I am not an experienced attendant of consultation meetings, I’m not going to lie. But I was shocked at the transparency of box-ticking at last night’s Lambeth Council’s Culture 2020 consultation, where local residents were ‘consulted’ on Lambeth Council’s proposals as to how they should run our parks, libraries and leisure facilities with a reduced budget.
Over 100 local residents gathered at Myatt’s Field North Community Centre – all of them concerned about how the cuts are being managed, and many of them particularly worried about how they will affect the provision of services in Vassall Ward, where Minet Library and Myatt’s Field Park are under threat, and in the case of the former, in danger of being sold off.
My day job is in arts marketing, and this crowd would equate to what we call ‘an engaged audience segment’ – we know they’re interested, now we need to listen to what about. However, the councillors and officers didn’t seem to see it that way.
I love being asked for my opinion and am usually keen to give it. But, presented with an uber neutral (yet very friendly) council officer and a blank flipchart, our opinions, including my own, felt like they were pointlessly floating out into the ether. In my discussion group certainly, our ideas as to how the council could change their proposal (avoiding selling off Minet Library) were lacking in strategic research and overwrought with political scepticism.
Would opening a coffee shop at the library make a significant amount of money to justify its presence? Would putting pay-as-you-go hot desks into the library help to make ends meet? Should a trust of local residents take over and run the Minet Library as a social enterprise? Could half of the plot be developed into flats, the sale of which could fund the library? I don’t know the answers to these questions but if it were my [paid] job to have researched how to best manage the funding cuts, I would have.
The meeting seemed to rely on people having done extensive research into funding options, or to blindly trust our council and their own research. I winced at the end of the meeting when, after residents asked how their ideas would be taken forward, associate director John Kerridge said that ‘nothing new had come up today’, that the council hadn’t already been considering and in fact working on. His remark was infuriating. And not just because he hadn’t actually heard all that had happened in the room.
When one resident commented that we didn’t have all the facts in front of us, a blunt response was fired back: that all information is available online. Who is going to wade through reams of documents to understand the council’s activity and motivation? In no profession other than politics would this be acceptable.
Here are a hundred residents, passionate about the cultural assets of their ward, being made to feel like silly school children who haven’t done enough homework. It is the council’s responsibility to spell it out to their residents what they are doing and why, not to pay lip service to consultations to fulfill a legal requirement.
This consultation would have been much more productive if the councillors had discussed well-researched ideas for how to bear the funding cuts to our parks, libraries and leisure facilities. To hold a faux idea gathering ceremony only to reveal before we go home that nothing new has been raised, and it is our job to read the council website, not their job to inform us, certainly left a bitter taste.
Ruth can be found tweeting about Brixton, the arts and walking friends’ dogs @MinimalismBlog