Azara Blog: Cambridge City Council has a failed consultation on consultations

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Date published: 2011/07/08

The Cambridge City Council bizarrely held a consultation on consultations. Needless to say, this was not particularly well publicised, and in any case, only complete political anoraks would be interested in this, and so it is not very surprising that there were hardly any responses to this consultation. In particular, only three (!) residents responded.

If consultations were just used to seek information they would be a fine addition to democracy. But the problem with all governmental consultations is that they are taken to somehow be representative of public opinion, and almost always they are not. They are almost always hijacked by special interest pressure groups who have a strong opinion about the matter being consulted upon.

There are zillions of examples of this. For example, the last Labour government had a notorious consultation on GM crops, and, as was totally predictable and predicted, the consultation was completely hijacked by the usual academic middle class suspects who hate GM crops.

In Cambridge there was a notorious consultation (by the county, rather than the city) on whether to put proper cycle lanes on Gilbert Road and so remove parking for cars. (There is enough space for cars and cycle lanes but the politicians and bureaucrats never considered that option, it being far too much like common sense.) Initially they contacted the residents of Gilbert Road only, with other people having to somehow magically find out about the consultation. The council evidently expected the residents to support their plans, and when this turned out not to be the case, Plan B came into action.

The Cambridge Cycle Campaign (CCC) found out about the consultation (they have members who live on Gilbert Road) and they sent out an email asking all their members to stuff the consultation ballot box with pro-cycle-lane votes. The CCC has many more members than there are people who live on Gilbert Road, so they easily swamped the consultation process. And the county then conveniently took the result as representative of public opinion. Of course it was not. In particular it ignored 99% of the stakeholders in the outcome, in particular drivers (who are always ignored by the city and county councils) and also residents who live near but not on Gilbert Road.

This hijacking of consultations means that they are not an addition to democracy but are instead anti-democratic. They allow for unelected and so unaccountable groups, like the CCC, to impose their narrow partisan view on society.

One of the respondents to the consultation on consultations pointed this out: "Make it clear that consultations will not be deemed representative of public opinion". Well of course the politicians and bureaucrats are hardly going to admit that they are wasting tens of thousands of pounds of public money in a way which actually decreases democracy. So their laughable response to this was to claim that: "the Council's intention will be to carry out consultation in a way that does make the results as representative as possible." Given that this has never happened in the past, it is unlikely to happen in future. So we will continue to have consultations hijacked by special interest pressure groups.

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