The Draft London Plan – Insights into civil society and public engagement. (3)

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 third instalment of four.

Why participate?

My initial research focused on three organisations within the UK built environment, all three have responded to the draft London Plan consultation and have political relationships to varying degrees. These three include a community network based in London, a professional institution within the built environment, and an innovation hub set up by a QUANGO. The aim was to interrogate their rationale for participation through examining their interests in policymaking or the London Plan in particular, and acknowledge the heterogeneity of civil society through this exercise.

One of the key references I used was the 2010 study conducted by Scheer and Höppner on the public consultation for the UK Climate Change Act 2008. The public’s perception of climate change and their will to engage were found to fit loosely into three categories: normative, instrumental, and substantive. These categories of participation rationale were adapted from an earlier study by Stirling (2008), who also studied participatory processes. According to Scheer and Höppner, these three categories can be explained as follows:

Normative – focus on the process rather than outcome; participation being ‘the right thing to do’ according to principles of inclusiveness, equity, equality, and social justice; a perceived right or duty to voice opinion and hold officials accountable.

Instrumental – participation as a means by which to enhance social legitimacy of decisions, to educate the public, and to foster trust in institutions; to achieve something not necessarily related to the constitution, but with participation as the means to achieve it.

Substantive – focus on the ‘authenticity, robustness and quality of the choices that actually result’; wanting to influence specific outcomes and believing that one’s knowledge would improve that policy.

The London Plan

The rationale for participation for three organisations in this study extends beyond the normative. Their substantive imperative stemmed from the belief that their professional knowledge or extensive experience could inform policy decisions effectively and convincingly. For the professional institute and community network, there was also an instrumental element to their cause, as the participatory process achieved something outside of the consultation agenda. The differing rationales of each organisation will be analysed further in this section. 

The professional institution’s engagement with government and public consultations is extensive and spans across various policy areas including building design, air quality, and energy. Their regular involvement in consultations is largely driven by the notion of acting upon the ‘public good’ (EngC, 2017:2). In fact, when asked about their objectives in participating in the London Plan, they were convinced that their advice to government are in the public’s interest. The conviction of representing and acting upon a more universal interest can be read as a substantive driver. They view their professional expertise and industry experience as advantageous when influencing policy development, as they can present themselves as a scientific, evidence-driven alternative to the array of commercial interests and polemic campaign voices. Moreover, there is a keen interest to better communicate their scope of expertise within the wider context of environmental politics, such as creating links to green infrastructure, health and wellbeing, and social equality. This sense of agency also drove them to organise their first consultation event which was held at City Hall. Selected members were put into different working groups to discuss policy wordings and implications under the watchful eye of a London Assembly member. The participatory element of the London Plan consultation crystallised in this event for many invited members, and allowed them to form networks and bonds that extend beyond discussions of the London Plan. These unintended outcomes constitute the instrumental element in the institution’s rationale for participation.

The community’s rationale for participating in the consultation also includes all three elements. Its normative principle comes from a stark belief in community power and the perception of duty embedded within one’s citizenship. Furthermore, their common interest in policy development and feeling of urgency for political change regarding community issues have driven them to participate in consultations almost regardless of the end result. The community network represents a loosely connected network of citizen groups that are collectively drawn to the political sphere because of their varying passions, experiences, and expertise. In this sense, this diversity within this network contributes to a substantive motive, where each community member’s lived experience and possible professional expertise could inform policy development in a positive and useful manner. Indeed, this group partners with UCL to complement members’ rich insights with academic support and case-specific research to create a well-balanced proposal instead of a collation of  ‘opinions and assumptions’ which might not be taken seriously by policymakers. The participatory process for Just Space was not limited to the consultation period. Rather, policy development lies at the core of this network’s work, so one could argue that its instrumental rationale came first and foremost ahead of its normative and substantive rationales as participation and encouraging other to do so are founding elements of its organisation.

The innovation hub finds itself responding to the London Plan because of the sheer impact of the document, and the opportunity it presents to challenge policymakers on the status quo. In particular, the innovation hub focused on the methods and the lack of data used in policymaking. Their expertise in data usage and management provides a substantive imperative for their participation in the London Plan consultation. Their substantive claim is different from the professional institution’s and the community network’s as they claim to be driven by systemic change, rather than a sort of responsibility for the wider public. Whilst there is a social imperative to their work, in the sense that they are working towards improving large systems like land-use planning, they are not motivated by a duty to serve the public. The rationale is simply behind innovation and social progress. Thus, as a civil society actor, the innovation hub is more interested in working with policymakers for they see themselves better positioned to influence policy and governing systems in the political realm. Whilst they are transparent in the work they do and publish blogposts frequently on social media, they do not actively seek to inform the general public about their work as it is not their priority.

Through identifying and analysing the rationales for participating in the public consultations, it is undeniable that diversity within civil society not only calls for a more nuanced and differentiated approach when describing political agency and political will, but also its power in facilitating such public engagement processes through mobilising contingent populations in the form of memberships and networks.

The next instalment will explore the question of consensus, and whether a unified vision is realistic and desirable.



Language and the struggle to feel at home

Born and raised in Hong Kong, I’ve been brought up speaking Cantonese and writing traditional Chinese. And with my dad being Taiwanese, I became fluent in Mandarin too. It was only until my teenage years when English overtook Mandarin, or even Cantonese, as my most spoken language. Recent debates on “Mother-tongue” have led me to this reflection. 

The beauty of language is how it clings onto things, people, events, and somehow when you recall them, you do so in that language. Because of this, and because I grew up learning two Chinese languages (Cantonese and Mandarin), I will always think of my Taiwanese grandma as nai nai (奶奶)and my Cantonese grandma as por por(婆婆). Lovely tender braised pork served over a bowl of rice from a road side cart will always be lu rou fan (滷肉飯), and delicate little translucent prawn dumplings will always be har gao (蝦餃). And then of course, there are things and people and events that I have lived through since my time in London, or even since I have started speaking English predominantly. Sometimes, the rhetoric of languages, or perhaps my lack of vocabulary, would render me speechless when attempting to translate something that just wouldn’t. I can only compare things from one culture to another, hoping to get the texture, taste, smell, or feeling across just the way I hope to, but I suspect there would’ve been a few failed attempts at the very least.

My Chinese has definitely deteriorated throughout my teenage years. Words or characters I was using daily have now become phantom or unfamiliar. Their shadows now live in a dusted crevice in my mind, and to recall them takes immense effort of mental rummaging. I still keep up with Chinese news and documentaries as much as I can, but I have lost touch with the ever changing local culture. Despite my ability to read the news or to communicate fluently in Cantonese, my way of speaking is now tinged with a time that has passed, a twang of something other, almost like I am a foreigner speaking my own mother-tongue. It seems unfair that we have to trade fluency in one language with that in another. English, being such a complex and confusing language as it is, has taken me years to get to this level of adequacy, but I am still by no means fluent. I have trained myself to think of tenses, sentence structure, and word order when I write, but when speaking, I know I make mistakes – with plurality, tenses, … grammatical systems that don’t exist, or are more forgiving in spoken Chinese. I am constantly searching for the right word to express myself – a struggle I didn’t use to have when speaking Cantonese, but recently have surfaced there too.

Language is used by many to define who they are, and sometimes the better you speak it, the more accepted you are in a particular culture or society. I wonder sometimes if my constant fight with the two languages means I am no longer part of, but rather an outsider to both societies that I either used to be part of, or long to be accepted into. And maybe this is me – fraying at the seams of the crossroads of English and Chinese, the struggle to feel competent, be accurate, but most importantly, the struggle to feel at home.