The con of ‘consultation’

Abigail Woodman asks; how much say do we actually have in council decisions?

Waltham Forest Town Hall

Waltham Forest Town Hall

In a recent conversation with an official working for democratic services at Waltham Forest Council, I was told that as residents we have only have two democratic rights; to vote in council elections, and to stand in those elections.

It is not an overstatement to say that I was shocked.

We live in a representative democracy. So, constitutionally, the statement is correct. We elect councillors to govern the borough on our behalf, and we can ourselves stand for office in local elections.

Yet that can’t be the whole story. Can it? The council actively seeks our opinion on many things. In the last few months alone I have commented on the council’s plans for libraries, the ‘Lea Valley Eastside’ vision, and a nearby park. The council is asking for my opinion. It is asking me to take part in democracy. And, in doing so, it makes me feel like I am playing an active part in how my community is governed. It is implying that my point of view is considered alongside everyone else’s points of view and the option preferred by the majority will be implemented.

But while I might feel as if my voice is being heard as I fill in another council-issued questionnaire, experience whispers in my ear and tells me a different story. The surveys have been written to enable the people who analyse them to use the data to support the option the council prefers. The additional comments I have written in opposition to the council’s preferred position will be collected together with similar comments from other residents and dismissed in an off-hand phrase or two in the final report. I will never be told how many people shared my view. Perhaps my view is the view of the majority? I will never know.

Any perceived democratic accountability is, I argue, illusory. Council-run consultations are used to con us into thinking we have a say in what happens in our borough, to keep us quiet and acquiescent. But I am fed up with feeling conned.

My response to the democratic services official? While you may be legally correct, please don’t forget that councillors work for us and I, for one, will not stop asking them to consider my point of view as a long-time resident of the borough.

It is easy to become disenchanted when you feel your voice is being ignored. But I keep reminding myself, and urge you, to persist. I have to believe that our voices, added together, will – eventually – make a difference. And if the council, as it is currently constituted, won’t listen to us, well, we can always make our voices heard at the ballot box or stand for election ourselves.