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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Dissertation

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 many.

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.

 

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Dissertation

The Draft London Plan – Insights into civil society and public engagement. (2)

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 second instalment of many.

How to Consult?

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Under the Public Service (Social Value) Act 2012, public bodies are now required to ‘have regard to environmental, social, and environmental well-being in connection to public services’, and that they should consult or find other ways to inform the public of policy change. This is supplemented by a set of consultation principles which act as a guidance to how consultations should be held (Gov UK, 2018). Another set of commonly cited principles derived from a legal challenge — the Gunning Principles — also provide some basic direction for consultations (Sheldon, 2012). Both sets of principles aim to deliver a fair and trusted consultation which allows effective and meaningful engagement at the right time of the policymaking process. Neither of which are set rules that public consultations have to follow, but it is common practice to adhere to the general guidance they offer.

Assessing the London Plan consultation process against some of these principles will offer a useful critique on the supposed fairness and reveal the immense reliance on civil society actors to communicate and network amongst themselves to deliver a successful engagement.

Consultation Principle A: Consultations should be clear and concise

This principle states that consultations should avoid lengthy documents and acronyms to allow for more accessibility to the process. Whilst the London Plan team has taken significant strides in creating the online commenting platform, it is by no means a small, easy-to-read document. One of the interviewees suggested ways policymakers can make use of technology in the form of simulations or visualising tools to present policy visions, rather than rely on text-based representations. Such methods can allow citizens to envisage a holistic and integrated policy outcome, instead of leaving them to try piece together policy impact across various policy areas themselves. Another interviewee also raised similar views in that the length of the document posed as a significant obstacle to ordinary citizens who would like to engage but just did not have the time to do so.

Consultation Principle C: Consultations should be informative

Gunning Principle: Sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response

Both suggest that consultations should provide sufficient and accurate information for citizens or those being consulted to have a meaningful input to the process. This also includes having the knowledge of what the criteria are, when decisions are being made, and whether certain factors are considered decisive. During the period before the public consultation took place, the GLA actively reached out to various known stakeholders in civil society including developers, community networks, and professionals to publicise the document and the upcoming consultation (GLA, 2016a). Engagement with Just Space, for example, began in early 2017, but engagement with other lesser known organisations who could be equally as influential did not begin until the public consultation began. At that point, the draft document was already produced, so there is limited capacity for civil society to challenge and actively influence the policies. This leads onto the next point:

Consultation Principle D: Consultations are only part of a process of engagement / Gunning Principle: Consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage

Consultation should not be a reactive process, rather, it should be proactive if policies are truly to be co-created. However, power is still skewed towards policymakers as they alone set the schedule, and determine who to engage at various stages of the process. Taking Arnstein’s (1969) criticism of consultation, it is useless if citizen participation is restricted and its output not seen to directly influence policy decision. At the same time, the public or those consulted need to be made aware of the limits of their influence from the beginning of the process to avoid false expectations. Whilst it is premature to evaluate the outcome of the process, the London Plan consultation is arguably reactive, for the GLA relied heavily on known networks and contacts to form the initial policies, and other members of society are only given a chance to review and react to such proposals at a much later stage. There is limited scope for citizens to actively organise and form a relationship resembling more of a partnership rather than a hierarchical one with policymakers.The bias towards known stakeholders contributes to procedural injustice and inequity within the process, where citizens do not have equal means to influence.

Consultation Principle H: Consultations should be agreed before publication

After the public consultation phase, the London Plan team reviewed and responded to each response received during the consultation. This is, however, different from actively involving diverse actors to shape policies according to diverse interests. Despite regular contact with known key stakeholders like large developers, the top-down approach eclipses the potential for grassroots organisations and ordinary citizens to influence the formulation of policy at that formative stage. Again, this highlights the fact that the process is highly in favour of policy makers and those consulted in the earlier stages of the process as the public consultation phase from December 2017 to March 2018 proffered only a space for reaction instead of creation. The short and late consultation phase against the lengthy plan-making process shows quite powerfully the limited scope for participation and co-creation.


As Culver and Howe (2004: 57) pointed out, ‘the aim of a public consultation is to gain a deeper understanding of the nature and the nuances of public opinion’. However, what happens after gaining such an understanding is often not accessible nor accountable to the public. When analysing the London Plan making process, it is clear that there is a lack of transparency in decision making, which echoes the worries of post-politics scholars. Furthermore, it undermines the ‘intrinsic value in participation’, which has been argued to attract a base level of engagement due to a moral imperative and an adherence to democratic practices (Shipley and Utz, 2012: 30). In order to yield better insights, the consultation should not only be participatory, but also inclusive and deliberative. Despite the strides taken by the GLA in creating a more open and user friendly commenting system online, it does not fundamentally improve the process. Technological gap and other accessibility issues still persist, and the consultation timeline or opportunities for participation have not changed because of this online platform. Inclusivity of a democratic mechanism extends beyond the people involved, but also the range of topics they can discuss, and the length of time in which they are involved (Bloomfield et al, 2001).

More to come soon.

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Dissertation

The Draft London Plan – Insights into civil society and public engagement. (1)

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 first instalment of many.

My interest in the London Plan stemmed from my internship with CIBSE, the professional institution for building services engineers in the UK who regularly respond to government consultations of all sorts. Their engagement in policy development inspired me to question the motivations behind participatory processes, such as the public consultation. My internship period luckily coincided with the public consultation period for the draft London Plan amongst other consultations, and I was given an insider’s look into how an organisation like CIBSE would approach such a hefty and important policy document. At the same time, it gave me the opportunity to examine the plan-making process as a whole, and the impact of public participation.

Public consultations have been a field of study amongst land-use planners for the past few decades, and more recently amongst policymakers and strategists. Consultative and participatory methods in policymaking and decision making more widely are deemed more democratic, representative, and legitimate, however such methods are rarely picked apart to reveal systemic, institutionalised failures and injustices. According to a recent poll on the ‘Democratic Perception Index’, 50% of UK respondents felt ‘voiceless’ in politics despite ostensible efforts to widen engagement in politics. In light of the proliferation of public consultations conducted by government each year, I sense an incredible need for us to evaluate the methods used and the preconceptions and stigma frequently associated with them. 

Public Consultation: Deliberative, Inclusive, Both or Neither?

The public participation enigma has yielded diverse interests from the realms of rural and international development, policy studies, urban planning, and sociology. The demise of democratic practices, and the problematic participatory processes in the urban in particular, form the crux of the study.

Participation processes appear to straddle the line between deliberate and deliberative democracy. With limiting factors like level of information reaching the public and ‘echo chambers’, it is difficult to design appropriate processes to successfully represent everyone in society in policymaking (Fishkin, 2011). Public consultations, in particular, have been under the scrutiny for being a symbolic front when decisions have already been made behind closed doors. More importantly, consultations often rely on achieving consensus, which could be heavily influenced by reductionist politics where choices given to the public are carefully weighed and designed. Then, to what extent are consensus manufactured and manipulated? To what extent is choice an illusion in political debates?

Processes like consultation can be categorised as deliberative and inclusive, and they should broaden ‘the range of respected knowledges’ in society to allow those marginalised or disadvantaged to have a fair share of influence on decision making (Bloomfield et al, 2001: 502). In this paper, Bloomfield et al argued that deliberation and inclusion are crucial in widening the pool of participants in any decision making process, and the instrumental benefits include deepened trust and perceived legitimacy in the process. Further, it is argued that the process itself should be worthy of time and resources, as it is unrealistic to place consensus reaching as the aim of the exercise. The notion of consensus can produce ‘a false sense of closure and the illusion of stability’, echoing concerns from post-political theorists on the increasingly managerial state void of dissensus (ibid: 503). At this theoretical juncture, I return to the case of the public consultation, and question the nature of such a process, and the limitations and threats it poses on the post-political city.

Why and How?

Consultation has been adopted by the UK Government as a means of public participation and information dissemination when a critical policy decision is to be made. This follows a long tradition within the urban planning practice, where deliberative and inclusionary practices are carried out on a routinely basis. Here, I will focus on the government’s role in conducting and facilitating public engagement, and highlight the institutionalised barriers that hinder participation and proper representation.

The institutional reform of the late twenty-first century in Europe and North America saw a trend towards democratising public administration and state policy-making (Patten, 2001; Shipley and Utz, 2012). In the UK, the land-use planning field has a long history of conducting consultative and participatory processes to involve citizens in the design of their neighbourhood. Some have argued, however, that public consultations of this kind are neither inclusive nor deliberative, and have been used to secure hegemonic political interests and continue to marginalise those in need (Arnstein, 1969; Bloomfield et al, 2001). Despite that, public bodies from other fields have understood the importance of citizen engagement and seen the legitimacy this process brings to policy decisions being made.

Arnstein’s seminal piece in 1969 criticised the state of public consultations in the American urban, and sparked a debate on the inequalities and injustices reflected in such decision making processes. Such barriers still exist in present day London, where the access to particular information, the technological gap, poverty and level of education continue to form significant obstacles in public engagement. It is both fascinating and horrifying that the GLA seemed pleased to receive over 2000 consultation responses on a document that was open to the public and concerns the lives of over 8 million, after only receiving hundreds of responses in the last London Plan consultation. Whilst a significant proportions were made by groups, institutions, NGOs, and local boroughs, there is still a critical majority that was not reached during the consultation period. Individual agency is also compromised to varying degrees through this kind of ‘mediated citizen participation’ facilitated by large organisations and NGOs.

Furthermore, the current political infrastructure is not fit for purpose. The proposed Plan under Sadiq Khan sets the vision for London in 2041, when in reality, his mayoral term could end in 2020. Should a new mayor get elected in the next election, it is likely that a new Mayor would want to ‘put their stamp on their mayoral term’, and how much of Khan’s policies would they choose to keep? The uncertainties could take away the legitimacy and credibility of this Plan, as policy goals could change under a new administration even though most of the policy actions will likely take years to achieve any meaningful result. The outcome of any proposed policy is heavily reliant on the volatile political atmosphere, over which neither the Mayor of London nor GLA have complete control. It is problematic that this issue is not more widely discussed, as society has already accepted the nature of politics and quick-changing politicians. This further contributes to public distrust and frustration towards government as policy actions are delayed and results not properly examined. In short, the disconnect between the short election cycle and long term policy design reflects a need for change. 

More to come soon.

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Reading

Reflections from “The Courage of Hopelessness”

Recent political events both here and back home have led me to think about a similar array of issues that appear to be both universal and conditional. Reading Žižek’s new book “The Courage of Hopelessness” offers a different way of navigating the current conundrum of democracy, liberty, and to some extent, privatisation of the commons. Perhaps now I should clarify that I have not finished the book, therefore these observations and thoughts are simply inspired by certain lines of argument and definitions within the book.

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The Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong 2014. Source: Will Xu, 2015

Democracy has become an aspiration for many in recent years. After Umbrella Revolution and the LegCo election scandals, it appears to me that many have conflated democracy with freedom, coining it as a delusional panacea for all ills. Yes, we have to acknowledge that Hong Kong has never fully experienced universal suffrage, or any sort of representational democracy that can result in rule by popular sovereignty. And it is true that our sovereignty and political stability are increasingly being challenged by external forces, but is democracy the answer? Is democracy the only choice for change? Is this even the question we should be asking when the historical context for when modern democracy was conceived is drastically different to that of contemporary Hong Kong? The current political discourse offers little opportunity to question the fundamentals upon which we are basing our arguments. We must not forget that democracy simply promises a voice for everyone, a theoretical political equality, but nothing more.

Standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom: political freedom can easily provide the legal framework for economic slavery, with the underprivileged ‘freely’ selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy — we need the democratisation also of social and economic life. In short, we need to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realise a noble principle (of democratic freedom)is a failure inherent to this principle itself — understanding this is the big step of political pedagogy. (Žižek, 2017: 62-3)

Another point that I thought can be applied to the situation back home is the ‘fetishisation of democracy’. In Hong Kong’s highly unequal capitalist structure, democracy is likely to perpetuate inequalities and support the financial apparatus that produced them in the first place. In a sense, the societal chasms and deep political discontents are caused by financialisation, and the extremely distorted ‘free market economy’. Democracy will not fix issues like income disparity, and it is unclear how a radically progressive government can possibly instigate any change.

That, coupled with big questions on individual autonomy, identity, public vs private, makes it easy for issues to snowball and public frustration to grow. I have nothing to offer except this – having lived in London for 5 years now, democracy does not solve everything. In fact, it just exposes existing social divisions. It is empowering, but public participation in politics is not guaranteed simply by having democratic voting…

More thoughts soon…

 

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