Consultation or box ticking exercise?

Back in late 2017, Manchester City Council launched a consultation on their plans to redevelop three sites in Chorlton. The results were taken to the Council’s Executive meeting in July 2018 and you can read the full report here. Whilst the consultation solicited views on the development of the former leisure centre and shopping precinct this blog post only considers questions and proposals relating to Ryebank Fields.

The Friends of Ryebank Fields are extremely concerned that the consultation was biased, seeking views on what the housing development should look like rather than whether it should exist in the first place. Those who disagreed with proposals to build on the site (C Q1) should not have been asked to complete subsequent questions about the style and layout of the proposed housing development. These further questions should have been optional or provided a no development response option.

It turns out that more than 60% of those consulted stated clearly in Question 1 that they did not agree with plans for development. If the turkeys hadn’t voted for Christmas you would not then expect them to debate the merits of being served with gravy or cranberry sauce.

Source: Breakdown of responses to Chorlton consultation, Manchester City Council

In fact, only Question 4 offered any opportunity for dissent. In this question, again, roughly 60% said that they did not agree that “70 high quality large new homes can be accommodated on the site”.

Source: Breakdown of responses to Chorlton consultation Manchester City Council

The comments at the end of the consultation on Ryebank Fields were largely negative. This seems to be acknowledged in Section 4.3 of the Council’s own report and can be found summarised here and in full here.

Source: Chorlton - New Development Opportunities, Manchester City Council

The Friends of Ryebank Fields believe that these questions did not allow the weight of public antipathy to building on this site to be felt and that these responses have already been taken out of context to show approval for aspects of the proposals. In Section 5.6 of the council report, they talk about the ‘preferred approach’ from the consultation being for ‘a dual road connection onto both Longford Road and Ryebank Road to the north of the site’ though only for bikes and pedestrians. Calling this a ‘preferred option’ when almost two thirds oppose the development and traffic emerged as the dominant concern is a very imaginative interpretation from Manchester City Council.

Source: Summary of comments to Chorlton consultation, Manchester City Council

In February 2017 the Local Government Association produced New Conversations: LGA guide to engagement, an excellent, if lengthy, toolbox for building good relationships and meaningful consultations between councils and the communities that they serve. Starting on page 50 the guidance outlines how and why the validity of a consultation could be challenged and the ‘Gunning Principles’ that a judge would use to determine whether a consultation had been lawful. Their purpose is to prevent “insincere or inauthentic consultation” that undermines trust. In simple terms, they say that consultation:

  1. Must happen before the decision is made
  2. Must give sufficient context and information
  3. Should provide enough time for people to think things over
  4. Should demonstrate real deliberation and thought over the results

The Friends of Ryebank Fields are currently considering whether the very guided nature of the consultation questions might not satisfy point 4 of the ‘Gunning Principles’ and whether further engagement with the Council is therefore needed.

The planning has been waived ahead to the next stage, with Manchester Metropolitan University being instructed to commit to finding “a Development Partner [..] who will engage with local resident groups to bring forward a participatory based approach (Section 5.8). With the bar for engagement being set so very low by the council itself, it shouldn’t be a difficult task to find such a developer.

The role of Section 106 funding also needs to be fully understood to judge whether this consultation has satisfied the first of Gunning’s principles. If the revenue generated by the so-called ‘executive’ homes has already been banked on for developing local infrastructure such as schools and doctors’ surgeries, we have to wonder whether not developing the site for housing is a genuine option on the menu. In sections 5.2 and 5.3 of the council report, they discuss cross-subsidising the development of homes available for social rent in the Leisure Centre redevelopment through funds raised from the Ryebank Fields and Precint sites. If those monies are essential for the viabilty of the Lesiure Centre site, we would prefer for this to be shared with residents openly so that they are able to make their own informed choices in line with the second of Gunning’s principles. Interestingly, the Council has recently consulted on improving the transparency of this part of the planning process and we look forward to hearing the results of this.

Lastly, the Friends of Ryebank Fields is made up of green-space protectors from both sides of the Manchester/Trafford border and we urge the council to engage more actively with those living on the Firswood side of the site. They will be equally affected by proposed developments and should be given equal say.