Having just completed 5 consultation evenings at each of the market towns of Breckland I thought I’d share some reflections based upon these. These thoughts will not influence the conclusions which members come to based upon the consultations but may be of interest to others planning similar events.
The consultation events began with a presentation by William Nunn, the elected leader, in which he explained the background to the increasing funding gap in the Council’s budget as projected over the next five years. He asked for views on two income raising options, increasing Council tax & introducing car parking charges and ten savings options from the Council’s discretionary services. Year on year efficiency savings were assumed.
# 1 Adult to adult. It was evident that when given the facts and asked for their opinion people were prepared to enter into a discussion on the options as adults to adults.
# 2 Will you listen ? People wanted reassurance that their views would be listened to. This led to some interesting discussion on the difference and tension between participative democracy and representative democracy.
# 3 Evidence. People asked for evidence to support the worth of some services. A sound and healthy request I thought. I found it interesting that we are more likely to seek evidence on a service we are predisposed to reduce (e.g. CCTV) but for other services that we want to protect (fee car parking) we have our own views and we don’t require any evidence on the impact.
# 4 Attendance. Whilst we were generally happy with the attendance, 60 - 90 people at each, it was interesting to note that during the period we were carrying out these consultations a village in Breckland had a meeting on a single hyper local issue - the future of a building. This meeting had a greater attendance than any of our meetings. This supports the view that citizens are increasingly participative in single local issues more than wider general issues.
# 5 Business interests v residents interests. My impression would be that more business people spoke at the events than residents. All views were welcome but of course we do not set the level of Council Tax for businesses (NNDR) and they do not benefit from from some resident services. The views of business and of residents are often the same - they both care for their market town - but not always.
# 6 Respect for councillors. Overwhelmingly people were grateful to the elected members for coming into their communities and talking with them.