Tim Marshall: proper public engagement & lessons from abroad

This was an interesting meeting, and I hope gave some pointers on what might be done. I would like to have seen much more NGO and academic presence there, as I think they would have a lot to contribute to establishing real, trusted dialogues of a continuous nature.  This sort of public engagement needs a real culture change from political leaders – the obstacles are political rather than technical.  The difficulty will be in getting honest political support for national level conversations or debates on major issues of this kind.

There are many academic experts working in the area of public deliberation, with numerous examples of such engagement across many countries over the last 15 years or more – Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, just to give a few places that come to mind, as well as a great deal of activity in Britain as well, although here nothing quite fitting closely for what is needed in the major infrastructure field – here it has been more on “micro deliberation” which is less useful in this context. British academics, for example at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, have this work at their fingertips, and could easily be contacted to make contributions.

For now, the fact that the Green Alliance brought together much NGO thinking on this area in their recent publication on Opening up infrastructure planning is a lucky development. In my view their recommendations have considerable merit.

Their suggestion for a National Infrastructure Strategy contrasts somewhat with the Armitt Review with its NIA and SIPs, but there are arguments on both sides and I think the strength of their insistence on a strategy could be incorporated in practice by making the latter parts of the NIA somewhat more strategy-like than might be implied by the Review and the draft Bill. There is a real risk that departments will go off and do their SIPs and lose some of the coherence that a national strategic approach should have.  This comes back in part to the old argument for a National Spatial Strategy in Scottish or Dutch terms, and although this argument is clearly not one Labour (or other parties) at present support, the importance of linking up major national growth directions and major national infrastructure investments seems to me to be as clear as ever.

On public engagement, the Green Alliance pamphlet proposes:

1) A Civil Society Advisory Council, to influence either the existing (weak) mechanisms of NIP and NPSs, or the National Infrastructure Commission if it is created.  This could certainly have value if it had teeth, because it would be able to talk in a way and tone which I suspect the Commission, however equipped with quality civil society representatives, would not be able to do.  It should have a special role to advise on precisely this public communication and engagement role of the work in all the stages that the Armitt Review has proposed.  So, incorporating this element could even mean that the Armitt Review does not have to go into much detail at this stage. I think in any case that, critical though this dimension is, it may be difficult to work up many details at this stage; some months of working and thinking would be valuable, and even then it is experience which will bring the key developments. The Green Alliance paper rightly says at the end that the best approach is to feel the way forward – this is precisely what has happened in France over a 20 year period. Each country has to find its own way of doing these things, appropriate to its systems and cultures and economic and social needs.

2) An organisation which could give support to public initiatives in engagement, they suggest the title Citizen Voice.  As they also propose infrastructure dialogues at city regional or related levels, this would have capacity to help across the country as well as at the national level.  I think this is an excellent suggestion. The real risk of the default mode these days, to bring in the communication companies on contract for particular stages, is that this will not build up the long term experience and trust that will be needed to turn round the culture of government and business to a truly collaborative approach.  This again is the experience in France, with the CNDP (Commission Nationale du Debat Public).  The CNDP, although somewhat under resourced, has built up great experience over the years by means of its continuity and varied accumulation of knowledge of numerous projects across all France and all sectors.  Over recent years it has been particularly concerned to develop the digital communication side of their work, and in fact one of the current vice presidents of the Commission is an expert on this.  A technical support body of this kind would be of enormous value, and despite my comment above that details of engagement mechanisms are not vital at this stage, this is one element which I think could go in the Review suggestions early on.

I am not sure the name Citizen Voice is the right one.  Something which says more clearly what it does would be preferable, though something like the Agency for Public Engagement on Infrastructure does not have a catchy ring to it.

Both the advisory council and the support agency would need to be funded and overseen in such a way as to be clearly absolutely independent of governmental infrastructure policy, including of the National Infrastructure Commission, the Treasury and the main infrastructure ministries. The Green Alliance suggestion of locating the overview and budget role in the Cabinet Office may be one way to secure this.  In my view DCLG would be very much the proper place for such bodies, but the deep politicisation of this ministry and the stripping of its powers by the present government mean that, unless these damages can be undone, there may be difficulties with this location. The strong advantages of such a placing are that DCLG should have an overview of spatial and planning policy at all levels, with which both bodies will be very much concerned.

So I would give full support to these two proposals, suitably developed.  There is much more to say on ways of developing this side of the Armitt Review’s work, particularly drawing on the French experience on organising National Debates.  An example is that on the Energy Transition in 2012-2013, which both showed the value of these debates, but then how tough the linking to national political processes is. We should be under no illusions that this political linking will remain messy and difficult, as the Armitt Review has understood. Expertise and public engagement are one thing, but final national political decision making will always be in part a different sphere.  The French Conseil d’Etat has given considerable thought to these linking relationships, how the chain of continuity is maintained between those who know their fields and the political masters, and their leading lights would be other people that government or this Review could very valuably talk to.

We should start learning from what other countries have done, even though we will have to find a distinct UK / English way to organise the big discussions (macro deliberation as academics call it) needed on these matters.

Tim Marshall
Department of Planning
Oxford Brookes University