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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