Consultation is overrated: why we should stop letting idiots guide us

Councillors and council officers are forever going to public meetings to receive bad advice from angry people who mostly don’t know what they’re talking about. Hayden Donnell asks why.

In Takapuna last week, Mayor Phil Goff, councillors and council officers stood in front of a packed meeting and got yelled at. They’d committed the crime of proposing change. They wanted to turn a huge carpark across the centre of the beachside suburb into something people could use for activities other than being run over by SUVs. Their punishment was being harangued by people who had the time and energy to do things like harangue council officers.

Few, if any, of the people hassling them had qualifications in urban design. They had no expertise other than living vaguely nearby. They were led by Ruth Jackson, of Heart of Takapuna, whose main idea was constructing a prohibitively expensive, clearly impractical, underground carpark beneath the revamped lot. Their protest was at best misinformed; at worst actively dishonest. Despite that, the council representatives had to at least take it on board: Everyone at that meeting will get to vote on which development option the council should adopt.

It’s a familiar story. Council consulted on SkyPath, maybe the most obviously good transport project in Auckland, for more than a decade. They listened to the NRA. The SMBA. Former councillors George Wood even spent the better part of an hour consulting a cat, who told him it didn’t want SkyPath. In the end, the cat died of old age, SkyPath went ahead years later than it should’ve, and as the inexorable process finally drew to an end, the NRA and SMBA said there hadn’t been enough consultation.

In Grey Lynn, Auckland Transport went through an exhaustive consultation in the face of a semi-deranged opposition campaign that featured an extravagantly behatted activist ineffectively taking a sledgehammer to a traffic island and getting arrested. AT made an effort to take community concerns on board, and ended up with a compromised design everyone hated.

Simon Wilson’s description of a West Lynn consultation meeting, December 2017.

In Mt Eden, a similar process is underway. Misinformed locals have assailed shirt collar-tugging AT officials after hallucinating visions of an apocalyptic future over some bus upgrades. The organisation has responded with a plan that doesn’t do enough to ease bus congestion.

The problem with consultation as it’s done today, is that most regular, sensible people don’t have time to fully invest themselves in the ins and outs of council projects. They have jobs, lives. They can’t spend their evenings yelling at mid-level urban planners in an uninsulated hall.

That leaves them vulnerable to either going unheard in debates, or being wildly misinformed by conspiracy-minded catastrophisers like Lisa Prager and other diehard council opponents. In Takapuna, people were mad because they’d been told nine storey buildings would completely shade the new public square. That wasn’t true. Again, councillors spent hours listening to people who were arguing out of ignorance or bad faith, like they had in Grey Lynn, Mt Eden, or during the Unitary Plan hearings.

What’s the point? Doctors don’t change their prescriptions if enough gullible Facebookers are tricked into believing penicillin will turn their child into a goblin. Engineers don’t replace their joists with silly putty if enough people think it’s a DIY hack. Most communities don’t have that many experts on bikeway design, urban planning, or parking. Thankfully the council has quite a few. Why do we expect them to make concessions when confronted with feedback that’s almost as obviously dumb?

This isn’t to say consultation is bad – just the way we do it now is bad. Council officers should always consult widely with planners, engineers, architects and others with experience in urban design. But communities being asked to give detailed feedback on specific plans often seems to result in uninformed debate and alterations that make things worse – particularly in the most impactful face-to-face settings. The sensible are forced to cede ground to the loudest and least informed. Actual experts are drowned out by people who want to take the city back to the utopia of 1983.

Maybe instead of getting extensive input on every new development, communities should be asked to tell council what’s valuable to them, preferably in far-reaching online surveys that don’t require hours of time commitment. That way they could set some goals for their area: more public transport, adequate parking, bike infrastructure, public space, maybe even a train or two.

They set the roadmap for where they want their part of city to go… and then leave planning how to get there to the actual planners.

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