Friday 25 January 2013

Tips for dealing with a Highways proposal

Having recently sat through a statutory process and Council meeting to approve/reject a series of proposals under the Traffic Management Act, I think I have learnt a few lessons, largely from the tactics of the small and unrepresentative but very noisy claque which was opposed to them.  The proposals relate to parking controls and restrictions, but could as easily apply to any other process requiring a Traffic Order under the 2004 Traffic Management Act.

Tip number 1.  Statutory advertisement and consultation only provides for objections.  The law requires only that the local authority advertise its proposals and invite objections for a statutory period of 28 days.  I suppose the assumption of the law is that highways proposals will always be unpopular and so will always only be objected to – what a revealing sentiment!  However, although the notice won’t say so, there is absolutely no reason why you should not write in to show your support.  In fact if your sentiment is to support, it is important that you do – you might be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that support is not required when actually, it always helps.

The structure of the consultation may not be conducive to indicating support.  The ones I have recently seen were prepared under SurveyMonkey, and they were framed as questions with a choice or range of answers, which doesn’t always permit you to make the response you wish to make.  For example, you might be offered “Object”, Object Strongly” and “Don’t care” – what if you want to say “Support”?  If structured like this, you should also have the option of writing a letter or email to an address provided on the survey.  You might be better taking this option.  Otherwise, if the survey has comments boxes, state your position verbally, if necessary clarifying or even contradicting the answer buttons you pressed – if for example you can’t progress through the survey without answering each question, and you don’t like any of the answers.

Tip number 2.  Prima facie, every objection and every supportive response counts the same.  That is not entirely true – as I will set out below, but prima facie your comment counts with equal weight whether, for example, you live right on top of the proposal or at the other end of the country, whether or not you are a road user, whether or not you are a pedestrian or cyclist, whether or not you have any relevant expertise to support your views.  So, don’t think that because you live in Surrey and the proposal is in Newcastle on Tyne, you are not entitled to comment – you are, and your comment will have to be counted, however it ends up being weighted.  (A quick plug here for Welbeck Rd in Newcastle).

In the particular case I have been watching, the consultation covered several schemes for resident’s parking controls where residents of Street A did not want residents of Street B to be able to park in Street A but conversely were not asking to be permitted to park in Street B.  Had they been as savvy as the wreckers, they would have co-operated and all would have voted for each others’ as well as their own schemes – after all, the wreckers objected to several if not all of them, despite not living in any of them.  See also tip number 3.

Tip number 3.  They count objections, not objectors, supporting comments, not supporters.  A single consultation process may be seeking comment on several different, presumably related, proposals at once.  If for example there are five proposals and you object to all five, that will be five objections.  But, you must support/object to each of them in turn:  if you write in an email saying “I object to the proposals” that will count as one objection and may even not be counted because a generic objection may be ruled irrelevant as it is not reasoned.  So, you would write in – once or in several messages – indicating explicitly that you support/object to each of them severally, to get the maximum number of objections.  For the avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting you write in with the same objections several times – they aren’t that dumb.

Tip number 4. Be clear where you stand.  If you write a reasoned comment which you intend to be taken as support, but for example your support is qualified – let’s say you support a cycle lane but think it should be mandatory not advisory, or that it should be 2m wide and not 1.5 – you could end up with the council treating your comment in the opposite way you intended, ie as an objection (to the entire proposal).  Be clear.  Say “I object to…” or “I support…” before you start to add qualifications

Tip number 5.  Responses through advertised process count for more than letters or petitions sent outside timeframe.  This process has been gestating for years, perhaps decades in some cases, with residents organising letter writing campaigns, petitions, meetings with the local councillor etc.  In some cases they had managed  to garner totally unanimous support.  In others they had substantial majority support.  But then, when finally we had a statutory process, many of them didn’t respond.  Perhaps they were lulled into that false sense of security (see tip number 1).  Perhaps they were simply fatigued.  Perhaps they thought surely they had made their views known by now?  In one case a street where all 31 households supported the proposal largely failed to turn out.  The wreckers managed to get together 97 objections, every one of which was from outside the street, in many cases well over a mile away.  The scheme was withdrawn.  The highly-respected League of friends of the local hospital wrote an appeal at this point (the local cottage hospital is on this street), but it was too late. The proposal fell.

Tip number 6.  Tip number 2 has its limits. I submitted a formal question to the County, which I understand was carefully answered with legal assistance – what, I asked, was the process for evaluating objections and supporting comments, and how were factors such as whether you lived near or far, whether you were or weren’t directly affected, whether you had specialist skill or knowledge, whether your letter stated grounds for objection/support or just said yes/no, whether your comments were your own work or manifestly a cut&paste job?  The answer was that the statutory process did not define how the relevant deciding authority should evaluate representations, but that they should exercise their judgement properly and responsibly.  If you want to be sure that they have done precisely that, and not presented the consultation responses in a nuanced way to justify conclusions they have already reached, you need to draw out the full colour of responses – things like, how many objectors, rather than how many objections, how many serial/multiple commenters, how many unaffected outsiders etc.  

That is what I am working on now.  Wish me luck!

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