No community engagement for thousands of local residents, as the Council's failed scheme was resurrected with emergency pandemic money
The council ignored funding guidance and its own promises of consultation. And most residents responding to last year’s online survey rejected the council’s plans. Now, locked into a single option, debate on the alternatives has been stifled. Alan Pike examines the background story of raised hopes and broken promises.
Claims that the traffic measures followed engagement with the public show the council knew it should have consulted all residents. But it did not. The claims have become no more balanced since the scheme was introduced. In a written answer at the 23 September 2020 council meeting, the cabinet member for transport referred to 855 responses to an on-line survey in late 2019 as an example of 'extensive engagement with local residents' – without revealing that most of the 855 rejected the council’s plans.
Many residents and groups will have written to the council or discussed local traffic issues with councillors during the 2-3 years build-up to the measures. That’s fine, but it is not an alternative to the council formally engaging with the entire community. This is the background story of raised hopes and broken promises, hopefully made a little more accessible by leafing through the paper trail.
First, a word about words. ‘Consultation’ and ‘engagement’ have more precise meanings in the public sector than in everyday life. In recent comments about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, the Department for Transport has used ‘consultation’ as shorthand for the various ways local authorities involve the public and we do the same here.
'An important element of Liveable Neighbourhoods projects will be local engagement and involving communities in the development and delivery of proposals that affect their areas from an early stage.'
Transport for London (TfL) Liveable Neighbourhoods guidance for the scheme launch, 2017.
The council planned to use TfL Liveable Neighbourhoods funding to finance the West Greenwich traffic measures. Engaging with communities was a distinctive theme of Liveable Neighbourhoods. TfL’s guidance spoke repeatedly of the need to ensure early and continuing involvement. Greenwich council did not do so.
'We have found that these proposals have not been widely communicated to the local residents and thus not many residents are aware.' Anonymous, Autumn 2018.
They certainly weren’t aware. Most residents had no idea the council was even thinking about traffic measures until they received an anonymous letter through their doors in autumn 2018. By then, the council had already drawn-up fully-developed proposals and was intending to implement them.
'It is important that all residents within the affected areas have an opportunity to express their views. This opportunity will be provided at the next stage of engagement which will be run online ... . Any decision to implement traffic management measures within the Hills and Vales will be made after this wider engagement ... . At that time it will be made clear to residents that a decision will be based on the outcome of this process.'
Council communication note, 10 October 2018
The council’s proposals were unveiled to a tiny 'engagement event' of 40 residents in James Wolfe school on 19 September 2018. This communication note followed local uproar as people got to hear about the council’s plans. The note said 'no decision was made at, or based on, the engagement event' and undertook that any future decision on whether to implement measures would follow the gathering of all residents’ views. It sounded fine. But things didn’t work out that way.
Have your say. It’s important that all residents within the affected areas have an opportunity to give their views before we decide on a final plan. … We need you to get involved and have your say, so we get as much information as possible to guide us.'
Royal Borough of Greenwich, autumn 2018
This undertaking was given on the council’s website. The council said it needed 'the detailed knowledge of local residents and businesses to help shape our plans'. Listening to the public before making decisions would have been in line with spirit of the Liveable Neighbourhoods guidance.
'We have made some important changes to the way we will engage with the community. Be inclusive – you know your area better than we could and there is a huge amount of local knowledge that we want to understand before designing a project'.
Royal Borough of Greenwich, early 2019.
The council outlined this seemingly welcome improvement to community consultation when launching a public engagement on the Greenwich town centre part of the Liveable Neighbourhoods project. Hills & Vales was an element of the same scheme and the council said engagement on the residential areas would follow in spring, 2019.
'Transparency – we want to have an open conversation with you about what you need and want from this project. For this to be possible it is important that we are as transparent as possible and try to overcome the mistrust that has stemmed from poor experiences with the Royal Borough of Greenwich or other local authorities in the past'
Royal Borough of Greenwich, early 2019.
The council’s announcement of its changes to community engagement ended with this heartrending declaration. It really looked as if a significant corner had been turned. But it hadn’t.
'Your answers will inform our decision on which measures to implement on an experimental basis.' Royal Borough of Greenwich, November 2019.
This was the death knell for all that stuff about transparency and overcoming mistrust. The public engagement on the residential areas promised for spring 2019 never took place.
There was silence from the council until November, 2019, when it launched an on-line public engagement survey on its Options 1 and 2. The survey material did not offer the choice of leaving things unchanged, but made it clear that the council had already decided that there was going to be a scheme.
What became of the assurance in the October 2018 communication note that any decision to implement traffic measures would depend on the outcome of a wider engagement with all residents? Why had the council neglected its undertaking to draw on local knowledge before designing a project? What about the Liveable Neighbourhoods guidance saying early and ongoing community engagement was a “crucial factor”? The council has never answered such questions.
“The survey was not a referendum on the options, it was undertaken to shape a trial option.” Royal Borough of Greenwich letter to residents, 12 August 2020.
This letter announced that the barriers were going up on Royal Hill the following week. Only now could net-accessible people learn the results of the previous year’s engagement survey on Options 1 and 2. Although the letter did not say so, a majority of people responding to the survey – both local residents and others from wider afield – were either very or quite negative about both options. The council’s Option 1 was rated ‘very negative’ by 44.1 per cent of those living in the Hills & Vales, compared with 29.2 per cent rating in ‘very positive’. Option 2 was rated ‘very negative’ by 43 per cent with only 5.4 per cent finding it ‘very positive’.
'A requirement of the Liveable Neighbourhoods assessment process will be to demonstrate community and local political engagement throughout the development process and support for measures before they are implemented.'
Transport for London Liveable Neighbourhoods guidance.
In normal circumstances, the council could have been challenged had it tried using TfL money to introduce the measures. The guidance required the council to show the scheme had public support. Options 1 and 2 had failed that test, and the council produced no evidence to suggest people felt more positively about the new variant. But by the time the scheme was introduced in August, Liveable Neighbourhoods had been suspended because of financial pressures and the council used Department for Transport emergency funding for Covid-19-related traffic measures instead.
Because of pressures for quick action as the first lockdown ended, these schemes did not need prior consultation. But, unlike many of the other councils that hurriedly produced schemes, Greenwich knew it was introducing what it described as an “amended” version of something residents had already rejected. Ironically, the Department for Transport is now insisting that all future requests for similar funding will require councils to show evidence of proper consultation before schemes are rolled out.
The council is currently conducting a consultation on its scheme, as is required by law, in view of the road closures. Road closures to the north of the area were not mentioned in the November, 2019, public engagement survey. The current scheme is obviously not the council’s preferred solution, otherwise it would have been an option in the 2019 survey. Yet it has locked itself and the community into a narrow consultation on this single, undiscussed scheme. Alternative ideas, which could have generated fresh thinking if the promised public engagement had ever materialised, remain unconsidered.