At work, I’ve received a series of communiques from the Council trying to drum up support for its new housing consultation arrangements. I say ‘new’, but actually there’s an increasingly tired formula for this kind of thing. ‘Consultation’ has become one of those words that’s been abused and over-used so much in recent years that its meaning has been washed out. The other prime example is ‘community’. When I see ‘community’ and ‘consultation’ together – as I often do – something inside me dies.
Consultation suggests something good, or at least benign. We can all sign up to the idea that people should be asked what they think of a course of action before it happens, but as in the case of the recent MoD decision to put missiles on roofs, too often public authorities engage in retrospective consultation, to the point where I once heard someone say she hadn’t been so much consulted, as insulted.
In housing, the devaluation of the consultation currency stems from the deliberate undermining of genuine local democratic control and its replacement with Byzantine layers of pseudo accountability. This particularly applies to council housing, but is relevant in other sectors too. So, the council in the area where I work is seeking to appoint a Housing Executive (with no executive powers), a Residents Taskforce and as if this wasn’t enough, a Residents’ Champion. Needless to say, external consultants have been contracted to facilitate this process, part of a multi-million pound parasite industry that has spawned from the fragmentation of public services and the erosion of local councils’ confidence in their own staff and role. Flowing from the alleged ‘modernisation’ agenda of the last government, all manner of devices have been used to create the impression that what is essentially privatisation retains some democratic legitimacy, but what usually happens is the appointment of a self-selecting, self-perpetuating and often self-serving clique that purports to represent ‘the community’. I recall working for a small ‘community’ housing association and realising that not one single person on its management board lived in the area we served. Yesterday I was looking at the website of a new Community Land Trust – a model that some see as the future of non-market housing – and its committee of placees, none of whom have ever stood for election by the local population, a particularly invidious situation when the CLT is taking over public land, along with another paragon of open accountability, the property developer Galliford Try.
There was a resounding and beautiful simplicity about local government that has been forgotten in all this. Local people elect local councillors who represent them at the town hall, some of whom are delegated with particular responsibility e.g. being on the housing committee and might sit on other bodies, but always with the mandate of having been voted for the last time and the possibility of not being voted for the next. Local groups like tenants and residents associations have a direct line of contact with their local councillors and act as forums for lobbying, campaigning and yes, consultation. Someone else coined the term that council tenants are ‘special citizens’ because they have retained a degree of control over the use of public assets that has been lost in other areas such as hospital trusts and privatised utilities, our transport system and building societies, all of which used to be subject to a degree of public accountability and are now the play-things of multi-national corporations and quango quislings.