How not to conduct a public consultation

Hounslow Council’s handling of the Church Street road closure in Isleworth could not have been less democratic

For many years the well-heeled residents of Church Street have complained – not without reason – of copious volumes of through traffic seeking to by-pass the already congested Twickenham Road en route to and from Busch Corner.

A reasonable solution had been sought that may have provided some reduction in the inconvenience for people living in the street.  Closure had been considered – always, though, with the caveat that it would only have been a last resort. And any closure would have had to follow a satisfactory consultation with residents of the wider area as well as improvements to Twickenham Road to counteract the impact of increased traffic. But, without support from the wider community in Isleworth, it was always a non-starter.

However, the current council appear to have been schmoozed by a small – but slick and determined – group of campaigners and they have imposed total closure with apparent disregard to the consequences for the thousands of people who would be adversely affected.

Those consequences did not take long to present themselves.

There has been almost permanent congestion along a Twickenham Road which was already barely fit for purpose, ambulances carrying patients to West Middlesex Hospital (which the council forgot to consult) struggled through gridlocked traffic while children travelling to or from school, and even at school, were subjected to significantly increased levels of pollution.

Hundreds of angry residents marched, and social media campaigns engaged in speculation about the motives of both the pro-closure lobby and of the councillors who had backed them. This was exacerbated by the news that estate agents had straight away begun to emphasise the traffic-free credentials of Church Street as an indicator of the desirability (and increased value) of properties in the street.

The hope for opponents of the closure lay in the fact that the exercise was marked as a “trial” closure, subject to review at a later stage.

Residents of the whole area were consulted and asked to vote on whether they wished to see the closure continue or to have Church Street re-open.  72% of respondents wished to see the road re-open (a figure almost certainly understated due to the professionalism and tenacity of the pro-closure campaign in marshalling support).

However, councillors ignored these findings and voted to make the closure permanent.

Not unreasonably, residents are perplexed as to why their elected representatives went to the trouble of trying to gauge local opinion if their intention was to then completely ignore it. It seems to some almost to have been a taunt – an opportunity to demonstrate that they have the power to disregard the concerns of those they represent at will.

Politicians are frequently at pains to stress that they are representatives of their constituents rather than delegates, and if ever there was a public flaunting of the ‘we know best’ interpretation of the democratic process it was the vote at the Isleworth and Brentford Area Forum to make permanent the closure of Church Street.

If the decision to overrule the community wasn’t insulting enough, the councillors made good this shortcoming by embarking upon an extremely tenuous, and fatuous, self-justification exercise.  Their actions were not a gratuitous snub to an entire community, you understand, but a cleverly calculated, progressive and thoroughly enlightened environmental initiative.

By the simple expedient of just ignoring all the evidence of increased pollution levels in almost every part of the town other than Church Street, those who imposed the closure upon us were actually able to present their actions as though they were part of some co-ordinated, visionary green strategy.  Chutzpah at its absolute best.

Democracy is about the will of the people being done, and whenever it is at all possible that is what should happen.  When it is not possible to do the will of the people that needs to be explained, with humility and a dash of regret.  Not the ‘Up Yours!’ message which was delivered loud and clear to the community of Isleworth.

6 thoughts on “How not to conduct a public consultation”

  1. This article seems very biased and not taking into accounts any of the actual facts or details of the entire case from 20 years of discussion with the council, through traffic calming exercises to the actual trial and results. The response is infactual, based on hear-say and appears written by an anti closure campaigner. I would recoomed the author reviews the actual case file.

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  2. This is outrageous and seems as though it’s caused chaos in the surrounding areas – all because of a small group of people who don’t want traffic going along their road. This is a London borough. If the residents along the Thames don’t want traffic – move to the countryside. Also I’m aghast that opinions and stats were not taken into consideration. What was the point if there was no intention ever of re-opening the road?? What sort of people are employed at this council! It’s very worrying.

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  3. This article is reporting from one perspective and is the opinion of the author from what he has witnessed during this whole sorry mess; of course the Church St resident is not going to agree, but perhaps he could point out where the author has been ‘infactual’ and allow the author to respond?

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  4. I read this article hoping to have the issues about Church Road laid out for me so that I could get my head round them. What I found was that the author of the piece thinks that

    (1) The residents of Church Street are “well-heeled” but not why he/she regards that as relevant.

    (2) That “without support from the wider community in Isleworth, it was always a non-starter”. The direct implication of this view is that large-scale problems like traffic flow must always be agreed by people experiencing local effects. This is the global infrastructure problem. Should local objections be paramount for projects which effect the larger community?

    (3) The council appears to have been “schmoozed” by a “slick and determined” group of campaigners. So now we know that the supporters of closure are “well-heeled” and “slick” and are into “schmoozing”.

    (4) There are serious problems along the Twickenham Road affecting even the West Mid but no data or references are given.

    (5) Closure has meant “significantly increased levels of pollution”. Again, no evidence is thought to be necessary beyond pointing out that house prices have risen as a result of closure. The pollution data on the Council website shows a lowering of pollution. If it is wrong then it should be challenged but this is not done. Instead we get mere asserition.

    (6) Angry residents “speculated” about the “motives” of the pro-closure lobby. We are not told what it was about these alleged motives that they speculated about. But now we are expected to be concerned that the closure proponents are not only “well heeeled”, “slick”, into “schmoozing” but that they also have “motives” (e.g. their concern is the price of their houses).

    (7) 72% of residents in the wider area opposed closure. This figure would have been greater were it not for the “professionalism and tenacity” of the pro-closure campaigners. It is not mentioned that the figures for an even wider area show a lower figure of 58% opposition.

    (8) Councillors ignored the consultation results. It might have been worth saying what arguments were used and what documents councillors were given.

    (9) Councillors embarked on “an extremely tenuous, and fatuous, self-justification exercise” but no information is given and no link to information provided.

    (10) “When it is not possible to do the will of the people that needs to be explained”. I agree but it needs to be explained in what way this was not done. The officers report recommended closure. It put many arguments. These may all be wrong but if so then they need to be answered.

    I know next to nothing about Church Road or its closure and that wasn’t changed by reading this piece which is a mixture of assertion, rhetoric and information all mixed to the point where one cannot see the difference. The IBAF meeting which decided on closure had 14 documents before it. These should have been reviewed by this article.

    The Closure may or may not be a case of how not to conduct a public consultation. I have seen enough phoney consultations to be open to being convinced about that. But for that I need good arguments and reliable information. As it stands I think that this article, in its turn, is something of a model of how not to make a democratic case which might convince those not already convinced of the author’s viewpoint.

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    1. I think the article sums up the situation surrounding Church Street (not Church Road) very well. I don’t know whether a 10,000-word, point by point demolition of the Council’s report was required but it would not seem to rest very well with the broader layout of this website. The lack of democracy involved in the reaching of this decision, quite irrespective of the merits or otherwise of the substantive case for closure, are too blatant and obvious to warrant scholarly analysis.

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    2. Ha ha – this last comment comes from someone who claims to know ‘next to nothing’ about the case, and not at all from someone who lives on Church St. He rather lamely seems to know a lot of facts regarding this whole sorry mess, especially as someone who wanted to rely upon this article to get his head around the issues. Even though they won the battle, these two Church St residents do not like to see an article which may report a viewpoint opposite to theirs. They both seem to be ‘sore winners’

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