Dissertation

The Draft London Plan – Insights into civil society and public engagement. (4)

It has been almost a month since I submitted my dissertation for my MA in Environment, Politics, and Globalisation at King’s College London. I thought it would be useful for both myself and anyone interested out there to unpack and explore the many topics I tried to tie together in my paper here on this platform. This is the fourth instalment of many.

Dissensus in the Post-Political City

The recent political climate has prompted scholars to reexamine the current state of democracy and the value of public participation in policy decision-making. Rancière (2010) and Swyngedouw (2011) argue that the concept of democracy entails the inclusion of all, in particular those outside of the ruling political class. In other words, democracy represents a political egalitarianism that acknowledges individual agency and empowers the subaltern to participate in politics. Therefore, it inevitably and invariably encourages dissensus and conflict precisely because of this act of indiscriminate inclusion. However, they argue, the post-war desire for pacification has led to a growing emphasis on consensus building, which ultimately acts against the very idea of democracy. Politics are reduced to policing, and as a result, the force of resistance within the governed remains largely repressed, barring occasional outbursts of civil unrest (Rancière, 2010; Wilson and Swyngedouw, 2014). The increasingly muted civil society becomes emblematic of the post-political city.

Rancière’s conceptualisation of the governing/ governed echoes Foucault, that power is embedded not only within institutionalised bodies but also within social relations and biophysical forms. The police represents ‘all the activities which create order by distributing places, names, functions’ (Rancière, 1994: 173). In other words, it instigates the division of society into specific functions and spaces. It is this division of society that has been argued to erode individual political power and democratic rights by eliminating conflicts through the pursuit of consensus. 

Choice and Consensus

Consensual decision making has become the norm in participatory processes such as the public consultation. Debates surrounding public participation have highlighted concerns around unjust processes that result in policy outcomes that reflect the interests of not the community members but of rich developers and politicians. This echoes the post-political phenomenon of reductionist politics with choices given to the public carefully weighed and designed. As Papandreou (2006) wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Democracy is less credible if the choices on the electoral ballot are not determined by truly democratic means.” Then, to what extent are consensus manufactured and manipulated? To what extent is choice an illusion in political debates? Planners and scholars Bloomfield et al (2001) have argued that it is unrealistic to place consensus reaching as the aim of such public participatory processes, as the notion of consensus can produce ‘a false sense of closure and the illusion of stability’. But isn’t this what politicians want?

Let’s revisit this question after looking at the London Plan consultation.

‘A City for All Londoners’

As I have discussed in the previous instalments, civil society is complex, heterogeneous, and dynamic. Aspirations, agencies, and political will differ greatly from one actor to another. To create a city for all Londoners using a truly democratic method requires each and every member’s interests to be considered, and a collective vision should be preferred to a predetermined option. However, the worries of post-politicisation ring true as the public sphere had little means to effectively contribute to decision making. It is apparent for the community network that local communities have had to overcome many hurdles to achieve arguably little in shaping this Plan under the ironic tagline, ‘A City for All Londoners’. ‘Who are the Londoners the Mayor stands for?’ they asked. To answer that, I considered means of knowledge production and self expression. In the case of the London Plan, it was clear that divergent opinions and conflicting knowledges were considered, but ultimately a singular document was produced, so are certain knowledges superior over others, and why?

Knowledge, and modes of knowledge production and reproduction have been guiding political action and discourse in the West for centuries. In differentiating between ways of knowing, reality formation, and political imagining, Ezrahi (2004: 256) argues that the close relationship between science and politics stemmed from the desire for a ‘context-free knowledge’. Whilst she continues to argue that science could be considered abstract and anachronistic in contemporary politics, localised scientific knowledge is still pertinent to policymaking, especially in the making of the London Plan. Much emphasis was given to the Plan’s evidence base, by which the GLA meant scientific evidence that supports policy decisions. Even during the period of sifting through consultation responses and reconsidering policy targets, the London Plan team placed more value on responses that were backed by relevant scientific research to ensure objectivity. 

Objectivity, in its absolute sense, is however fundamentally impossible to achieve. Jasanoff’s (1990) seminal piece on science and policymaking argues that the rise of regulatory science simply reflects the prevailing socio-political paradigm of the time. The co-production of such paradigm and subsequent scientific movements shows a circularity that it is impossible to define an absolute objectivity in assessing scientific claims that is detached from social norms (Kuhn, 1962). Perceived objectivity is seen to legitimise policies and instil public trust in the decision making process, however the bias towards scientific claims and against ‘opinions and assumptions’ often arising from community or grassroot groups discounts a significant part of civil society who have no other means of understanding their surroundings but through their own lived experience. In the struggle of finding the right verbs, nouns, adjectives, and numbers to describe one’s living conditions and political outlook, responding to a public consultation can be, and often is far more complex and emotional than simply voicing one’s opinion into the ether. To reduce a lengthy and laborious process into a single policy document is therefore a gross misrepresentation of the sacrifices made on the basis of reaching consensus. 

Solution?

I see the cost of consensus reaching reflected on two levels of policymaking: the current political infrastructure and the processes we use to make policy decisions. To tackle the inequitable methodologies, one doesn’t need to look far for inspiration. In an event earlier this year named aptly ‘Do not consult: Co-creation in Plan making‘, representatives from local planning authorities, community groups, and urban designers shared their alternative ways of public engagement to bypass the stigma of consultations and elicit genuine interest and contributions towards planning decisions. Engagement methodologies should be tailored to the local community’s demography and political stance, which in return create a more egalitarian and engaging environment for participation. It is important to recognise a one-size-fits-all approach has never been adequate, and in light of the trend towards decentralisation and devolution in politics, the local scale of policymaking has to be strengthened and supported by central government in the form of public funding but also equally and more importantly, trust and autonomy. This requires reform on the higher level, where political infrastructures are transformed to support actions on a finer grain, and more flexibility for policy decisions. The reliance on consensus needs to shift towards a multi-headed approach towards community engagement, and policy outcomes that allow community members to take ownership of development and management. In other words, The many facets of civil society need to be reflected in the policies that govern them, and appreciated for its diversity rather than reduced to a singular, unrepresentative policy vision.

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