Saturday, 3 January 2015

Don’t leave me this way…

A couple of weeks ago, on 19 December 2014, Keith Risk – who, almost exactly a year ago, with his hard work, wisdom and great fortitude, led the village to its first ‘victory’ against rapacious developers Gladman – sent out a well-reasoned document to the village, concerned that the imminent deadline (15 January 2015) for responses to the first (and, it now appears, only) “draft of the consultation document which would form the framework for the Neighbourhood Plan for Tysoe… does not allow enough time…”. I have to agree. But my plea will be more emotive: as I will be trying to engage you.

From the beginning, the Neighbourhood Plan group (or whatever it is that they are calling themselves, this week), seems to have defined ‘consultation’ purely as telling us what they are doing, and telling us what to do. As I have said far too many times in my life: communication is a two-way process – as well as giving out information, you have to ensure that people listen and respond; are involved in the process; and understand – and merely sending out one survey, setting up a poorly-designed and -visited website, emailing a few residents, distributing infrequent leaflets, and holding a couple of ill-attended meetings, does not remotely fulfil such a definition. It does not “engage”.

Or, as Keith stated:

Without proper consultation and discussion with the village as a whole, the proposals and policies this [draft Neighbourhood Plan] recommends risk being undemocratic.
     There is no need for this. This is a small village. There are many occasions when views on our vision for the village: what it is, and how we want it to develop, with accompanying objectives, could be found and aired.
     In so far as these views are not yet known, despite a number of efforts, further time and imagination needs to be invested to attract them. It may be difficult. There may be understandable cynicism, scepticism and apathy. That does not need to, must not, prevent it from happening.
     Without such real effective consultation the Neighbourhood Plan (NP), when put to the vote in the village referendum, is seriously at risk of failing to reflect the core purpose: that it expresses the views and interests of the neighbourhood – the village as a whole.

My career – before I was forced to retire due to ill-health – was all about communication (and for some very large global companies, too…): so, when the Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group was set up, I thought it essential that, for us to be successful, we communicated effectively. To that end, one of my first acts was to draft a communication strategy – which has obviously been consigned to the dustbin by those that followed.

For instance, I stressed that the group “should be… building relationships with (and between members of) our local communities, local representative bodies and officials, and any relevant special interest groups, etc. – including maintaining sound links with stakeholders and supporters” (e.g. residents). I see no evidence that this has been done. There appear to have been plenty of one-night stands; but no relationships built or developed, as such. And certainly no engagement.

I also wrote that…

…communication (inwards and outwards) keeps everyone in the village informed, and, hopefully, motivated; as well as providing continual opportunities for everyone in Tysoe, and the vicinity, to join in, and contribute ideas and suggestions – feeling valued, and knowing that they can comment easily (without retribution or criticism) on what we do. (In essence, this is about understanding that communication is actually all about community....) [Communication] should be planned, cyclical, and at the heart of… the activities of the Group.

Do you feel valued? Do you feel engaged? Do you feel at all involved in the development of the Neighbourhood Plan?

The next question is: Were you taken by surprise by the fact that, as Keith describes, “A proposal has been made to have… feedback and responses to the draft Consultation Document [completed] by 15th January 2015”? As it currently stands, therefore, the meeting to be held on Monday (5 January 2015) will be residents’ last chance to have any input into a document that will be a key part of their government for the next five years. (Well, unless, as with the Parish Plan and the Housing Needs Survey, it is rapidly superseded by a change of national Government or planning law.) As such, surely such an important meeting should have been organized by the Parish Council itself – and with a lot more notice: so that a lot more people could get involved?

Keith suggests “that this [date] is unnecessarily soon and unrealistic”; and recommends that a revised date, “of at least 3 months hence”, is agreed. Personally, I think six months is more realistic. Or even a year.

So why the rush?

Well, as demonstrated by the attempted hijacking of December’s Parish Council meeting, there are those – who appear to believe themselves to be in power – who also appear to have gotten it into their heads that having a completed Neighbourhood Plan will somehow defeat Gladman’s attack (especially if we involve that exemplar of generosity, kindness and sympathetic localism, Eric Pickles).

Personally, I cannot get my head around such a fantasy; and I also have trouble seeing any connection between the challenge to Gladman’s proposed development on Oxhill Road and the development of a planning document designed for the whole parish. Is that supposed connection, I wonder, prompted by the fact that the majority of the key players involved in the production of the Plan all live within spitting distance of Mr White’s field? Or am I becoming paranoid, and the victim of baseless conspiracy theories?

Trying to get my head around the real reason for the emerging emergency, I came across this document: which – as well as documenting the “Common Mistakes” the group has unwittingly fallen into making (“Only weak leaders think they need to instruct and to ignore the opinions of others”) – contains some pithy advice, including…

Organising and running community engagement… requires specialist skills. It is often done badly and too late due to the lack of such skills…. Specialist skills could either be provided by members of the community organisation producing the plan or could be provided by consultants or other external sources.

I also found this:

…it is anticipated that on average the [Neighbourhood Plan] process is likely to take around two years.

And yet, according to their own timeline, ours will have taken less than eleven months.

So why the rush?

Well, there isn’t really one, is there? All that appears to have been done is the minimum necessary, in the shortest time possible, in order to play to certain people’s high self-regard and solipsistic objectives. I honestly pity those – which will now include the majority of innocent villagers – caught in its fallout; and those who have put their heart and soul into helping develop something they believed was for the good of the village. There are so many ways that this could have been done so much better: including allowing time for people to actually learn and understand – and engage with – the whole process.

Back to Keith Risk, and the Background part of his emailed document – which is included here in full, as it says all that is needed to be said:

At time of writing the validity and timing of the Neighbourhood Plan process is in question.
  • Stratford District Council (SDC) has not completed its Core Strategy, upon which a Neighbourhood Plan significantly depends.
  • The draft Core Strategy as it currently exists is highly controversial. Key proposals do not have the full support of governing local political party officials. Planning Officers are severely under-resourced.
  • There is clear indication that the Core Strategy will not be completed within the next 18 months.  
  • Within that period there will be a general election, and elections for (new boundary) local district councillors.
  • All these may have significant impact on the planning process. Specifically Core Strategy policies including: dispersal of developments throughout the District; and the definition of a ‘Local Service Village’, may change.
  • Announcements of proposed central government funding cuts to local authorities and public services, to reduce UK borrowing levels, will have as yet unknown effect on economic activity, including housing and employment.
  • Given this background, I suggest that the pressing need to have the NP completed urgently, within the currently proposed timetable, has been removed. This is important as it would allow creation of a much more detailed and comprehensive NP than current time pressures allow.
The secondary factor that recommends a change to this timetable is the potential impact of the NP on the current planning process. We have not yet heard the Inspector’s decision on the Gladman development. We do not yet know his attitude to the NP, and the planning weight given to it, in its current form; nor in any form, until the Core Strategy is approved.
     We do not yet know what weight the NP will have in planning decisions. I suggest we cannot, nor want to, rely on politically influenced decisions which might be made by the Secretary of State.
     Even if the NP were to have weight for the Gladman development, or any other planning applications, it may quickly become virtually redundant. New housing developments in Tysoe may already have met SDC’s suggested Local Service Village requirement (for 50-75 houses by 2030) before the Core Strategy or NP are published and approved.

If you agree with any part of what I have to say – and I know from comments that have been made on other posts that I am not alone; nor even a lone voice… – or with what Keith has written, please turn up at the Pre-Submission Consultation Open Session that “will take place in the Reading Rooms on 5th January at 7pm” and say so. Or simply email this post to your friends.

This – apart from the referendum on the final version – really is your last chance to stand up and be heard; your last chance to be engaged with the Plan’s development – unless you (and only you) make it otherwise.

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