There has been a lot of work in recent years on ways of improving the process of public consultation. It’s not something about which I have any great expertise or direct involvement, but I am conscious of great efforts to produce consultation material in forms which are not just useful and accessible themselves, but which make the process of responding straightforward and flexible, allowing respondents to express their views in ways which make sense to them. But it seems there is still quite a way to go.
There have been proposals to redevelop Battersea Power Station since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Every few years, a new developer announces an exciting new master plan with a Big Idea and says that development will start the following year. Then the money runs out, the site is sold, and the cycle repeats.
The Big Idea of the current lot is to get Battersea Power Station connected to the underground. That isn’t quite as daft and hubristic as it might sound. The Northern Line has a loop at Kennington which allows trains on the Charing Cross branch to head back north without reversing and TfL increasingly operates the Northern Line with all Charing Cross branch trains terminating at Kennington and only City Branch trains (which can’t use the loop) continuing to Morden. So adding a stub on to the loop to take the line on to Battersea doesn’t change the basic topology of the system and, at least by the standards of tube construction, it’s relatively cheap.
This is not the place to consider whether any of that is at all a good idea – London Reconnections is the authoritative site if that’s your bag. I am more interested here in how people find about and respond to the proposals, though admittedly with a less lofty purpose of being bemused about the priority of building a fourth tube station ten minutes walk from my house when I have a choice of three already.
If you were dimly aware of the proposal and wanted to find out more, what might you do? Well, the TfL home page would be an obvious place to start, and helpfully it has a big box at the top inviting us to see the Tube Update Plan. Clicking that gets us to line-specific options, and clicking that gets us to… no mention of this whatsoever. No matter, perhaps it’s not yet part of the plan. Looking round the site a bit, there is a huge list of projects and schemes, but none of them is this one. But if you are really persistent, you might eventually find a press notice announcing a public consultation on a proposed Northern Line extension.
Having found the equivalent of the locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory, it all gets a bit odder. If you go to the press notice page now, you will find a link to the consultation site operated by the Battersea power station developer. But that link wasn’t there when the press notice was issued. The press notice talks about 40,000 leaflets being distributed to local residents and gives details of exhibitions of the plans at various places in the affected area, but says nothing at all, either in the body of the notice or in the notes to editors about the existence of a consultation website (and the version on the consultation site still doesn’t have so much as a link). That in turn meant that coverage of the story focused on the leaflets, with no mention of online information even in online coverage.
And so eventually to the consultation website. The first thing we might want to know is what is actually being proposed. And there is a link on the home page to the documents area:
See our Downloads section for a complete list of informative documents and maps about the Northern Line Extension.
Splendid. What might we find there? Well, this:
Which of those might I possibly want to read? I have no idea. And this, remember, is a consultation aimed at residents, not at engineering professionals.
But there is also the consultation leaflet, the one being distributed to those 40,000 local residents. It is, perhaps not surprisingly by now, a pdf, which precisely reproduces the paper version, right down to the instructions to moisten the gummed area when returning a response. And while the response form consists of check boxes and a few short free-entry text boxes, the pdf hasn’t been set up to allow it to be completed with anything more high tech than a biro. There is, to be fair, a version of the questionnaire on the site, but only of the questionnaire. Would it really have been so hard to make six more A4 sides of pdf into proper web pages?
The central question in this consultation is
We propose to proceed with Route Option 2 (Kennington-Battersea Power Station via south Nine Elms). What do you think of this option?
This is apparently the result of an earlier round of consultation a year ago. There is no indication of what the other options are from which I am being invited to endorse a choice. But the leaflet does say:
Maps of all four route options as well as more detail on the current proposals are on our website:
After some poking around, I have found the four route options, not directly on the site, but as another pdf download (though not on the download page), this time of last year’s consultation paper. I can find nothing at all giving any more details of the current proposal.
I have laboured all of this probably more than the example is worth to make a point. None of this is impossibly difficult to find and use, but none of it is as straightforward as it could be and should be. If there is a serious desire to collect and respond to views, there are better ways of doing it than this.
And now, since I am one of the lucky 40,000, I will take my pen and the nice glossy printed version of the consultation and do my best to answer the really key question.
Nine Elms? Battersea?