A case for a Citizens' Assembly?
The last few weeks have seen an outpouring of discontent concerning the People Friendly Scheme in Salisbury and it is going to be abandoned if temporarily. Last week’s Salisbury Journal letters pages were almost entirely taken up with criticisms and negative comment about the scheme. This week’s Journal has seen several comments in favour of it with comments such as ‘once again, Salisbury has managed to lead the way backwards into an era of continued traffic confusion and commercial decay …’
How have we arrived at this state of affairs? How come that the scheme is launched and has to be abandoned after such a short period? In defence of Wiltshire Council, they were unlucky (perhaps) with their timing coming as it did in the middle of the pandemic. It could be argued, on the other hand, that faced with the pandemic, they might have decided to postpone the experiment until steadier times. This is the substance of Mr Glen’s comments.
However, if you look at the WC site and read the PFS pages, you can easily spot straight away a major problem: it is all about traffic. And nothing but traffic. If all you think about is traffic, it is hardly surprising that the other elements of the scheme get forgotten. One of the problems with an organisation like the county council, is that they consist of large departments of which highways is one of the biggest. It is staffed by highway engineers. There is a danger of myopic thinking and the web site is replete with traffic orders, technical stuff about traffic management and suchlike. I could find little to explain non technical benefits.
PFS is more than tarmac however and is about people, the environment, amenity and businesses. A scheme of this nature has to be sold and explained properly. The human aspects have to be taken into account. I suggest it was technically led added to which ‘consultation’ simply meant submitting comments after the big decisions have already been made.
So if your timing is wrong, the project is technically based and highways led, and managed remotely from Trowbridge, it is perhaps not surprising it results in a giant raspberry.
Could it be done better?
Dickie Bellringer (of this parish) writing in today’s Journal (26 November 2020) says:
“If ever there was a case for having a Citizens’ Assembly, the debacle of the PFS has surely got to be a contender…
He goes on to recommend the use of Citizens’ Assemblies to tackle just this sort of project. It would bring together a properly random selection of people to discuss this topic, informed by expert witnesses. Which brings me to a further point: an examination of the web reveals study after study, research and other reports, on the implementation of similar schemes around the world. All these studies – without fail that I could find – spoke of the benefits. These included environmental, safer streets and better spend in the shops and restaurants etc. indeed, quite the opposite of what the letter writers wrote the previous week.
Another key problem for Salisbury is that the City Council is a parish council with few powers and little money. Power resides in Trowbridge and many Salisbury people will know from long experience that something mysterious happens on Salisbury Plain that seems to affect the thinking of Trowbridge folk when it comes to matters Salisbury.
So, in summary, we have a highways led project devised with little sign of any consideration of the human aspects of what they proposed, with little sign of previous experience of such schemes being used to ‘sell’ the project, followed by a consultation exercise consisting of asking people to comment on what’s largely been decided already, launched in the middle of a pandemic and run from Trowbridge. Apart from that, it was OK.
Better would be to involve a random selection of citizens, informed by experts and made aware of how such projects have been implemented elsewhere, and paying due attention to the human aspects involved (as well as environmental etc.).