Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Lambeth Council axes Vauxhall Nine Elms community forums in favour of expos costing £7500

If you want to know more about the VNEB and the intensive development to take place in the area over the next 20 years, I recommend you take a look at the gigantic Mayor's Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area Planning Framework.

Back in May, I wrote a post about why the Kennington Association Planning Forum think the VNEB proposals are fatally flawed.  Essentially, they think they've identified a £588 million funding blackhole in the infrastructure. £200 million of that is the value of land that the developers might have to purchase to ensure the area is brought up to Lambeth's minimum green space standard.  We've yet to hear how the issue of green space might be addressed...

In the meantime, a community forum for consulting the local community about the whole VNEB area was launched by Lambeth's Nine Elms Vauxhall Strategy Board.  An initial wide-area-community forum meeting was held in Jan 2011.  It was discussed briefly at the Kennington Oval Vauxhall (KOV) meeting in April, where Maureen Johnston noted that she'd been involved in discussions on behalf of KOV about the possible shape of the forum.  Later, a second community meeting took place in May 2011, (announced by Princes Ward Labour councillers) here.  I didn't make it to that, but the minutes indicate that much of the meeting was taken up with strongly worded requests by residents to remove the Vauxhall gyratory (more on that in the next post) and residents' opposition to the Northern Line Extension.  The Friends of Vauxhall Park also wanted to engage with working groups on the matter of the linear park. 

In the meantime, PAPER NO. SB 11 - 35 from the VNEB Strategy Board meeting in June allows:
"The previous approach for community engagement presented by Lambeth to the Strategy Board on 26th January 2011, involved setting up an area-wide community forum that would meet a number of times of year."
Sounds good.  Sounds sensible.  Area-wide meetings ensure that lots of stakeholders meet together to ensure that no area is getting a better deal than another.  And even better, as was agreed by the earlier forums...
"The proposals also suggested establishing themed community working groups alongside the strategy board’s working groups, that would then have representatives from the community sitting on them."
Perfect.  It would be possible just to go to meetings about areas of the strategy that you felt affected you eg. transport or school or health.  The experts in the community in each area would be able to attend specific themed working groups.  But, that is no longer to be because...
"There would... be an onus on community representatives to attend numerous working groups covering technical matters that may not deal with key policy issues and concerns they are most interested in."
Umm, no.  That was the whole point of the themed groups.  The report does note, correctly, that community groups don't work according to strict borough boundaries (thank goodness). It also cites resource issues, but aren't we all trying to learn to do things co-operatively and on a shoe-string?  The new idea doesn't look cheap.  Consequently...
"It was agreed that establishing a formal Community Engagement Group with community representatives and others partners should not be progressed."
Oh dear.  What might the real reason be?
"The likelihood is that such a Group would involve a small number of the more active community groups." and "it would risk excluding hard- to-reach groups."
Well, yes.  That's democracy.  That's co-operation.  If you're active and engaged, and attend meetings, and track what the council is doing, and submit feedback on planning matters, and attend library seminars etc. etc. etc. then, yes, a group is likely to contain engaged citizens who have something to contribute to their local community.  How dangerous!  How radical!  I acknowledge that the Council needs to work hard to contact and dialogue with hard to reach groups, but that shouldn't be at the expense of those who conscientously show up to meetings and participate...  So, what's the new plan?

"Therefore, an alternative approach is recommended where the Working Groups would present to the community at a variety of ‘events’ in or close to the Opportunity Area."

A long-term die-hard community activist friend of mine said to me, "oh yes, councils love Expos, where everybody turns up at different times and note inconsequential views on little post-it notes that people stick up on a board. These are often off-topic and later ignored.  It allows the Councils to say that they've consulted, but not have to sustain any deep level of engagement, participation or criticism with community groups".  Does that sound about right?
"The events would tend to be more informal than a conference or committee meeting with presentations but more like a ‘symposium’ with the aim of collecting the views on a key topic from a wide range of people..."
We can now look forward to two tiers of events.  Cross-borough VNEB expos and community style events costing £5000-£7500 a time (tier one).  Tier two (at least at the Lambeth end) seems at first to be slightly more acceptable, with a localised "Lambeth Community Forum" which will be shaped by existing forum leaders (probably Kennington Oval Vauxhall forum) until you find out that attendees are a rather select band of people... "by invitation to existing forum leaders and leaders of recognised community groups."  Great.

The Lurker isn't impressed.  Anybody know what's going on?  Well word on the ground is that it was due to Cllr Sally Prentice's move from Regeneration and Planning to Employment and Enterprise.  The new Regeneration and Planning Committee member is Cllr Nigel Haselden, so perhaps he's the one to ask.

Can anybody offer a defence?  The expo idea appears to me to weaken community group input and atomise attendee participation.  It will be difficult to establish consensus or disagreement, as people will just turn up and leave again without having to listen to one anothers' views.  Difficult questions and hedging answers won't be heard by an entire room of people, and it's not exactly possible to minute conversations at the Expos.  Very convenient.


Cllr Mark Harrison said...

Yes I can offer an explanation and a defence.

Lambeth's area wide Community Forum is continuing as before. It is an opportunity for representatives of any group/ organisation in the area to attend a meeting to discuss the main issues with the relevant people from the Council. These meetings will continue. They provide a platform for all community groups to vocally express their opinions, concerns and issues to Lambeth councillors and officers.

The original proposal was for subgroups of this community forum to meet to discuss specific issues (transport/ housing/ green space) in detail with the officers/ private sector people making detailed decisions in the Strategy Board's subgroups. After consultation with various people it's been decided that this model would be a logisital nightmare - it would involve arranging dozens of meetings which would be a massive time commitment for all concerned. Only residents with virtually limitless time would be able to engage properly.

An Expo event allows everybody to assemble on one day, for as much time or as little as they can spare, to engage with as many or as few issues as they want to. It's a cost effective way for the private developers/ the Mayor/ TfL and the councils to do their community engagement with as many people as possible. And it allows the detailed issue-based subgroups to take place on the same day in the same place with all the key people there. If an individual wants to go to every subgroup they can spend the day at the Expo, if they are only interested in one they can be in and out in an hour. We can publish the time of each subgroup in a programme ahead of the day, and the discussion can be recorded. It also means the (very busy!) senior people from TfL/ GLA/ the private developers can all commit to being in one place on one day.

Finally there are two further crucial aspects of community engagement for VNEB which I think are important. One is transparency - Lambeth councillors got the Strategy Board to agree to publish all of its papers online. The second is to ensure that councillors and officers go out and visit any community group that is interested in having us along. We're willing to do this and have offered to do it - I'm happy to accept any invitation when I'm free to do so.

Cllr Mark Harrison
VNEB Strategy Board Member

Anonymous said...

almost every car driver will be frustrated if the vauxhall gyratory is changed into a 2 way system. It will take an age to get over, and therefore to anywhere in north london, across london, or to the M4 or wherever. Vauxhall willl be more cut off. Please don't.

@markvauxhall said...

Well. My impression of some local community groups is that they are a manifestation of the viewpoints of a vocal handful of people, and not necessarily representative* of the wider community at large. So personally speaking I'd have been worried about a consultation structure that placed undue emphasis on the views of a clutch of small, unrepresentative* organisations.

So in one sense I could see the Expo approach being advantageous as it widens participation... although I do appreciate the significant downsides of the current manifestation as there seems to be very little scope for dialogue (with only two meetings), and potentially less accountability / auditability, as presumably no minutes will be produced.

(* I expect an inevitable response of "well, join a local organisation then" - fundamentally I don't see the point of joining an organisation when you disagree with many of their positions on local topics, and secondly, like many people, I don't have the luxury of a 9-5 job. 8-8 would be closer. Attending meetings at 7 on weekday evenings is just not possible for all.)

Anonymous said...

The expo approach does seem a convenient way of avoiding questioning from what this blog sometimes refers to as "the kennington massive"

SE11 Lurker said...

@Cllr Harrison I'd be happier if I felt that Lambeth's area wide Community Forum was open to all residents. But from what I understand, it will only be open to local forum area heads. And that's where I think we'll lose out in terms of presenting views to the Council and board.

Re, the subgroups, it's not clear that all residents would need to attend everything, just areas of concern. But I appreciate that there will be an attempt to do this using the expos. Perhaps I've just been to too many expos which involve wandering around looking at stalls, and not enough focus/discussion group time.

As far as I'm concerned, transparency is good, but should be just a part of any public process. The idea that councillors and officers attend community groups could be interesting, depending on how much information is available to be shared.

Tony Roberts said...

If the new Expos are anything like the balls in a bucket exercise that made up the Co-operative Council consultation, then the whole process will be an even greater waste of money.

What is an 'Expo' anyway? It sounds like some dreaded Third Way speak for asking people what they think, but not really listening, let alone acting.

Cllr Mark Harrison said...

@SE11 Lurker

The Lambeth Community Forum is open to representatives of any group in the area, not just the Forum heads. (The two Forums in the area (KOV and the Stockwell Partnership) organise the the Lambeth Community Forum.) So any residents' association/ community group/ organised group can send anyone along that they want to to represent their views. Interested individuals aren't going to be turned away either.

@ Tony Roberts

Expos are an event lasting a few hours, along the lines of a fete. There are stalls for all the organisations/ issues involved which people attending can engage with as much or as little as they like. In general the Council has found that an Expo event will attract hundreds of people, rather than the few dozen you would expect for a public meeting. Whilst public meetings are important, and they will continue in the form of the Lambeth Community Forum, many people can find them offputting (any combination of confrontational/ intimidating/ dominated by certain people who shout the loudest/ boring/ irrelevant/ inconvenient/ too long). An Expo is a way of engaging those people for whom public meetings don't appeal.

I take the overall point that for consultation at the Expo to be meaningful the discussion in the sub groups and at the stalls needs to be recorded and reported properly.

SE11 Lurker said...

@Cllr Harrison

I have in my grubby paws, an email that somebody sent to me from Paul Ewing that contains the line...

"As set out in the paper, the community forum will consist of the chairs of the recognised groups in the area who will be then responsible for disseminating information to their members."

Obviously, he may have meant, "the community forum will consist of the chairs of a variety of groups in the area, and can include other interested parties, as well as local residents", but that's not what was said, hence my objection.

Hopefully, the Expo breakout groups (or whatever you're calling them) will be minuted for the benefit of anybody not able to attend on the day. That would be good and ensure accountability. They could then be put up online somewhere (and I do acknowledge that it has been you to lead the way in stressing transpoarency from the VNEB team).

I confess I've been unable to find a main page for combined Lambeth/Wandsworth VNEB strategy committee (what is it called?!) minutes online, despite Googling. Google gives me some documents, but not in any one place. Is there going to be a website for hosting these? Or is there a page on the Lambeth or Wandsworth site that places it all in one place? I was trying to find the June minutes online to link to them, but failed. It's already very difficult to track new buildings and progress etc. at present so hopefully somebody is trying to centralise them.

Tony Roberts said...

People who "shout the loudest/ boring/ irrelevant" are often the very people that those in authority want to silence. They also often have the most interesting and relevant points, having taken a great personal interest in the running of their community.

The village fete Expos that you describe sound charming and quaint, but hardly the best placed location in which to discuss issues and policy that have far reaching implications for the local community. Once you have hooked your duck and had your face painted, the shouting, loud and irrelevant chat has probably been sanitised.

Which isn't at all the purpose of shifting the power balance away from accountable public meetings to wiffy waffy Expos now, is it?

Anonymous said...



The language is quaint!

It will be much more difficult to question councillors in public. Not that councillors have much accountability today. I think we should have 1 councillor wards.

SE11 Lurker said...

@Anon All of us are responsible to keep councillors accountable. Democracy only functions if people engage to some degree. In SE11, it seems to me that there's a high level of political engagement. May be because we're so close to Westminster.

I quite like having 3 councillors per ward. It means that we can ignore the useless ones. London probably generates enough enquiries to justify it. I don't get the impression that our councillors are underworked. 3 councillors per ward also means that if your ward is unfortuante enough to contain a councillor with a Cabinet role, there are still others to deal with the day to day boring pot-holes-in-the-road stuff.

Anonymous said...

you could split the wards in 3 so that the workload remained more or less the same. I am not arguing for fewer councillors. this way the lazy and incompetent councillors would more likely be exposed. cabinet members are paid a fortune so I have little sympathy for the division of labour argument you make.

@markvauxhall said...

In defence of Local Councillors...'s important to remember that being a local councillor is supposed to be a PART-TIME activity that can be done alongside another job. As such, councillors in Lambeth get a basic allowance of £10.5k.*

Of course, the practice can be different - in some cases you get very dedicated councillors who dedicate all of their time to the position - but in most cases, many councillors need other work in order to *live*. I challenge anyone to live in Kennington on £10.5k a year.

That's partly why there are three councillors in an area. As it's supposedly a part time activity, there are invariably going to be times when a specific councillor is unable to attend a specific event, and having three councillors allows the work to be shared and so that if one isn't able to attend a specific event / meeting, another is able to do so.

(*Cabinet members get £10k - £30k more. However being a cabinet member isn't supposed to mean that you don't have time to work for your constituents... the additional allowance is so that the councillor doesn't need to work in another job, and can use *that* time for their cabinet duties).

Anonymous said...

to se11 lurker: kennington is indeed a political [place. even the chair of the politically neutral kennington association, Anna Tapsell, is an ex councillor (labour).

Cllr Mark Harrison said...

@SE11 Lurker

Sorry, didn't respond on websites.

Currently Lambeth and Wandsworth have their won VNEB websites:



But it was agreed at the last meeting to get one website for the project constructed and put online.

The minutes from teh Strategy Board should really be available on all three - the Board have approved this in principle but getting them published online seems to be taking time. The wheels of local government turn slowly.

Anonymous said...

"...Black holes in the infrastructure..."? Spaced out citizens I reckon.
How to address the green spaces?
This is the way I am doing it. I have just started an online petition for further much needed allotments, please sign...
Online petition - More Allotments Needed

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