Surely we can handle conflict better? Part one

Reposted with thanks from the LGiU where this was originally published.

The divisions created and made worse by Brexit clearly demonstrate a gap in the way we run things, writes Perry Walker.

For really heavy duty conflicts we have arrangements for mediation, conflict resolution, arbitration, counselling and so on. But there are many conflicts, which stop way short of physical violence, that are nonetheless extremely distressing for those involved.

About the only way that communities have for coming together to tackle such conflicts is the public meeting. My organisation, Talk Shop, thinks that is inadequate. This blog, the first of two, contains a couple of examples of such conflicts. In the first case, a public meeting made things worse.

My second blog will start to suggest better ways in which communities can explore and resolve their differences. We’ll also be looking for partners who would like to try them out.

My first example comes from 2007, when villagers in Wing in Buckinghamshire began campaigning for a bypass. The local council didn’t think it would get funding for a bypass and identified alternatives. These were evaluated by an expert panel, which found that a bypass scored below several of the alternatives.

The results were presented at a public meeting, 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. 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”. The meeting was hijacked to be 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 result was a stalemate, with the council officially supporting a bypass, but no prospect of funding.

My second example goes back twenty years to when I was living in west London. In 1998, the Royal Parks Authority surveyed traffic in Richmond Park. Its report on the survey described a number of problems and possible solutions, including restricting or even banning cars.

Apart from a petition, the letters page of the Richmond and Twickenham Times was the only outlet for the strong feelings aroused by the proposals. The quotes below are from those letters.

To start with, there was disagreement on the facts. “Some locals believe (wholly incorrectly) that to discontinue traffic flows through the park would prompt the sudden unleashing of unbearable levels of congestion onto their own streets.” Also, polarisation led to the demonisation of the other side. One letter used sarcasm to make its point: “Deadly dog walkers and barbaric senior citizens should be ashamed of themselves by daring to enter the park, thereby bothering those many lovable caring cyclists on their Raleigh Turbo-propelled 2000 GTs.” There was no way of building on views that might promote consensus, such as “I too am a motorist [but] I am increasingly aware that my car’s presence represents something negative to the park”.One correspondent described the debate as “a ping-pong match”.

Surely we can do better! My next blog will point ways forward.