cars coming the other way and by cars coming from behind wanting to overtake. I haven’t seen any collisions, but I have seen a couple of alarming near misses.4
- Grass grows. And when it grows it needs cutting pretty regularly if it is not to look scruffy. Somebody has been cutting this one – perhaps a little enthusiastically – but some of its siblings in other streets are already starting to look a bit wild. If they are left like that, it won’t be long before they start to attract litter. And then they will be an eyesore and no doubt suggestions will be made that they be removed to make the streets look tidier. And so the wheel turns.
It may sound from all this that I think that the whole programme has been a failure. I don’t: good things have come of it and I was impressed at the desire of Lambeth staff to engage and to listen (though less so with their ability to reflect what they heard in concrete proposals). The lesson I take is that, even at this pretty trivial level, this stuff is hard. Getting it right is more difficult than you might think, even when you have allowed for it all being more difficult than you had thought. And hyperlocal can be very hyper indeed.5
So perhaps the real problem with the LGIU evaluation is less that it is over optimistic (though my experience suggests that it is) and more that it is premature. The effort put into engagement was high as were the expectations created as a result. But the real test is not the effectiveness of the engagement, but the extent to which people feel their environment has improved as a result. Good process is necessary for good results. But it is not on its own sufficient.
- It is not clear from the report whether it was commissioned by Lambeth, but it includes an introduction by the cabinet member responsible for the programme, which suggests that it may not be completely disinterested. ↩
- More specifically, the problem was annuality. It seemed more important for money to be spent by the end of the financial year than for it to be spent well. ↩
- And partly because Lambeth itself is fragmented: this was a transport-based initiative oversold as wider environmental improvement. In a small but telling detail, its own departments acted at cross purposes:
The posters, for instance, had a powerful potential when coupled with the postcards to reinforce awareness of the NEP. However, contractors working for other departments were unhelpful in their actions. Despite contacting other departments and their contractors in advance, the message failed to get through to contract staff, actually working on the streets, who removed some of the posters from lampposts. ↩
- The cyclists are mostly on their way from somewhere else to somewhere else, rather than being immediately local residents, so they weren’t given a voice in the first place. ↩
- At one meeting, I was reminded of the spirit of co-operation captured by Dorothy L. Sayers in one of her Peter Wimsey novels, with traffic taking the place of flood water:
‘Dig up one thing and you got to dig up another.’
‘At that rate,’ objected Wimsey, ‘the Fens would still be all under water.’
‘Well, in a manner of speaking, so they would,’ admitted the sluice-keeper. ‘That’s very true, so they would. But none the more for that, they didn’t ought to come a-drowning of us now. It’s all right for him to talk about letting the floods out at the Old Bank Sluice. Where’s it all a-going to? It comes up, and it’s got to go somewhere, and it comes down and it’s got to go somewhere, ain’t it?’
‘At the moment I gather it drowns the Mere Wash and Frogglesham and all those places.’
‘Well, it’s their water, ain’t it?’ said the sluice-keeper. ‘They ain’t got no call to send it down here.’
‘Quite,’ said Wimsey, recognising the spirit that had hampered the Fen drainage for the last few hundred years, ‘but as you say yourself, it’s got to go somewhere.’ ↩