Wednesday, 6 October 2010

This Is What Real Consultation Looks Like

As I only had about four hours sleep last night because of severe shoulder pain, I'll keep my initial thoughts brief on tonight's excellent consultation event arranged by the Save Wanstead Flats campaign.

There were around 200 people packed into Durning Hall Community Centre this evening for a lively and at times angry question and answer session. It was an event that ultimately shouldn't have been forced upon the City of London Corporation and the Metropolitan police by local residents and should instead have been part of the official 'consultation', but the speakers did at least turn up. Chief Superintendent Alaric Bothron was better briefed that others on the platform and the most adept at repeated stonewalling, whilst his police colleague seems particularly animated only when it came to discussions about drainage issues. There was little that hadn't been said already at the exhibitions that the police held in Wanstead, Leyton and at Durning Hall last month and little sense that the Met has any plans to do anything but try and ride out the opposition to their plans in the hope it will drift away.

However Sue Ireland, who is the Director of Open Spaces at the Corporation, seemed remarkably unprepared, which was a real surprise, whilst her colleague Paul Thomson continued his run of public statements that seem to antagonise people even more. His somewhat paternalistic plea for people to trust the Corporation because of its history of protecting Epping Forest went down particularly badly, I thought, because we are obviously way past the point where that kind of trust can be taken for granted. People needed convincing arguments and aside from the absolute pledge that the police's operational base will last no longer than 90 days, the speakers repeatedly said that plans were subject to changing events. This is exactly the reason, however, why local people feel that the proposed site is entirely the wrong place for a operations centre of this size and nature.

The underlying message from the police was that they intend to press on, that local people have had their opportunity to complain and should now engage with them on issues like the best way to provide sewage for the site. But as the Americans say, that dog just won't hunt. Had the Met's own 'consultation' been rather more than a half-hearted marketing exercise, it is likely that many people's attitudes may not have harden quite so much since the initial public meeting in mid-July.

Since then and no doubt helped by the way that official information has been so vague, an informal gathering of people has coalesced into a unusual community action group. It's one that has no formal leadership or money but enough local support that it believes it can win, despite the huge obstacles we obviously face in terms of access to power and resources. Whether that is the case will be tested over the next couple of months, but both the Met and the Corporation should expect a torrent of planning objections, pressure on local MPs and councillors and even the prospect of a judicial review. Someone I spoke to at the end of tonight's meeting who comes from a legal background has offered to look in detail at this last idea.

One final observation: there were a couple of councillors at tonight's event but not one of them was from Newham. For every single elected representative in Forest Gate to stay away from one of the largest residents-organised meetings in recent years, right in the middle of their local area, speaks volumes about the state of electoral politics in the borough.

More photographs of the meeting here

1 Comment:

Martin Warne said...

I am disappointed but not surprised that none of our councillors turned up. Even if they agreed with the police's proposal, which they may well do, coming along to hear what their constituents have to say at a mass meeting is the least we should expect; it's what I would do. My guess is that Sir Robin simply told them not to.

As you say, it is a poor reflection on the state of electoral politics in Newham, but that's not likely to change any time soon. The mayor knows he can ignore local people and pursue his own agenda without fear of the consequences because this is, in many ways, the rottenest of rotten boroughs.

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