I spent the majority of my working life as a factual TV producer where we focussed on old Reithian values: to inform, educate and entertain – although I left the entertaining part to more frivolous beings, or so I considered them to be at the time! Information seeking and enquiry became a major part of who I was. After leaving television I then spent ten years training for and practising as a counsellor for Victim Support so it’s no surprise to me that as a semi-retiree I have involved myself with many ‘public awareness’ issues involving the local authority, health, education and policing.
The majority of my working life was in the private sector where decision making, ie programmes, had to be researched and broadcast in a matter of weeks, sometimes days; state sector strategies and management came as an almighty shock to the system. Not only did I find the language and policy documentation unintelligible (working papers would include page upon page of acronyms) but it soon became clear that the process and convoluted action plans were more important than the outcome. Indeed, many of the ‘committees’ sat for so long that it was unclear by the end what it was we were supposed to be looking at – terms of reference having disappeared under a pile of papers or emails!
The coalition government wants to involve ‘the big society’ – ‘localism’ and ‘public consultation’ is now at the forefront of all decision making – but what that precisely means is unclear. In my, now extensive, experience the information on which the public must base their opinions is so complex and disconnected from the realities of everyday life that few people have the time, inclination or knowledge to make any positive contribution to policy making.
Take school governance for example. I’ve spent my life researching and disseminating specialised information and then making it accessible for public consumption. I am overwhelmed by the level of documentation on strategic governance, training directives, budget and data analysis, reports, pay structures, employment law and child protection legalities. I would expect this level of strategic governance to be managed by salaried employees, not volunteer lay members who care mainly about the education and well-being of children not the minutiae of central policy making that is continually being amended and ‘tweaked’ by civil servants in Whitehall.
Then there’s the local authority planning department. Many of us have been involved, over the years, with parish plans, local plans, the Local Development Framework and, most recently, the SHLAA process which looked at EDDC’s plans for development in Offwell village. Many villagers took time to consider and respond to these latest proposals since when there has been a stony silence due to the fact that EDDC’s Local Plan has been referred back to them by the Inspector appointed by the Minister of State. Correspondence from the District Council notes: “The Local Plan has been considered by an Inspector who… has questioned elements of the overall scale and distribution of development to small towns and villages in the District.” EDDC are now required to look again at the Local Plan and come up with ‘adjustments’ which will again, no doubt, meet strong resistance from local residents. The original Local Plan ran to 258 pages and was begun way back in 2008. Over a period of six years, probably more, central government have continued to change the goal posts and then quibble because the results don’t fit with the latest strategy. Is it any wonder that local and district councillors feel that they’re damned if they do and they’re damned if they don’t.
In a few weeks’ time East Devon GPs and the North Devon Health Trust will embark on a public consultation exercise regarding a proposed loss of hospital beds in some of East Devon’s community hospitals. While our health service provision in the District is arguably one of the best in the country we still have funding issues, ie we need to save vast amounts of money. We have an ever increasing elderly population who, it is felt, would be better supported in their own homes under the ‘Hospital at Home’ and ‘Care at Home’ schemes which are already being piloted in parts of the region. It is hoped that this will help free up bed space and enable some community hospitals to become ‘health hubs’ concentrating more on dementia care, mental health, minor injuries etc. The CCG and NDHT have been looking at the financial and needs assessment for many months so how all this complex data, including the various options, will be conveyed to the public for them to make an objective, rather than a subjective response, is yet to be seen.
In the past, complex decision making was made for us by professionals with the relevant expertise. The Big Society and Localism sound great in theory but in practice they are little more than tokenism. Many lay members of the public, like myself, are sorely fed up with spending a major part of our spare time trying to make sense of constantly changing policies and responding to emailed questionnaires that have changed their focus before you press ‘send’.
I used to be someone who mumbled about teachers and their long holidays, GPs and their massive wages and EEDC planning department and their suspect decision making; not any more. They all find themselves in a no-win situation. State sector professionals have never been good at communicating with anyone ‘outside the family’ but now I realise there’s no way to explain the unexplainable.
For more information about SHLAA contact:
Adam Giles-Wilson on 831805
Brab Hallowes on 831829
Mike Hounsome on 831742
Julian Warne on 831755
HonitonCommunity Hospital Consultation
There will be more information on how you can get involved in a few weeks’ time.