At the WDC Special Improvement & Review Commission meeting on Tuesday 15th February members of the public had the opportunity to listen to Cllr Ian McEnnis’s proposal to ‘call-in’ the Cabinet’s decision to proceed with the proposed stadium project. The events of the evening have been reported elsewhere in BFP but I felt it important to respond to a comment made by WDC Leader Cllr Lesley Clarke who took exception to the statement by Cllr Malcolm Blanksby that the consultation process was flawed. Indeed she stated that “our officers worked hard and those words were unjust”.
I do not doubt that WDC’s officers did indeed “work hard” but would be curious to understand exactly how their efforts were directed given the number of concerns that members of the public have raised. Such concerns have also highlighted issues that are incongruent with WDC Deputy Leader Cllr Green’s assertion that the consultation process should be transparent and open (a perspective now echoed by local MP Steve Baker).
Examples, many of which have been reported in the BFP, of the lack of transparency and evidence of a flawed process are outlined below.
(1) The consultation brochure, which contained many inferences and few facts, was not distributed to all ratepayers despite the potential impact to the entire community.
- Indicative costs of a new stadium and other facilities range from £45M to £170M but WDC chose to not send a copy of the brochure to all households because it would be too expensive. To commit to expenditure on consultants reports, research, etc. up to £750,000, without first balloting the community on the need for such expenditure and to then choose to not at least inform everybody seems a pretty basic flaw.
- Phrases in the brochure like “potentially” and “such as” were questioned at the discussion forums where it was stated that items identified in this way were only indicative of possibilities and would be subject to funding being found. This wasn’t made clear in the brochure or survey.
(2) The survey was carefully constructed to ensure that no clear “Do Nothing” option was provided.
For those not familiar with the survey, respondents were asked to indicate which option they would prefer. The options equated to:
A – London Wasps and WWFC to remain at Adams Park and seek improvements (which would require WDC to provide funding via enabling development)
B –Rugby & Football Stadium for London Wasps and WWFC built on a new site (which would require WDC to contribute funding via enabling development)
C –Rugby & Football Stadium for London Wasps and WWFC built on a new site (which would require WDC to contribute funding via enabling development) plus community sports pitches (that may require self funding)
D –Rugby & Football Stadium for London Wasps and WWFC built on a new site (which would require WDC to contribute funding via enabling development) plus community sports pitches (that may require self funding) plus additional “Sports Village” (that would need to be self-funded)
- When the absence of a “Do Nothing” option was questioned at a public meeting the response given was that Option A was “effectively the Do Nothing option”. This would still require WDC to contribute funding, so how could it be considered an option to do nothing? Another flaw?
- The absence of a “Do Nothing” option in the survey was acknowledged in the Cabinet Overview Report but was then included as an option to be considered (even though evidence for the support for such an option wasn’t collected). Later in the report, Option A1 was described as the “Do Nothing” option! Inconsistent at best, flawed at worst?
(3) There was inadequate validation of survey entries which meant it was subject to fraudulent entries
- When questioned about the absence of any fraud prevention measures the response was that all entries were accepted as genuine and in good faith. An amazing leap of faith for a project involving this level of expenditure.
- Subsequent emails thanking respondents for participating resulted in numerous responses stating that they hadn’t taken part (!). Many others were found to have false addresses. Despite this, the results were still considered valid.
- There is considerable anecdotal evidence of BNU students being issued copies of the survey with instructions of which options to pick without any explanation of what the options were about (or indeed the purpose of the survey).
- There are also allegations of similar activities taking place at Adams Park and of emails being sent to people on a London Wasps mailing list telling them which option to choose.
- A Facebook webpage was set up to harvest people’s names, addresses and postcodes without explanation of how the details would be used.
- Not ensuring robust validation and checking of a process and the data generated which would form a critical element of the proposed project’s direction could fairly be described as flawed.
(4) The Consultation period was expedited without justification
- Typically a public consultation process would take twelve weeks but WDC chose instead to keep the period available for consultation to half that without a valid explanation as to why it was necessary to provide the public with a window of only six weeks to respond. To rush the process and not justify why ratepayers were only allowed such a limited opportunity to respond seems flawed.
(5) At the two public forums public participation was constrained and table allocation appeared predetermined to ensure that the professional clubs had influence at every table
- Comments from the table sessions were filtered by WDC facilitators which meant that not all points raised by participants were included.
- At one of the meetings a representative from London Wasps was allowed to dominate the Q&A session thereby providing limited time for the rest of the public to make comments or ask questions.
- To attend one of the meeting, intended for local residents, required pre-registration and each table had at least one representative in some form or another (many of whom were not local) from the professional clubs.
- The methodology used to compile, consolidate and then present issues & concerns was clearly flawed
(6) The Focus Groups didn’t involve a proper cross-section of the community and it was acknowledged that the results couldn’t be considered representative of the District
- Despite Lane End being an area that would be dramatically affected here was no representation of the focus group panels.
- The focus group organiser was asked by Cabinet if the group responses were likely to be representative of the whole community and he said that he couldn’t claim that.
- Focus groups are often ‘focussed’ in their backgrounds, i.e. a young persons group, an ethnic group, etc. and yet the groups were structured to be intentionally diverse and so lacked a collective focus.
- Focus groups members were directed to reconsider their choices at the end of the sessions after being subjected to misinformation (intentional or otherwise).
- So, Focussed or flawed?
(7) Ratepayers were not given sufficient information to enable informed choices to be made
- The Public Consultation period ran from Friday 17 September and Friday 29 October but documents and consultant reports that had already been produced were not made available until after the consultation period had closed.
- Ratepayers have needed to make numerous Freedom of Information requests to secure access to important information.
- As reported by BFP, WDC continues to refuse to supply key information despite the Information Commissioner’s Office ordering the Council to provide information requested
- These cases demonstrate an absence of transparency and by not allowing ratepayers access to information meant that they could only make decisions based on limited (if any) accurate information which seems to be quite a major flaw.
In conclusion, any one of the above examples is a fair justification for Cllr Blanksby’s assertion that the public consultation was flawed. To have amassed such a selection would suggest to me that the consultation process wasn’t just flawed….it was fatally flawed, to the point where it should be considered invalid, unrepresentative of the community, opaque rather than transparent and so fails to reflect the wishes of the local community.
At Cabinet’s meeting on 1st March a decision will be made whether to accept the call-in recommendation of the Improvement & Review Commission. At the same time Cabinet members should recognise just how flawed the public consultation has been and reconsider how and if to proceed with the proposed project.
Chairman – GASP (Groups Against Stadium Proposals)