The rules on running consultations are being flagrantly ignored by the mayor and his administration and it is leading to bad decisions and further distrust of Bristol City Council.
The most open form of consultation is to ask: “What do you think and what would you do?” in relation to a subject or service. The wider the field, the more interesting the views and ideas that might come back. Whilst in some circumstances, this is the right way to go, it is essential at some point to narrow the choices. The choices in a public consultation though, should still include possible options. If they do not, then frustration and distrust rapidly develop.
It is also important that any relevant facts are provided in an accessible form, and that these are accurate and not slanted.
Although there have been many mistakes with regard to busses and transport, the recent consultation on cutting bus subsidies was well done: relevant data on subsidies per journey, routes and timetables was provided and therefore led to probably the least worst of the options being selected.
The pattern elsewhere, though, has unfortunately been woeful.
A small example: the council wanted to improve the quality of tennis courts in parks and have them maintained at no cost. They agree a deal with the Lawn Tennis Association, which involves charging for what used to be free use. They then quietly put out an online only survey asking how much people thought they should pay.
Having just had our tennis courts in Redcatch Park, Knowle, resurfaced by grant at no cost to the council, after 15 years of council neglect, our local users were very angry. There was a small survey response across the city but when 60 per cent came from the Knowle area and all selected the ‘None of the above’ option – maintaining that use must be free and offering many interesting comments – it was game set and match, but a lot of energy had to be expended getting the climbdown.
The current Your Neighbourhood Consultation, which includes the question of library closures, is another classic example.
The consultation starts by proclaiming that councillors voted in February for a £1.5 m cut in the libraries budget. This is blatantly not true, as the medium term financial plan could not be made to add up, so was not voted on.
This is not the only time the Administration has got itself in a tangle by not knowing what they voted for and is laughable but also has serious consequences.
The consultation then goes on to present three slightly different versions of the same plan and rules out other viable options. Cue anger, public distrust and potential chaos.
We now have a potentially even more serious breach. Bristol City Council has a record of protecting low earners from paying council tax and reducing charges for many others who are financially challenged. As well as the hardship argument, there is also the fact that collecting small amounts of tax from low income families who were previously exempt is expensive and leads to more defaults. It can also cause other problems which are an expense for the council or other agencies. When the previous mayor tried to reduce, Lib Dem and Labour councillors blocked it.
The present Labour mayor now wants to reduce the help. He has issued a consultation that offers three different ways that this will be done. He does not offer the option of fully maintaining the scheme. Whatever your individual view of the priority this scheme should have, the problem is that not offering the status quo seems to make the consultation illegal.
There will always be differing legal opinions, but in this case, a recent Supreme Court ruling has just granted a judicial review against Haringey Council, who acted in a very similar way. A similar case against Bristol would lead to financial chaos and the precedent has been set.
I have written to the mayor pointing out the problem and asking him to provide a clear legal opinion that Bristol City Council is not in danger. I have received acknowledgement of my letter but no substantive reply as yet.
Deciding what you are going to do and then limiting the legal consultation is fraught with danger and could lead to further hardship for financially challenged families, and further cuts that could have been avoided.
Gary Hopkins is a Liberal Democrat Councillor for the ward of Knowle.