Camden Council is thinking about introducing e-scooters into your neighbourhood, and they want to know what you think.
So click onto the long questionnaire and discover that among the dozens of questions and checkboxes, there is not one space available for you to actually express your opinion.
Of course Camden Council never really wants to know what you think about the introduction of a new scheme. Why would they want to know whether you want e-scooters or not? That decision has already been made long in advance by those who know much better than us mere peasants. In fact, they just want to know what you think about how e-scooters will be introduced.
It seems to be the latest example of Camden’s ingenious ‘public engagement’ strategy which completely avoids asking whether you support a new proposal or not. Instead of gauging public opinion before decisions are made, the decision is made first and then you are asked what you think afterwards. But even then, you aren’t given space to express an opinion freely. You are only allowed to answer very specific and generally irrelevant questions, chosen so that the core question of whether you actually support a scheme or not is entirely sidestepped.
If we take part in the trial: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the proposal to manage the parking of rental e-scooters by allowing them to park in designated bays only?
If we take part in the trial: What do you think about our proposals to permit rental e-scooters in cycle tracks or on cycle paths in the Borough?
If we take part in the trial: What do you think about our proposals to permit rental e-scooters to be used in both directions on one-way streets in the Borough where cycles are allowed to do so?
If we take part in the trial: No-go zones for rental e-scooters in Camden have been identified. What do you think about our proposals to geo-fence particular areas of the Borough as no-go zones for rental e-scooters?
If we take part in the trial: Are there any other specific areas or zones that you think rental e-scooters should initially not be permitted?
What about just asking the simple question: Should we take part in the trial?
Perhaps the critical examination of this particular ‘consultation’ is unwarranted. After all, we all know by now that even if Camden gave us the opportunity to freely express our opinion, and actually managed to consult those people genuinely affected by a scheme, those opinions would be completely and utterly ignored anyway.
The core problem is that the onus is upon the decision-maker to take into account the views expressed by the public as part of a consultation. Rather absurdly, while there is a legal requirement to consult on new schemes, the legal requirement as to how responses should be interpreted is as weak as possible.
Decision-makers must ‘take responses into account’. Legally speaking, all this means is that a ‘sound reason’ must be given in response to an objection if it is to be discounted (this is established in case law – but I cannot find the relevant case right now). What this leads to is a long list of flimsy and barely believable sentences in response to any public consultation objection, because legally, that is all that is required to avoid a judicial review. A refutation that makes logical sense, even if it’s completely absurd and idiotic given the facts.
It is therefore up to the decision-maker to take responsibility and genuinely consider the result of a public consultation before making decisions. Unfortunately in Camden, there is only one decision-maker at large when it comes to traffic schemes – Sir Adam Grayling-Harrison: the one man known for being utterly contemptuous of both public opinion and common sense.
Another rather amusing ‘public engagement’ project is currently being implemented by the only department more mighty than traffic: planning. Seeking to ‘revolutionise the way people engage with planning,’ the planning department is ‘devising a digital approach to planning notices‘ which is of course aimed at making the planning system ‘more accessible for all.’ Just keep repeating that single phrase and I’m sure everyone will believe it eventually…
As pointed out immediately by Stephen Heath of the Bloomsbury Association – what is the point in making a digital planning notice when the planning search itself is a fossil worthy of a Grade I listing? Why make a fancy leaflet (or whatever it is) which has a QR code leading onto a website that doesn’t even work?
But it gets even more farcical than that. Because long before the scheme was made public I was contacted by an officer interested in my own web projects (a planning search and a planning map) to discuss methods of public engagement with planning and how they can be improved – and indeed, whether Camden could help with my own projects.
I expressed scepticism at the use of a digital planning notice and offered to conduct a survey or study among those actually daily involved with planning as to what they find most cumbersome and how they would like things to be improved. But my offer and subsequent emails went completely ignored.
It seems Camden are devising methods of increasing public engagement with planning, while simultaneously ignoring offers to engage with the public about how they would like to engage with planning at all. So even when attempting to improve ‘public engagement’, Camden don’t actually want to engage with the public as to how that can be achieved, or what they believe meaningful public engagement even is.
It is one thing believing that experts have a better opinion of a traffic scheme than the public. But how can any ‘expert’ have a better opinion of public engagement than the public itself? It’s beyond belief and simply put Kafkaesque, at this point. It betrays the utter contempt held by Camden officers towards the public as being incompetent fools, whose opinions are worth almost nothing. Cattle to be whipped into accepting increasingly ridiculous and incredible schemes, whether it be traffic, planning, or anything else. We just foot the bill and keep quiet about the rest.
Can anything be done about this?
One of the fundamental problems with Camden (if not the fundamental problem) is the concentration of power among just three or four individuals, most of whom are both weak and ignorant. There’s Georgia Gould at the top with her small collection of toy soldiers. Danny Beales does planning, and Adam Harrison does traffic. A major scheme like a big planning application or the West End Project will have decisions made by those individuals, and so in effect our objections go directly to them – after which they are flushed down the toilet. They personally don’t give a damn about what the public think.
But there is ample opportunity for the public to make themselves genuinely heard when it comes to the hundreds of smaller schemes and projects that fly under the radar of Big Danny or Adam Grayling. Generally Camden’s officers do care about the work they are doing and do want to know what you think about minor traffic schemes or planning applications. Most of the dozens of officers I’ve spoken to are openly critical about Camden and its general incompetence, and sound in tone much more like ‘one of us’ (at least on the telephone). But it’s up to us to take the initiative and form groups that actually do the work, lobby councillors and officers, and submit detailed and considered responses to schemes or applications of any kind.
The strange thing is that because so much power has been concentrated among so few individuals near the top, there seems to be rather a large power vacuum when it comes to smaller decisions and schemes near the bottom. On-the-ground officers are separated so far from those who are nominally ‘in control’ that their direct influence is often completely ignored in contempt.
With enough effort and dedication, we can indeed ‘take back control’ of our local authority, at least when it comes to smaller decisions at the local level. But until Georgia Gould and her toy soldiers are thrown out of the Council, we’ll be stuck with increasingly farcical top-down nonsense on bigger schemes for years to come.