Last night I witnessed a lesson in how not to do community consultation. Despite facing a room of people who were ready to listen and willing to accept a sensible proposal, the presenters proceeded to alienate almost the entire room with a combination of condescending rhetoric and ill-thought through profit motive dressed up as so-called evidence.
Cleeve is a small village of approximately 900 residents in North Somerset. It is split in two by the A370 and overflown by Bristol Airport’s south-western flight path, but is also home to Goblin Combe’s many owls, bats and deer. There is a small local convenience store, a craft shop, beauty salon, two Chinese takeaways and until recently one pub. Owned and operated by Greene King under its Hungry Horse brand, the Lord Nelson was too big to survive in a small community and the site was sold.
The purchasers, Tout Ltd, saw the opportunity to demolish the pub and replace it with a 24hr petrol station, convenience store, beauty salon and office. The company’s Managing Director Jonathon Tout, son of Philip and Lesley Tout, supported by Mark Cosby of Consensus Communications, took up the challenge of persuading a crowded, hot and tense room that Tout Ltd simply had the best interests of their customers in mind.
Young Tout was clearly out of his depth, presumably hoping the powerpoint montage of pictures would win over an audience who were more worried about substantive issues such as road safety, opening hours, light pollution, and the impact on established businesses in the area. After all claims of “creating 100 jobs” are meaningless if the same number is lost as a result (and noting that many would be as a result of re-locating their head office, rather than new ones).
Although the Parish Council meeting was attended by the public, we were not permitted to ask questions. Instead, the Chair and Councillors patiently put a number of key points on the audience’s behalf. Unfortunately, instead of understanding this was just the start of a long, and now presumably painful process, Tout did his best to offer evidence to the contrary, with a view to getting through planning in the summer. Offering to offset the carbon footprint of a petrol station with a few beehives was a particularly laughable low point and he even appeared to be bribing the local pool team with the purchase of a new table they could put somewhere else!
The Government’s Localism Act, in theory at least, offers local communities the opportunity to embrace progress, finding opportunities for housing and economic activity that they consider most suitable for their area. Unfortunately volume house builders and big business nearly always parachute in development proposals designed to maximize profit. Such proposals then have to be forced through the planning system with guile and cunning, before the Secretary of State finally over rules local concerns and approves them.
In contrast, Tout Ltd are a local family owned business keen to establish their vision and values as a community minded organisation, whose “uncompromising focus on service, quality and value” sets them apart from others who are also trying to “create the future of neighbourhood forecourt retailing”. As the saying goes, it is lipstick on a pig; Cleeve doesn’t need or want a 24hr petrol station.
Ultimately, I believe there is a way to work with communities to help them develop solutions to the housing crisis and to create economic activity. It requires a partnership approach, a degree of patience, and a genuine commitment to putting community at the heart of decision making. NIMBYISM is simply an allergic reaction to others benefitting at their expense. If we focus on the community first and profit second, a dialogue is not only possible, but ultimately more likely to be successful for everyone.