When public meetings go wrong…. they can make a bad situation so much worse

Perry’s recent blog for The Consultation Institute is republished here with permission.

The Institute is asking for examples of public meetings. Sometimes we can learn more from worst practice than from best practice, so I thought I’d share this nightmare.

Our story begins over ten years ago, in the village of Wing. Wing is in Buckinghamshire, between Aylesbury and Leighton Buzzard, not a million miles away from tCI global headquarters. In the absence of satisfactory public transport, villagers began campaigning for a bypass, that being the only possible improvement they knew about. The local council didn’t think it would get funding for a bypass. In 2007 it therefore worked closely with Friends of the Earth (both providing £20,000) to commission an expert to identify alternatives. The alternatives were then evaluated by an expert panel, which found that a bypass scored below several of the alternatives.

The results were presented at a public meeting, which the parish council offered to organise. This was intended to present the alternatives. But 400 people turned up, and those who spoke up did so mainly to ask when they were going to get their bypass. As so often happens, only the extremes were heard, and the middle ground, including the alternatives, was squeezed out. A statement that, “We won’t get a bypass funded but there are other things we can do” was interpreted as, “You are condemning my child to be run over outside my house”. When some people from a nearby village expressed worries about traffic that might be displaced to their village by a bypass, the response caused Stephen Joseph, of the Campaign for Better Transport, who was chairing the meeting, to “fear he was about to witness ethnic cleansing”. It was hijacked into a meeting solely about the bypass: was it yes or no? As it seemed to be ‘no’, the villagers were apoplectic: they felt that they had been betrayed. The councillor for Wing felt that she had to support a bypass. The result was a stalemate, with the council officially supporting a bypass, but no prospect of funding.

A subsequent public meeting, also organised by the parish council, debated where a bypass should go. But there was a second stalemate, between those in the north of the village, who wanted it to the south, and those to the south of the village, who wanted it to the north.

The Institute’s article headed “When public meetings go wrong…” begins “this begs the question ‘… according to whom?’” In this case, the fact that these meetings went very, very wrong is probably the one thing that everyone involved could agree on.