Soundings: The Consultation Industry in the Elephant & Castle

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"90% of the comments I made in July 2011 (Exhibition 1) and October 2011 (Exhibition 2) have not been responded to at all, let alone realised in terms of any significant changes to the Masterplan. My first contact with Soundings was to ask whether they thought the principles of neighbourhood planning and the Localism Act were relevant to their work at the Elephant and Castle. I never received an answer." (1)

Richard Lee, Elephant Amenity Network member & local resident

Property developers are increasingly talking about community ‘participation’, ‘inclusion’ and even the ‘grassroots’. Below are a few reflections on the politics of consultation in the context of a ‘regeneration’ scheme that involves the replacement of a social housing estate by a large-scale residential and commercial development in Elephant and Castle, Southwark, London. We hope this brief account will be helpful to other community groups and activists to decide upon their strategies in dealing with ‘consultation’ professionals parachuting into their neighbourhoods. At the very least we hope to kick start a much needed debate amongst local groups on both the difficulties around the re-politicising of such consultations to make their workings truly accountable and the need to maintain a sense of external agency to publicly refuse regeneration schemes that are clearly not beneficial to local people.

A Very Short History of the Long Elephant and Castle Regeneration

The much-trumpeted £1.5 billion 'regeneration' of the Elephant has been struggling since the late 1990’s to complete its makeover of the Elephant and Castle. The first large development scheme fell apart in 2002 in an unseemly fight by the Council and the developers Southwark Land Regeneration over how the profits would be divided and problems around financial viability. During a process spanning many years, community involvement in this scheme changed and grew stronger. The Labour administration of that time had set up numerous Council-dominated bodies which the community attempted to reformulate and reinvent by running for seats on the forums, proposing community-led plans, being vocal and angry in meetings and fighting for their resources (2). The community gained third party status at the negotiating table, and the Council was even lauded by Property Week for such a ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘unprecedented’ decision, describing it as a move that would ‘change the consultation process for regeneration projects in London’ (3). In fact, the council came to see the Community Forum as a Frankenstein. In the words of one community member: ‘they can’t control it and you know, they hate it, they are frightened ... they are quite worried as we have more power than they ever thought possible.’(4). By 2002, the antagonism had reached the point where the Council deposed the chair, made spurious allegations of fraud, cut the funding and twice took the Forum’s members to High Court. Later that year, a Lib-Dem administration come to power in Southwark adamant that such a three-way process would never happen again.

It was only in July 2007 when the LibDems took control of the Council that Southwark finally selected Lend Lease, an Australian property developer with a global portfolio and a controversial track record (5), as their preferred partner for the regeneration’s ‘Opportunity Area’. For Lend Lease, the redevelopment at The Elephant and their controversial Barangaroo South site in Sydney, Australia are currently their two largest schemes. With developers trying to sit out the on-going financial crisis, the regeneration agreement between Lend Lease and the newly elected Labour Council was only signed during the summer of 2010 amidst nonsensical party political squabbling about who would have got the best deal from the developers. This is difficult to establish as the full text of the Agreement has never been placed in the public domain because ‘commercial sensitivity’ trumps transparency when it comes to regeneration and community involvement.

According to this agreement, Lend Lease would develop a pre-planning consultation strategy that would ‘be flexible to ensure that all sections of the community have the opportunity to be involved.’(6) In the bizarre words of the Chairman for Lend Lease Europe, Nigel Hugill, ‘we will take people through that process [of change] by a pathological commitment to public consultation’.(7)

It is not a secret that since the first regeneration attempt in 1999, local people in the Elephant have been ‘pathologically’ surveyed, questioned, and consulted to coma without real end or benefits. There is a profound fatigue that comes from nearly 15 years of being asked for an opinion and then seeing that opinion either ignored at the outset or taken on board to then become another broken promise later on. The Heygate Estate is the best example of this. No market-led regeneration scheme could happen without its demolition to free up this choicest land in the E&C Opportunity Area. Independent as well as Council-led surveys showed that local people wanted to remain council tenants and stay in then local area in new public housing (8). A ‘decant’ process began in the early 2000’s which saw tenants moved away from the area into existing council stock or pushed into Housing Association places as social rent or part-buy, part rent schemes. In 2005 the Council had promised 16 sites of 1000 new homes (70% for social housing) but only a few sites have actually been built and well after the decant had ended. (9) Today a few leaseholders are staying put in the welded up estate awaiting the outcome of Council mendacity and a recent Compulsory Purchase Order on their homes as they seek a decent deal for re-location. With nearly 1,100 Heygate households forcibly displaced and their desires ignored, ‘consultation’ on the building of 4,200 new mostly private homes can take place more smoothly with the original population appearing as only a void in this process. Such consultation works to ratify the displacement of a community and erase their histories in the precarious time between post-decant and pre-demolition.

Sound The Alarm!

In May 2011, the independent consultancy Soundings (Consultation) Ltd. was appointed to support Lend Lease and Southwark Council in their regeneration efforts. Soundings’ task was to ‘ensure the full involvement of the community’ in the pre-planning consultation. A signal of their mash-up of old school community-organising methods meeting modern notions of ‘the stakeholder’ and social inclusion could be found in one of Soundings’ self-declared principles of their ‘approach’ being to ‘Work bottom-up and top-down’. Depressingly, it is this kind of nonsense that has seen Soundings short but meteoric career soar ever upwards from regeneration site to development opportunity to Business Improvement District.

Soundings’ tagline is ‘Better places through active participation’, which describes an approach that those involved in Soundings consultation around the King’s Cross Regeneration identified as a new kind of ‘charm offensive’, described as ‘you know, it’s a style, isn’t it, it’s a sort of New Labour style compare to, you know, the old developers wouldn’t let us in the door’. Another person talked about how they appeared as ‘quite socially aware and responsible…they sit around and talk for hours’.(10)

At The Elephant, the ‘active participatory’ approach consisted in producing an overwhelming number of colourful display boards with a minimum of numbers or technical details or sometimes vague and confusing terms and statistics on affordable housing, and holding events and public ‘liaison group’ meetings with Council officers and Lend Lease representatives in The Hub, a ‘consultation hub’ established in a vacant shop on Walworth Road, aptly a failed estate agents.

Their active participation techniques included post-it notes and coloured pens, laid out in a mock ‘play area’. The simplistic and reductive questionnaires asked consultees to score issues by preference, all carefully avoiding complex and nuanced issues, and shying away from any real engagement with issues such as financial viability and the private management of ‘public’ amenities. By establishing an open public space that encourages consultees to come and dwell on filling in the forms, gaze at scale models and printed panels, to speak for however long they want, to freely socialise, a dynamic is created which could lead less experienced consultees to assume that their participation translated into material considerations for the planning process. The constant use of the words ‘community’, ‘participation’, ‘listening’ and ‘involvement’ were essential to this heavily psychologised process or what one local resident described as ‘a touchy-feely group hypnotism’. By default, Soundings are unable to engage in the serious issues and demands of local people, and offer only a convenient and ‘consumerist approach to consultation’ that is only about assenting to a limited and pre-determined set of choices.(11)

Consultations through a glass, darkly…

For the sake of clarity, two types of consultation have been happening in Elephant and Castle over the last year. The first is a pre-planning consultation (run by Soundings on behalf of the developer) to inform the planning application. The main outcome of this was a summary of public engagement written up in the shape of a ‘Statement of Community Involvement’ in April 2012. The other is a statutory planning consultation on the same application. This is run by the Council and requires the dispatch of letters to affected local residents and a 28-day period (ended on the 16th July 2012) to read through the submission and comment.

Thanks to a new bizarre private-public ‘consensus-building’ consultation, this distinction was far from clear to local folks who attended the Hub. The constant presence of Southwark Council officers at Lend Lease’s meetings and consultation events made it impossible to separate the position and agenda of the developers from those of the planning authorities. Moreover, in Winter 2011, Southwark used Lend Lease’s ‘Consultation Hub’ on the local High Street to conduct its own statutory consultation on the Supplementary Planning Document (which sets out the framework for all new developments in Southwark in the coming years), further conflating the two ‘consultations’ into one. To the general public, the role of Soundings was to facilitate a ‘public consultation’. In fact, being on the payroll of the developers, their real role was to absorb public criticism of the development and promote the masterplan for redevelopment at all costs.

Sherlock Homes: The Strange Case of The Missing Housing

This soon became apparent to community activists and vigilant residents through the framing of topics for the conversation / consultation. A telling example, at the start of the consultation there was no liaison group on ‘housing’ even though the development is mainly residential and proposed to occupy the site of over a thousand council homes. Eventually, a one-day Housing Workshop was set up only after pressure from different people and groups, although it was still a talking shop devoid of any power to negotiate the amount of social housing in the plans or have transparent discussions on the financial viability of social housing. (12)

In the Phase One Consultation 2011, although the Statement of Community Involvement says that affordable housing was ‘central to the discussions’(13) and the meetings of the liaison groups, number-crunching from the processed Feedback forms paints a different picture. If we look at the feedback results for the Heygate Phase One proposed development, we can see that 21 people scored ‘Architectural quality’ as their highest priority, making it seem the most important issue by the number of responses. In fact, separate boxes ticked on the topic of housing tenure: ‘Affordability’, ‘Mix of new homes’, ‘Social rented housing’, ‘Intermediate housing’ - when added up, amount to 35 people whose priority was the issue of affordable housing. Since each box was separate, the issue of tenure got dissipated under different headings and therefore seems less important than architectural quality, for example. (14)

During the consultation, all visual panels and promotional materials presented contained proposals for 25% ‘affordable’ housing (part intermediate, part social rented). Residents complained that Southwark planning policy stated, on the contrary ‘a minimum of 35% affordable housing units on developments with 10 or more units’(15), but were told that the 25% was already a good bargain and a difficult target to meet, even though it was the minimum set in the Regeneration Agreement.

Finally, as suspected, the Masterplan submitted by Lend Lease in April 2012 further limited that number saying that the developer ‘commits to the Site delivering as much affordable housing as is ‘financially viable’ in line with planning policy.(16) This is a significant slippage: from 35% required by planning regulation, down to the lower limit of 25% in the regeneration agreement, to arrive at wait-and-see in the proposed Masterplan!

In May 2012 a public letter was submitted to Soundings in which the consultation company was accused of ‘a serious misrepresentation of the amount of affordable housing to be built […] during the preplanning consultation’ and was asked to amend the report to state that ‘the local community was neither informed nor consulted about the amount of affordable housing and this should be taken into consideration by the planning committee.’(17) The letter was signed by several core participants of the community group Elephant Amenity Network, cited in the SCI as one of the key stakeholders in the consultation.(18) The serious contents of the letter were brushed off entirely in a perfunctory response from director Steve McAdam.

In May 2012, local community groups also started a ‘35%’ campaign demanding answers to these questions and mobilising objections to the Masterplan application: www.35percent.org The campaign challenges the basic premises of the regeneration: that it is in the public interest and that it will bring local benefits. Cashing in on the displacement of a working-class community, the scheme proposes no affordable housing, renewable energy provision (in a development that is officially part of the Clinton Initiative (19)), offers a loss of existing green amenities and an enclosure of the proposed ones through the creation of a privately-managed park, and finally, completely fails to provide funds for the transport infrastructure of the Elephant and Castle.

Box Ticked: Community involvement?

The main output of Soundings’ ‘consultation’ - the hefty and all-important (for Lend Lease) Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) - was submitted as a vital part of the Outline Planning Application in April 2012.(20) It runs at 114 pages, plus 234 pages of appendices. The claim of this document is that it is a representative, accurate statement on the ‘involvement’ of the community in the consultation. After 3 exhibitions, 5 pop-up sessions, 12 liaison meetings and 70 outreach meetings, they published the following breakdown:

  Attendance Feedback forms
Masterplan principles 600+ 185
Concept Masterplan 300+ 82
Final Masterplan 550+ 138
Total: 1450 405

(SCI, The Heygate Masterplan, Outline Planning Application, March 2012)

As anyone involved in local community activism would know, it is often the same people who tend to take an interest and follow a development through from beginning to end. So rather than adding up all the figures, a generous estimate would be 250 people handing in feedback forms on different issues, out of perhaps 800 who visited the exhibition. If we consider that approximately 14,000 people live in East Walworth, that means that perhaps 6% of those saw the exhibitions and only 2% filled in the feedback forms, although there was no requirement on the feedback form to prove local residency. Obviously, these percentages decrease even further if we consider the entire population of the borough of Southwark (288,000). In no other industry, apart from the newly invented 'regeneration' industry, could these statistics be credible!

The SCI also claims to outline where the developers have responded to community concerns. Here the issue of tree retention in the Heygate Estate is flagged up big time. Before the pre-planning consultation pantomime, concerns around the socio-economic value of green space and the existing trees in the Heygate Estate had been consistently raised by Elephant Amenity Network and Elephant and Castle Urban Forest campaigners. They conducted their own extensive CAVAT (Capital Asset Value for Amenity Trees) study that valued the estate’s 406 mature trees to £18.2 million in contrast to the Council’s own valuation of £700,000.(21)

From the initial orgy of hard surfaces and cement proposals in the concept masterplan to the current planning outline, a strip of land, much smaller than the original green areas of the Heygate estate, has suddenly appeared as ‘London’s biggest new public park’, seemingly forgetting that the green amenities of the estate were already public. They also seem to have forgotten that the real reason for retaining a long green strip between the towers has actually more to do with the London View Management Framework of the London Plan (the famous Serpentine View) than with the desire to offer a public park to local residents. The PR machinery salivated, because here was an example of how the people had been listened to and of responsive changes being made to the initial Masterplan.

The final scale-model of the development as well as the wall-paper images pasted all over The Hub show Avatar-sized gigantic trees next to the tower blocks made from Perspex, useless and misleading if you are trying to visualise density, massing, height and loss of light. This model was, as we found out, one of the few transparent things to be found in The Hub.

Conclusions

Counter to its rhetoric of empowerment then, participation in consultation can be tyrannical. As writer Sherry Arnstein phrased it in her famous text ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’, ‘there is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcomes of the process’ and ‘unless citizens have a genuine opportunity to affect outcomes, participation is centrally concerned with ‘therapy’ and ‘manipulation’ of participants’.(22)

This tyranny is not merely a question of how the consultants set up the participation, or what techniques they use, but is a question of a systemic power imbalance. The powerless are pulled into participation by the need and desire to understand and gain information about the plans that affect them. The decision to withdraw completely is difficult when liaison groups are the only place to try and intervene, find out info and to speak your mind. Under such circumstances, the promise of being ‘listened to’ is seductive even If you sense it will not bode well. In the Elephant it’s this sense of banging your head against a newly developed brick wall that has been the most agonising. In this context the role of the local campaigns Better Elephant, the Elephant Amenity Network, SNAG, the 35percent campaign and People’s Republic of Southwark, among others, has been to unmask the therapists, jargon-bust the policies, keep a record of broken promises and open up spaces within the regeneration machine for dissent and alternatives.

‘Participatory consultation’ without participatory decision-making is not only pointless but harmful to democratic planning processes. It offers neither space, training nor support necessary for local people to be genuinely and actively involved in the heavily technical issues of local planning. The role of companies such as Soundings is to build consensus around dispossession and powerlessness, and to diffuse existing if often invisible dissent with the fanfare and spectacle of consultation. Local activists leafleting for the 35percent campaign at the Consultation Hub or setting up mobile alternative consultation stalls(23) highlighting the loss of amenities and the lack of genuine consultation, are actively challenging the legitimacy of the consultation. Yet these and other actions can easily be accommodated by Soundings and used as a peripheral benefit in the whole consultation spectacle. What they do is listen, so even criticism and oppositional speaking is valued as ‘community involvement’ and can be used for fodder for any SCI. The tensions between listening and PR, engagement and spectacle are such that it’s very hard to know how to tread and how to act in a way that avoids such accommodation.

Even giving the benefit of the doubt to companies such as Soundings, no matter how well intentioned and carefully devised the alleged 'participatory' approaches to community engagement in the planning process are, pre-planning consultation exercises with no power to implement anything but the original brief are, essentially, a waste of community activists resources and time.(24) More importantly, these processes really only function as tools to manipulate and manage dissent through both the co-option of some activists’ views and efforts and the silencing of others in an immoveable feast of ‘being listened to’ in endless show-and-tell séances about the new developments. Counter to that, Elephant Amenity Network continues to work on opening a space up for genuine, horizontal collective rethinking of the vision for the local area.(25) It is currently setting up the East Walworth Neighbourhood Forum to develop an alternative neighbourhood plan, in accordance to the recently passed Localism Act (2011). Despite hours and hours of time, brain work and excellent rebuttals of the Lend Lease plans put by local people into Soundings-run consultation and community liaison meetings, the Outline Masterplan submitted for planning permission in January 2013 contained absolutely no real concessions or changes based on this input.

Consultation in schemes of state-led gentrification amounts to little more than an exercise in pacifying the local residents and encouraging them to spend precious time and effort on cosmetic changes which are then held up as triumphs for the developer, rather than a catalogue of residents’ defeats. This repeated problematic deserves much more collective and shared analysis and action, so that activists and concerned folks don’t just succumb to the sirens of therapeutic ‘participatory consultation’ in the hope of resisting or influencing processes, and to find ways to counter their hypnotism and argue for true participatory decision-making on local issues and developments.

References

1) http://heygate.heroku.com/monthly-roundup/poverty-of-process

2) DeFilippis, J. and North, P. (2004) The Emancipatory Community? Place, Politics and Collective Action in Cities. In Lees, L., editor, The Emancipatory City: Paradoxes and Possibilities, London.

3) Creasey, S. (2001) Power to the People, Property Week, 30 March 2001: 45-48.

4) North P. and Lee R. The Elephant Is Not For Sale! The real story behind the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle (unpublished)

5) Lend Lease were appointed to build the Olympic Village in East London but when they failed to raise the £450m cash their role within the Olympic Development was bumped from developers to project managers (1). £326m of public money was begged for, millions of pounds were handed over and Lend Lease profited from the development despite its private financing problems. Lend Lease was also given the Millennium Dome in 2005 to then dumped it four years later for a £24m profit. In April 2012 they bit the bullet and agreed to dish out $56m in fines to compensate their many victims in a decade-long over-billing scam they were running in the USA. Anyhow we would be hesitant to suggest that other mega development corporations are winning many Ethical Investment Awards either!

See:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-117850/Former-boss-slams-Dome-deal.html

http://www.nce.co.uk/london-2012-olympic-village-gets-460m-government-bail-out/1972066.article

http://www.thelondonmagazine.co.uk/Property-Experts/Expert-Opinions/The-Olympic-Village.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/oct/09/trinity-college-cambridge-o2-dome

6) Southwark Council and Lend Lease, Elephant and Castle Master Regeneration Plan, Version 16 – Draft 2.7 Consultation Strategy p.20 (draft E&C Regeneration Agreement Appendix)

7) Lend Lease chosen as Elephant & Castle development partner:

Asked about how Lend Lease will work with existing businesses in the area, Nigel Hugill said: "It is always tough. Change is – of itself – difficult, challenging and frightening. What we will work to do is to make sure that things are much better at the end than they were at the beginning. We will take people through that process by a pathological commitment to public consultation."

See: http://www.london-se1.co.uk/news/view/2835

8) Read more about the history of the Heygate here: ‘Truth Hidden Behind Heygate Myths’, https://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/our-longer-writings/truth-hidden-behind-heygate-myths

9) ‘Southwark chooses partners for Elephant housing’, 12th August 2005

(http://www.london-se1.co.uk/news/view/1692) / ‘Elephant & Castle housing delay ‘not acceptable’ admits regeneration boss’ 11th November 2008 (http://www.london-se1.co.uk/news/view/3600)

10) Imrie, Rob (2008) ‘An exemplar for a sustainable world city’: progressive urban change and the redevelopment of King’s Cross, Rob Imrie in ‘Regenerating London: Governance, Sustainability and Community in a Global City’, Edited by Rob Imrie, Loretta Lees, Mike Raco.

11) Also Imrie, p107

12) See Appendix 8 of the Statement of Community Involvement, p174 for minutes of the Housing Workshop

13) See Statement of Community Involvement, p107

14) See: Phase One Consultation, October 2011 Analysis of feedback forms (www.elephantandcastle.org.uk)

15) Strategic Policy 6, Southwark Core Strategy, April 2011

16) Development Specification, The Heygate Masterplan, Outline Planning Application, March 2012

17) Read and sign the letter here:

http://elephantamenity.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/elephant-amenity-network-open-letter-to-soundings

18) Elephant Amenity Network was for Soundings at one moment ‘not representative enough’ of the local community when its criticisms were being aired, but conveniently representative enough to be instrumentalised when Soundings later included the EAN ‘Community Vision report’, EAN ‘Interim Use report’ and the EAN-organised ‘Is The Elephant Your Neighbourhood?’ Workshops in the Statement of Community Involvement. They were also brazen enough to list the ‘Better Elephant’ exhibition that was entirely critical of the regeneration scheme put on by activists in February 2012 at the Heygate Community Gardens to offer an alternative to a Soundings / Lend Lease exhibition at The Hub that was on at the same time. Soundings describe EAN and Better Elephant as ‘highly active community groups who have been proactive in producing studies, reports and events on the existing place, potential uses, and aspirations’. No mention of any of the negatives or criticism that these groups had been being to consultation table. Gone also are their concerns with the process and their proposed alternatives.

19) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8056859.stm

20) According to the SCI, Soundings activities in the borough over the last twelve months amounted to:

- taking over running the website originally set up by the Council and handed over to LL which uses the name of the neighbourhood (www.elephantandcastle.org.uk)

- renting and running a space on Walworth Rd as the ‘Consultation Hub’ where they held 3 exhibitions about the proposed redevelopment

- hosting 5 pop-up sessions in the area to publicise what they were doing

- taking people on 3 walk and talk events

- holding 12 liaison Group meetings with councilors and developers present

- printing 52,000 flyers which they posted and distributed

- holding 70 Outreach meetings with young people, schools, TRAs where they had conversations about the plans for the area

- being regular attendees at the Walworth Community Council.

- being active within the Elephant and Castle Community Forum that was set up by Lend Lease and Southwark.

21) http://halag.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/cavatvaluestreesontheheygate_5may2011.pdf

22) Arnstein, Sherry R. (1969) "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4

23) http://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/2012/01/24/soundings-sounding-us-out

24) People’s Republic of Southwark has made a thorough estimate of the amount of time spent by community activists over the course of Soundings’ pre-planning consultation www.peoplesrepublicofsouthwark.co.uk/index.php/hold-news/news/2371-the-price-of-regenerations

25) Elephant Amenity Network, 2011, Imagining the Elephant event, Summary Report

http://elephantamenity.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/visioning-workshop-report/

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