Monday, 24 August 2009

Ashton Gate and subjective objectivity

Are Trimedia deliberately misrepresenting the results of the public consultation over the proposed Tesco at Ashton Gate or is it just a problem of lack of objectivity?

Trimedia are the PR Agency and Communications Consultancy who prepared the Community Involvement Statement (CIS) for the proposed Redevelopment of Ashton Gate Stadium on behalf of Ashton Gate Limited, the stadium owners.

In the CIS, mention is made of over 160 completed feedback forms and representations from the public. On Page 7 of the CIS, Trimedia provide a Summary of Feedback, which “considers the responses provided to each question on the feedback forms.”

The first question on the form was not about the proposal for a superstore at all, it was a leading question about supporting Bristol City’s ambition for a new stadium, and thus part of the ongoing effort by Bristol City to encourage the public and councillors to think of the separate applications for Ashton Vale and Ashton Gate as if they were one application. The second question (and the first about the development itself) was;

Q2 What are your views on the proposal to develop a food store on the existing Ashton Gate site?

In the CIS, Trimedia summarise the responses as follows;

A range of views and opinions were submitted on the proposals to develop a food store on the existing Ashton Gate stadium site. On the 153 feedback forms received, 375 separate comments looking at various aspects for the proposal were noted. Where there were clear themes, they have been grouped into headings below.

Of these, 18% of comments submitted expressed concern about or opposition to a food store on the site, and felt there was no need for this amenity in the area. This equates to the comment being made on approximately 40% of forms submitted.

After reading the above I was left a little confused, did they mean that 18% of respondents were concerned about a food store, or did they mean that 40% of respondents were concerned about various aspects of the development of which 18% were concerned about a food store? Or did they mean something else entirely?

Luckily, the feedback forms have been scanned onto the Bristol City Council online planning portal – so I decided to look at the feedback forms myself and do my own analysis.

This proved a little more difficult than anticipated – several of the feedback forms have been copied twice, and a few have attached sheets with additional comments. One or two have also only had only part of the feedback form scanned in. In the end, I managed to collate information on 151 feedback forms, with the following result;

63% of the forms objected to the proposal to build a food store at Ashton Gate.
10% of the forms, apart from those above, included comments that might be taken as objections to the proposals but either needed clarification or were associated with other comments on the same form that might be taken as supporting the proposal. Some example quotes;

"Bound to affect other stores and local shops"
"Not sure about needing another food store so near to Asda, Sainsburys and Aldi"
"I am not sure we need another supermarket"
"concerned over additional noise and traffic"
"24 hour opening must not be permitted"
"Worried that there are already lots of retail outlets and also the impact it will make on small shops in the area. Don't think it should be 24hrs"
"[prefer] new stadium on the same site"
"it will surely impact on Sainsbury, Aldi and the shops in North Street"
"Do we need another supermarket in the area?"
"Housing is needed [more] than a retail store"

9% of the forms supported a food store but expressed reservations or conditions;

"we have no objections to a store, however we would not like 24hr opening hours or 24hrs delivery
"I am in favour of a food store providing traffic concerns are solved"
"I am not opposed but concerned about 24 hour noise"
"We are happy for the food store to be built provided the new link road from the A38 to the A370 is in place, there is currently far too much traffic on Winterstoke and increased volumes would bring it to a standstill"
No objections "if provision for residents parking can be accommodated"
"I don't like the thought of a petrol station close to a residential area"
"I am concerned that your proposals show delivery vehicles/plant is situated right behind the gardens of residents like myself in Raynes Road"
"fine provided the local residents are happy with it"

Finally, 18% were fully supportive of a food store. The graph below summarises the result.

So we find ourselves in a situation where Trimedia’s analysis of the feedback forms would appear to indicate that at least 60% of respondents have no objections to the store whilst only 18% of comments were against it - whereas my own analysis shows that only 18% of respondents are fully supportive and over 60% of respondents are against the superstore. An interesting comparison!

This difference in the results of the analysis could be due to subjectivity – I have made no secret of my opposition to the superstore proposal and it may well be that, despite my best intentions, I may have allowed a certain bias to colour my reading of the comments – although it is quite hard to misinterpret the phrase “No Tesco at any cost” scrawled all over a form! Equally, Trimedia have been employed by those in favour of the proposal and may similarly be predisposed to interpret the feedback forms as being in favour of the development.

This is why we need independent and unbiased analysis of the facts – not just for comments on feedback forms in a consultation process but also for transport assessments, retail studies, environmental impact assessments, economic studies and so on. Only in this context can we have some confidence that the data is not being manipulated in some way (either consciously or sub-consciously) to fit a pre-determined conclusion. Studies funded directly by the developers themselves are unlikely to be objective. I am sure that those behind the proposal for a superstore would be unhappy if the only reports used to determine the application were based on my own efforts, because I am sure that however much I tried I would be unable to completely eliminate any element of bias against the proposal. Yet, at present, we are in a situation where the opposite is allowed – with most of the reports being used to assess the suitability of the application being provided by those with a financial incentive for supporting the application.

I would anticipate that the councillors who will be asked to make the decision regarding planning permission are unlikely to read each and every feedback form – and thus they will base their decision on the assumption that Trimedia’s conclusion that 60% of local residents held no objections to a superstore at Ashton Gate is accurate. In my view, however, Trimedia's conclusion is simply not supported by the evidence, which in fact demonstrates almost the complete opposite with over 60% of respondents to the consultation process voicing opposition to the proposed superstore.

NOTE: The feedback forms are available online here, so anybody else with a few hours to spare can trawl through the forms and make up their own minds about what percentage of respondents are for or against the superstore proposal.


  1. A good posting. Thanks for doing the analysis and cutting through BCFC's spin doctor's claims.

  2. Great summary of what are likely to be the closer-to-the-truth (on bang on the button) results of the public consulation