Monday, 10 August 2009

INSULTATIONS: How to win funds and alienate people.

As part of their plans to build a new football stadium and associated enabling development, Bristol City Football Club and their partners say that they have delivered 23,000 letters of invitations to local residents and key stakeholders inviting them to consultation events - in response they received 250 feedback forms over the three stages of the consultation process. In the first stage of this consultation process, 11,000 letters of invitations were sent to local residents regarding exhibitions of the proposals, and the events were also advertised in local libraries, community centres and the media – 450 attended the events and feedback forms were distributed, of which 104 were returned along with 20 responses by phone.

At this first stage and only at this stage was the question asked “What are your thoughts on the idea of the provision for a new stadium for Bristol City Football Club, in south Bristol? Note that the question does not ask specifically about a stadium in Ashton Vale nor a stadium on Green Belt land, merely about the concept of a stadium in south Bristol (see Framing)

Analysis of the 124 responses showed that 46% (about 57 respondents) were in favour of the new stadium, another 15% were generally in favour of a new stadium but had concerns about the proposed location (they obviously chose to interpret the question more precisely than the questioner may have wanted them to). Another 11% were against and 28% were undecided.

In other words just 124 people out of 11,000 felt that it was worth responding to the consultation, and of those only 57 people were potentially in favour of the new stadium in its proposed location. Nevertheless the 124 responses are seen by the developers as evidence that “the level of involvement in the consultation has been high throughout the process, and residents of the areas nearest to the site have contributed at all three stages” whilst the 57 people who were in favour of the new stadium in the (loosely specified) location “indicates that there are high levels of support for the proposal”. (Statement of Community Involvement)

In the meantime, in a separate but related development proposal, Tesco PLC are looking to put forward a proposal for a superstore on land that they don’t own; the Ashton Gate stadium that Bristol City FC will vacate if the new stadium is approved. In response, concerned local residents set up a campaign group – BERATE – and a paper-based petition that has attracted more than 600 signatures against the proposal. After canvassing houses around the stadium site and getting an overwhelming response against the proposals, the local Green Party councillor set up an e-petition against the superstore proposal in support of BERATE; this has now been signed to date by over 730 people of whom the vast majority live in the Bedminster or Southville wards. A counter e-petition in support of the superstore proposal, set up by a football fan living in Knowle has attracted some 70 signatures so far with only a dozen identifying themselves as residents of Bedminster and Southville.

One suspects that whilst 57 people out of 11,000 is seen as “high levels of support” for the new stadium, over a thousand against the separate superstore proposal will be labelled as unrepresentative of the local community rather than “high levels of opposition” to the superstore.

This anticipation of the developer’s response is not entirely speculation. Back in 2006, concerned about the level of bad press it was receiving, Tesco launched its “good neighbour” policy promising more community consultation when proposing new stores. But when asked what would happen if the consultation response was that a new store wasn’t wanted, Sir Terry Leahy (Tesco CEO) responded that the company would have to seek out the "silent majority" who would be in favour. In other words, the community response was only valid if it was in favour of a new store, otherwise it was unrepresentative.

The above highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the public consultation process for a specific development; by the time the developer has reached the stage where they are ready to look at consulting the public they have already decided that the development is valid: thus the question asked in the consultation process is “what modifications might you suggest for our development?” whereas the question that the petition signatories want to answer (both for and against) is “do you want this development at all?

In Bristol there is of course a structure intended to guide developers as to what sort of developments would be appropriate or acceptable to the local community – a structure that, in theory, has been created by a process of consultation with the local community. This structure is the Local Plan and consists of a series of policies covering various aspects of the potential development of the Bristol area, which have been informed by a series of expert studies and public consultations. It “provides the statutory basis for decisions on land use and development in the city” (Helen Holland, Executive Member, Environment, Transport and Leisure).

The Local Plan includes the following policies ;

S1 Protection of Shopping Facilities – which emphasises the importance of existing shopping centres and the need to sustain and enhance their vitality and viability.
S7 Local shops – which emphasises the need to restrict retail development outside of existing shopping centres if it may harm the level of shopping service provided.
S9 Out of Centre shopping – which says that the development of new retail stores outside existing centres will only be permitted where it will not affect the vitality and viability of existing centres, and
L8 Sports Stadia – which says that existing sports stadia, including Ashton Gate, will be protected from development which would erode the community’s opportunity to participate in sport and will be promoted as sports stadia.

If the Local Plan is intended to guide what type of development is put forward, at the other end of the Planning process is the Development Control Committees (DCCs) which are intended to ensure that planning applications for development are consistent with planning guidelines including the Local Plan. DCCs are made up of elected councillors who are expected to make unbiased decisions about whether complex or contentious planning applications should be Granted or Refused planning permission. For the Ashton Gate area this is the Development Control (South and East) Committee. Since June 2006, this committee has considered 105 planning applications. Of those 105 Planning Applications, Planning Officers have recommended refusal of just 10 applications. Planning Officers recommended that permission be granted on 86 occasions and the committee has refused permission against officer advice on just 7 of those 86 occasions. The conclusion has to be that, on the main, councillors serving on the Development Control (South and East) Committee generally rely upon the recommendations of the City Council’s Planning Officers who themselves are likely to be in favour of a planning application by the time it arrives at committee level..

Planning Officers are also tasked with doing their best to ensure that developments are successfully brought forward and implemented successfully. At an early stage, a developer will contact the Planning Officers to discuss a proposal, and from that stage a symbiotic relationship is established in which both developer and Planning Officer are looking to ensure the development proceeds smoothly to a successful approval of a planning application, along with any S.106 funding associated with the development.

Not only is the Planning Officer judge (they provide most of the expert opinion used to develop the local plan to guide the planning process) and jury (they provide the expert opinions on which DCC members base their decisions), they are also the lawyer advising one of the litigants essentially on a “no win – no fee” basis. Win the case (achieve planning permission), win the funds (S.106).

What of the other litigant? By this we mean the local community – who represents them?

Bristol City Council’s Code of Conduct for Members and Officers - Planning Matters includes the following statement;

“The aim of the planning process is to control development in the public interest”

The public interest obviously includes the views of the local community so the local community is represented by Councillors and Planning Officers – but as Councillors tend to follow the recommendations of Planning Officers, this means that the local community is effectively represented by the Planning Officers. Not only are the Planning Officers the judge, jury, and representing the other side, they’re also representing you, but in your case they are doing it pro bono – it is not hard to imagine a conflict of interest and also a conflict of client priorities.

The Code of Conduct continues;

“The role of members and officers in the planning process is to make planning decisions openly, impartially and with sound judgement for justifiable planning reasons.”

“When this code applies – to all members of the development control committees and officers at all times when they are involved in the planning process”

At this point it is worth noting that planning process also includes any discussion at the “pre-application stage”. In other words, as soon as a potential developer discusses proposals with the planning officer regarding a specific site the code applies and the officer is required to be open and impartial.

How does this work out in practice?

The first that the general public knew of the proposal for a new superstore at Ashton Gate was when it was leaked on 29th April on the Bristol Blogger website, but it has become apparent that Planning Officers knew of this proposal some considerable time before this, possibly in November/December of the previous year. There was thus a time-period of several months when it could be argued that Planning Officers were not operating in an “impartial and open” manner within the planning process because no attempt was made to inform the general public of the proposal for a Tesco superstore at Ashton Gate.

If the aim of the planning process is to control development in the public interest and members and officers are required to make decisions openly and impartially throughout the planning process, including the pre-application stage, then the only way to conform to this is to ensure that the general public are kept abreast of all meetings as they take place. It cannot be open and impartial to engage in discussions with one side of the process (the developer) whilst failing to inform the other side (the local community) that these discussions are even taking place.

It is bad enough that Planning Officers are both judge and jury AND the lawyer representing each side but to then find out that the lawyer whom you assumed was representing your views had been having regular face-to-face meetings for several months with the opposite side to help them build their case without your knowledge whilst you had to rely on a brief note from a third party to let you know that there is even a case against you does not meet the criteria of impartiality and openness.

Consultation on the planning process appears designed to insult our intelligence - it might help Planning Officers to win funding for required infrastructure but, in doing so, it is likely to alienate the very communities whose interests it is supposed to be representing.


  1. My guess is that councillors knew long before it was 'announced' on the Bristol Blogger website too


  2. Ward councillors certainly didn't know. Ask Charlie. Maybe senior politicians did?

    The problem here is what officers optimistically call the "lobbying" that's allowed to go in secret between developers and planning officers.

    Strangely similar conduct is constitutionally prevented between developers and councillors.

    Surely a simple way to democratise the planning system a little would be to oblige planning officers to publicly declare - say within 5 working days - any contact they've had with developers, landowners or their agents and state what that contact was about.

    The current system where unelected planning officers have more knowledge about what may be happening in a ward than the elected councillors is absurd.

  3. The first I heard about the possibility of a Tesco was from Tony Dyer shortly before the June council elections

  4. Residents of Ashton Vale were informed at the first Consultation at BCFC that a large supermarket had expressed an interest in the site, this was late 2008. We approached local councillors, who dismissed this and said BCC had no stomach for another supermarket in South Bristol.

    At the most recent consultation Ashton Vale Heritage Group complained that developers had again excluded them from consultation events. They were assured that every household in Ashton Vale had been sent a letter by hand and further more they had undertaken an audit to ensure this had been done, so it came as a huge surprise to them (but not to us) that over 65% had not received an invitation.

    Over 800 residents signed a petition stating they wished to save Ashton Vale Fields from development, another 500 have signed letters to be delivered to our local MP and Councillors, expressing disappointment at the lack of support from then, but still we keep hearing that the whole of Bristol is backing the Stadium.

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  6. The local newspaper editor and the Chief Executive of Bristol City Council are backing the stadium for their wealthy friend, the city's richest man, Steve Lansdown.

    It says a lot about their arrogance and high-handedness that they think they represent "the whole of Bristol".

    They don't and never will.

  7. Similar story with the superstore proposal for Ashton Gate where a number of streets closest to the site failed to receive invitations.