civic engagement (4)

picture nicked from David WilcoxMatthew Taylor’s comments on blogs have been widely reported and commented upon, all pretty much as a result of the way the BBC reported the issue – as far as I can tell.

Anyway David, who was there on the day, seems to have taken something a bit different from the presentation than the bloggers who weren’t.

He also took some video where Matthew Taylor sets out his argument, much of which I buy.

So far blogging has had more impact on mainstream consciousness when it holds politicians to account than when it tries the more mundane tasks of increasing participation in the democratic discussion. 

That doesn’t mean to say that some of that quieter stuff isn’t going on.  Take for example the debates I’ve had with people like Max and the Lone Ranger over the last few years; where we’ve – from time to time – acknowleged each others points as having legitimacy and I hope shown that things are rarely black and white in politics.

I wonder if the people who are currently behind the campaign against the Lewisham Gateway were a bit more Web 2.0 they might have a similar conversation with Kate and others who are on the housing list about the need for additional housing in Lewisham?  Perhaps if the council itself were a bit more Web 2.0 officers and politicians could contribute and facilitate it.

About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
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14 Responses to civic engagement (4)

  1. Lone Ranger says:

    Maybe Matthew Taylor should come to Lewisham and he may understand how people’s attitude to politicians can be affected by the reponse they get from politicians.

    From what I saw last Wednesday I think Lewisham council has learnt very little from the past 2-3 years and will trundle on as before.

    How can the public engage with a councillor who begins their speech by calling them ‘polictical opportunists’, ‘a vocal minority’ or ‘bullies’, merely because they have a different viewpoint or opinion.

    Then the cabinet member responsible for education gets up and spends his time ridiculing and dismissing the opinions of others and in so doing angers the public gallery.

    Bear in mind they were referring to a scheme that is merely a proposal and I don’t think consultation has yet taken place.

    So you have a group of people not angered because someone has a different opinion but the manner in which they and their opinions were tossed aside.
    I see there may be moves to reduce the number of questions permitted at council meetings. Not sure how that improves democracy or accountability.

  2. andrewkbrown says:

    I’m afraid those of us not at the Council meeting are at a bit of a disadvantage; in that we don’t have a clue what the debate was about, or why the people in the public gallery might have been there.

    As for the number of questions at council meetings. I can’t say I was ever a fan of the format; it didn’t seem to work for the public – who often seemed to want a debate rather than information – and it didn’t work for the politicians – as we ended up looking shifty as we tried to stick to the format rather than doing what the public wanted and engage in debate.

  3. Max says:

    Questions from the public are a true moment of democracy and yes, the answers do look shifty sometimes, especially when they are so.

    I have done great use of them and in the beginning I found it hard to pin down my thoughts about the answer received into a specific supplementary question.
    When I finally managed to master this process it wasn’t always automatic that I got answers to those questions but often just a rewording of the written reply even if completely missing the point of the supplementary question.

    Speaking of last Council, I’m sorry you weren’t there, it’s hard to describe it in a few words but it was very interesting indeed.
    John Paschoud wrote that he’ll see if in the future meetings can be streamed on the net! I have only two words for this proposal: Go John!!

    On political blogs I think that they’re great and that they do help communication among electors and elected and anybody involved in the process and they are particularly good because they leave a written trail that one can go and consult at later stages and this also helps people moderate their thoughts because it is much easier to say things than writing them. When you hit the “submit comment’ box you must be quite sure of what you’re saying.

    In fact none of the less moderate members of the Council has a blog.

  4. Hi Andrew
    I was in the pubic gallery for the council meeting last wednesday. We (well, two of us) had tabled questions regarding the Lewisham gateway proposals. We learnt, if nothing else, that the council will toe the corporate line if nothing else. We also learnt that, amongst other things, we need to engage councillors more and keep on digging into the LGD’s documentation and expose it for the nonsense that it is.
    I was interested in your Web 2.0 comment. It’s not something I’d considered but I’ll look into it now.
    Incidentally, compared to the URL’s budget of several millions, we are working on a budget of nothing. So it’s interesting that we can, with our budget, get over 300+ names on our petition whereas the URL has, (at my last count) only got 160 odd names who supported ‘option 3’ and then with many negative considerations attached!
    Consulting the residents? I think not…

  5. andrewkbrown says:

    Hello Richard, thanks for the comment. I had been wondering who was behind the leaflet that came through my door; and from what I could see your website didn’t give me any names of the people involved in your campaign. So it is nice to be able to put a name with the efforts you’ve been making.

    Planning and representative democracy tend to have a tricky relationship, as I alluded to in my previous post on civic engagement. Passions run high, and the room for debate is often more limited than is comfortable. Also, as I’m sure you’re finding out, planning permision doesn’t rely on whether there is a majority in favour of a development or not, which makes many people I’ve dealt with feel as if the process isn’t entirely fair.

    I’m not sure I’m convinced about the concerns you raise, yet, but I’ll keep following the debate, and I hope the pressure you bring to bear improves the proposals for our part of Lewisham.

  6. Hello again Andrew, Yes there is a growing group of residents who are very definitely not in favour of the development as planned at the moment. We are not against regeneration and change and recognise that the roundabout site is ripe and sorely needing of a good solid revamp. But, this scheme is so riddled with errors, many of a very basic nature, that it’s just not going to work. On top of that, the developers are simply doing it for profit and as they have say themselves, will build it as high as necessary to make that profit. Its simply outrageous that the Council should be walking hand in hand to this disaster.
    That said, I’d be interested to hear to positive points about the development. I’m sure you have already, but a good knowledge of the Lewisham Gateway ‘official’ documentation is recommended, something that many residents wouldn’t be inclined to do, if they knew it were possible.
    We’re trying to bring the debate out into the open.

  7. andrewkbrown says:

    Well Richard I’ve yet to meet a developer that doesn’t want to make a profit!

    The last time I took any interest in the scheme – about a year a go now – the things I liked were the potential increase in retail and leisure facilities, the opening up of the river and creation of a town centre green space that might be used by more than the street drinkers, the potential relocation of Lewisham College and a new town square. Oh, and of course the changes to the public transport interchange making it easier for those of us who are pedestrians to get in and out of Lewisham.

    I don’t think that all of these things can be done without substantial amounts of new housing to pay for it, but maybe you know of other resources that I’m not aware of.

    That said, I’m all for making sure there is as much public value screwed out of the deal as is possible.

  8. Lone Ranger says:

    What was being debated wasn’t so important, it was the response of the council to those with a different viewpoint. It seems to be the norm to attempt to push those with alternative opinions into a corner, make them seem like a ranting luntic fringe group to be ignored.

    One of the debates related to education and a group consisting of a cross-section of parents were present. A senior councillor said the parents were politically motivated and they weren’t concerned over the education of their children.

    Think how that went down with 2 mothers watching the debate.

    I had the impression it was the first time most of the parents had attended a council meeting, as they didn’t know who was talking or the party they represented.

    Bear in mind the federation of Haberdashe Askes/Monson is merely an ‘idea’ at the present time. The response of the council didn’t give the impression of wanting to engage with those parents.

    As to the internet. Currently it’s probably fair to say it is mainly individuals expressing their views via blogs etc. As government and parties get to grips with the technology I think it will be turned on its head so ‘head office’ will send out ‘individuals’ to convey the message via blogs and forums.

  9. andrewkbrown says:

    Well as you know I’m now a governor at Askes, but not one with any in depth knowledge about the Monson proposals, as yet.

    Personally I was never into being intentionally rude to members of the public as a councillor. But, I don’t think rudeness is a one way street and while I’ve seen rude councillors (of all parties) I’ve also seen exceedingly rude members of the public as well.

    On the internet, well it depends what you mean. If you mean that politicians and officials will start debating or providing information on other people’s blogs and forums I hope they do. If you are suggesting they will try and set up people to only take the party line, all I can suggest is you try joining a party and seeing what we’re like. There isn’t the culture or an audience for that sort of stuff, and parties and government won’t and can’t control the medium.

  10. Thanks for your response Andrew.
    Of course developers make profit, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of giving residents something that’s actually useful.
    For instance – and this is just one of many examples – the development is actually losing a minimum of 2686 square metres of green space and the grandly named ‘Confluence gardens’ is certainly a lot smaller than the council chamber and without mitigation will be subject to uncomfortable levels of wind. You can find more details of this at and of course a lot more besides.

  11. andrewkbrown says:

    I just wanted to come back to Max’s point about public questions and the answers he recieved.

    I know from experience and from talking to councillors in the last administration how difficult it can be to hear some of the public questions in the council chamber. The acoustics of the room weren’t really designed to facilitate commentary from the public gallery (remember that until relatively recently the public had no right of entry into council meetings at all).

    This was particularly true when things got heated. On top of that it was sometimes difficult to disern a question in the suplimentary and so I know that my colleagues and I tried our best but perhaps not as well as they could had the discussion happened in a different forum or with a different format.

    I should add in case it isn’t clear that I am very definately in favour of politicians being accountable to the public and like the Q&A format, I’m just not sure that Council Meetings are the best place to do it, but equally I don’t know of a better place.

  12. Max says:

    Not hearing well would surely explain a lot of things and open endless possibilities in case one would want to write another panto for this Christmas;-)

    It is true the acoustic is appalling and the awful sound system of the members is a curse on the Council’s works.
    The microphone for the public quite simply has a mind of its own (I love it when it kicks in that effect that also Stevie Wonder uses quite a lot but don’t know what’s called).

    A few Council meetings ago I was greeted by Cllr Best before the meeting and we discussed the supplementaries before the start.
    It helped communication but it would have worked even better if I had received the written replies before the meeting.
    Eventually on that occasion I didn’t ask any supplementary question because all I needed had already been covered in that discussion before the meeting.

  13. andrewkbrown says:

    I always try to think of government as farce rather than tragedy, but panto isn’t a bad compromise. 🙂

    As to written replies, I know how frustrating it is, but my experience is that this isn’t done to make life difficult. It is partly because of the amount of time taken to research and write the answers, followed by the re-writes that politicians do and the further research they require to get their point across. All of which means that often the answers aren’t finished until right at the last minute.

    On top of that there are now an much larger number of questions coming from councillors; some of which are asked as a matter of “principle” rather than from a genuine desire to know.

  14. Pingback: Matthew Taylor - Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. « Someday I Will Treat You Good

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