On Tuesday, we sent an urgent letter to Shropshire Council CEO Clive Wright, outlining our concerns with the consultation process and, given those concerns, asking for an extension of the consultation deadline. An acknowledgement was received the same day, assuring us of an imminent reply. At the time of writing, no reply has been forthcoming, so today we sent a follow up letter. You can read both letters below:
3pm, Friday 8th February 2019
Dear Mr Wright,
I refer to my email of the 5th February 2019 and to your reply of the same day.
I, and other members of the Save Bridgnorth Green Belt group, are most disappointed that you have not replied not least as this is the final day of the period the Council set for consultation on the Local Plan Review. I reiterate on behalf of the group that we feel that there are very serious flaws in the consultation process and that at the very least it should be extended with the Council taking steps to correct some of the flaws highlighted in my email of the 5th February.
Quite frankly, I, and I suspect many others, think the whole process should be aborted and started again. In this eventuality the Council should ensure that the consultation processes and documents are modified to allow all members of the community to access all relevant information (before the consultation process starts) and to express their views. No-one should be denied a voice on such important issues because of the reasons outlined in my earlier email.
We have noted, by the way, that the Council has taken steps at this very late stage to allow paper copies to be available at Bridgnorth Library, albeit with a charge. However, a number of people have been saying that they have experienced difficulties with the pdf form. People complete the form, save it and then find it blank.
I look forward to hearing from you preferably this afternoon.
Member of the Save Bridgnorth Green Belt action group
5th February 2019
Dear Mr Wright,
Thank you for your email of the 1st February 2019. I was disappointed to hear that a further consultation meeting specifically for the residents of Stanmore, Swancote and Hoccum (and other localised areas specially affected by the proposals in the Local Plan Review) will not be held before the end of the date set for the end of the consultation period. Whilst disappointed, I was not surprised given I had predicted such a response in my email to you of the 21st January 2019.
I note that you feel that the consultation arrangements you have adopted are consistent with both your Statement of Community involvement and the Consultation Plan published with the LPR documents. However, that begs the question as to whether the Statement and Plan themselves actually meet all the requirements for properly conducted public consultation. Are you confident that both Statement and Plan meet all statutory and non statutory guidance?
The Government’s own published guidance, Consultation Principles 2018, sets out ten principles for effective and open consultation. In introducing the principles, it states “We will make it easier for the public to contribute their views, and we will try harder to use clear language and plain English in consultation documents.” The document includes the following principles (I have taken the liberty of underlining points that appear particularly relevant):
A. Consultations should be clear and concise. Use plain English and avoid acronyms. Be clear what questions you are asking and limit the number of questions to those that are necessary. Make them easy to understand and easy to answer. Avoid lengthy documents when possible and consider merging those on related topics.
B. …. Take consultation responses into account when taking policy forward. Consult about policies or implementation plans when the development of the policies or plans is at a formative stage. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view.
E. Consultations should last for a proportionate amount of time. Judge the length of the consultation on the basis of legal advice and taking into account the nature and impact of the proposal. Consulting for too long will unnecessarily delay policy development. Consulting too quickly will not give enough time for consideration and will reduce the quality of responses.
I. Consultation should facilitate scrutiny…. Explain the responses that have been received from consultees and how these have informed the policy. State how many responses have been received.
If the Council’s consultation arrangements are subjected to proper scrutiny, it is not difficult to come to the view that they are flawed for reasons which include the following:
- The consultation period chosen by the Council spanned the Christmas and New Year period. The period running up to Christmas is very busy for most people and in reality people are much less likely to sit down to consider proposals from the Council when preparations for Christmas are underway. It also coincides with the time many people have to submit tax and VAT returns and are very busy with that.
- The Council planning office closed from the 21st December 2018 to the 2nd January 2019, a period of what would normally be seven working days. You extended the consultation period by six working days.
- There were no clear signposts to what is a major consultation exercise on an issue that potentially has a very major impact on people’s homes, lives and finances on the front page of the Council website or indeed on the general planning page or even the planning policy page. It was necessary to study closely the web pages and also to click repeatedly to get to relevant information. When I met Philip Dunne MP, he was surprised when he saw the Stanmore map; he said that he and his assistant had searched on the Council website but had been unable to find it. Even today, with just a few days left to the end of the consultation period set by the Council, there is no mention of this on the front page of the website or indeed even on the planning or planning policy pages. Forthcoming events dated the 30th January 2019 ( didn’t think time travel was available in Shropshire) do get a mention on the Council’s front page today as does the Bishop’s Castle Library Scrabble Group.
- The hyperlinks to the relevant consultation/supporting documents were broken on occasions.
- It is understood that the supporting documents (apparently around 6,700 pages in total) were not fully posted on the website until the 21st December 2018 even though the consultation period started on the 29th November 2018. Surely a consultation period cannot start until all information is available? I should be grateful if you would arrange for a schedule listing the documents posted on the website together with the dates and times of posting to be sent. Given that the planning office was closed until the 2nd of January 2019 so questions could not be asked until then, in reality the consultation period should have started from the 2nd January. A nine week period (which is presumably what the Council thought to be an appropriate period) would then terminate on the 6th March 2019.
- The Consultation Plan states “In line with the SCI and previous successful consultations, this will primarily be a web-based consultation with all consultation material available via the ‘Get Involved’ section www.shropshire.gov.uk/local-plan-consultation with a link to the consultation documents from the Planning Policy pages.” Leaving aside that fact that not all consultation documents were available until well into the consultation process (please see points 3 – 6 above) there is also the question of accessibility to all sectors of the community. A largely web based approach disadvantages those who do not have access to the internet whether through personal or financial circumstances or perhaps age. Has the Council not heard of the “digital divide” – is a proportion of the community to be denied a voice? The Council’s own profile information for Bridgnorth states that “Compared to Shropshire, Bridgnorth has a higher age profile with all age bands between the age of 60 and 84 having a higher percentage than average.” In addition, what about people with visual impairments or other disabilities? Age and disability are “relevant protected characteristics” within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. Are you confident that your consultation plan is fully compliant with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010?Your Consultation Plan refers to “paper copies of the consultation materials and summaries of the supporting documents” being available to view at four Council offices and at libraries. There is no reference to paper copies of the form (which is the Council’s “preferred method” of response) being available. It may also be noted that only 5% of the supporting information appears to available at the libraries.
A local resident yesterday visited the Bridgnorth library and found that only one copy of the form was available. She was advised that library staff were allowed to show people their one copy but were not allowed to distribute copies even if these were supplied free of charge by a campaign group as the latter would constitute petitioning? How is making a blank copy forms available petitioning? The group would just be doing what the Council should be doing. How is this consistent with open consultation; are older residents supposed to turn up at the library, read through reams of papers and look at maps (on A4 pages only) and then return home and write a letter? At the time of this exchange, an older resident asked for a form and was turned away. Utterly, truly appalling.
- The first question on the Bridgnorth Place Plan questionnaire is “Do you think Shropshire Council should introduce a cross-subsidy exception site policy, allowing an element of open market housing to support the delivery of affordable housing?” There is no explanation of what this means on the form or any cross reference to background information. What is the average person in the street supposed to make of that? How does that fit in with the Government view that consultation questions should be “easy to understand and easy to answer”? That is the very first question followed by two more difficult questions. There are then detailed questions on the development boundary, safeguarded land and whether or not a consultee agrees with “the preferred mixed use allocation P54 (part); P56 (part); P58a; STC002; STC004 (part); STC005; and STC006 in Bridgnorth?” There are no references back to the relevant parts of consultation documents. Is all this deliberately designed to put people off?
- You refer to the extraordinary meeting of the Worfield Parish Council on the 24th January 2019 as part of the consultation process. Active participation and consultation did not appear to be encouraged at this meeting. At the outset the Chairman said there would be discussion only by Parish Council members with then an opportunity for questions from members of the public at the end. There were a few interjections from the floor during the first part of the meeting because of concerns felt by members of the public about comments being made. After an hour and a half, the Chairman announced that the meeting would be closing without giving members of the public the opportunity to speak, apparently on the basis that a few interjections had been made. Understandably this prompted a very strong reaction from members of the public and in the face of this the Chairman did give an opportunity for people to speak. The meeting could hardly be said to be a model for effective consultation.
- I asked to be able to attend one of the four meetings of the Bridgnorth Town Council held in January 2019 to express views on the implications for the infrastructure. The Town Clerk, said I could not do so as I lived outside Bridgnorth (2.15 miles from the Town Council offices as the crow flies). It is understood that some residents on the Hobbins were refused permission to attend by email by the Town Clerk.
Local residents are, by the way, interested to note the references to the appointment of Stansgate Planning Consultants by the landowners in a number of recent communications including the statement to the Press by Mr Cooper in particular the clear implication that the so called “proposals” are going ahead regardless. In addition, we now hear that the site promoters are going to hold a public exhibition of their proposals. You will be receiving correspondence on this in the near future.
Also, Mr Cooper said a number of times, as has our local Councillor, that consultation is an ongoing process. You state in your email that “the points which you raise regarding the scale and impact of the current proposals will certainly be taken into account assuming that they are expressed as part of responses to the current consultation.” Does that mean any comments after your current deadline will be disregarded?
Because of the reasons set out above (not necessarily an exhaustive list), I and other local residents are of the view that the Local Plan Review consultation process is flawed and open to challenge. Accordingly, I am writing to request formally that the public consultation process be extended with the Council taking steps to ensure that the process actually is open and accessible to all members of the community (whether they have access to the internet or not). Ideally the questionnaire should be redrafted or at the very least explanatory notes provided so that an ordinary person in the street without specialist knowledge can appreciate properly the issues and can respond effectively.
Irrespective of your response, please note that concerned local residents are arranging a public meeting in Worfield Village Hall on Friday 22nd February to discuss the Local Plan Review. Once the arrangements have been confirmed, invitations will be issued to yourself, Mr Cooper, Planning Policy and Strategy Manager and Ms Davies, Head of Economic Growth so that they can explain their proposal for housing and employment growth to local residents and hear their views. Of course appropriate elected members of the Council will also be invited, including the Portfolio Holder for Planning and Housing Development. The Stanmore, Swancote and Hoccum area is affected to a massively greater extent than any other location in the Local Plan Review and resident are hampered in responding to this disproportionate impact on their homes by the flaws in the Council’s consultation plan.
I look forward to hearing from you at your very earliest opportunity.
Member of the Save Bridgnorth Green Belt action group