I attended a Blackheath Assembly for the first time yesterday. Held in the bright, airy hall of St. Matthew’s Academy (school), with a very post-modern crucifix hanging over us, it started out looking quite promising.
Introductions, agendas, the obligatory local plod telling us to lock our windows when we go outside- the usual things.
The meeting was very specific. We weren’t encouraged to ask questions about the library closures (there’s a meeting about Library Closure on 28th July at 7pm, at the Leemore Centre, Clarendon Rise, Lewisham SE13 5ES). We were told that only issues relating to Blackheath should be discussed. One person asked where he should raise Lewisham-wide issues “I don’t want any of the libraries to be cut”. No clear answer.
Then came The Presentation. It rapidly became clear that this Consultation Exercise had only one purpose- to demonstrate that Lewisham Council should be perceived by its citizens as fundamentally skint. Liz Dart, who had the unenviable task of conveying this message, through the artistic medium of Microsoft PowerPoint, did her best. “I don’t think any of us went into the public sector wanting to close services” was a memorable line.
Then the Electronic Vote began. This was a disaster from start to finish. Think of it as a series of questions along the lines of:
Question: “How would you like us to kill your cat?”.
A: I like my cat, kill someone else’s cat.
B: Perhaps I could volunteer to kill other people’s cats?
C: I think people with cats should kill their own cats, without the council paying.
D: Maybe it would be OK, if you just lopped off one ear of that cat instead?
E: I have another idea.
(This is a facetious example. Lewisham council loves cats. I hope).
The full set of questions can be read here (PDF file) or very poorly OCR’d version here (sorry). The online version, which uses slightly different questions, can be found at the incredibly patronisingly titled Our Lewisham Our Say page.
It’s worth mentioning that the good people of Blackheath were having their views (un)represented by about 46 middle to old aged men and women, a sea of white middle class affability, who looked as though they might have been more at home in a daycare centre or a pub quiz.
All of the questions were framed in such a way as to make the “don’t cut anything” option appear unreasonable.
The questions often appeared to be aimed at helping Lewisham Council work out what choice of words would best convince the public for the need to cut services. For example, if the council wants to reduce spending on roads, should it try to convince you by saying:
“We need to be greener- roads are less important in this new Eco-tastic Age”.
Or should they say:
“Roads should be funded by Bad People who park in Bad Places”
When the voting began, it became obvious that whoever had set the quiz up hadn’t checked that the answers on the paper were in the same order as the answers on the screen. Bearing in mind that several members of the audience clearly had trouble with the electronic voting system, it became necessary for the “quizmaster” to read out every answer, and to try to urge the audience not to look at the paper handouts.
As one lady pointed out- “whoever set this quiz up expects their pay cheque to be correct at the end of each month. This is a schoolboy error.”
Here are the answers on the page:
And here are the completely different order of answers on the screen:
(Incidentally the quiz button machines are made by Turning Technologies – take note, they went catastrophically wrong halfway through the presentation, although that’s probably because the laptop was complaining about the Windows Profile being full).
It’s a good point. No debate was held as the vote results were displayed. There was no time to discuss them. The presenters had no answers for the few pertinent questions asked by the audience. A great one was “What proportion of the council’s budget is spent on salaries over £65,000?“. No clear answer.
The entire exercise could have been handled more efficiently using pencil and paper. The use of endless PowerPoint presentations and electronic voting systems feels as though it represents the general cruft and wastage within the council. “We do it this way, because that is how people present things”. A person standing up at the front and simply answering questions would have been far more effective than this.
The sheer number of unelected, unrepresentative bodies mentioned during the talk defied belief. For example, the policeman showed us some crime maps (below average in Blackheath and dropping). “If you want to see more accurate maps, join the Blackheath Ward Panel – anyone can join”. When someone in the audience asked “why can’t we see the accurate maps”, the answer was “they contain sensitive information”. Either they are fit for public consumption or they aren’t. Why should they be shown to a tiny unrepresentative group?
Then there is the self-nominated Coordinating Body. Anyone can nominate themselves to be on this group, and they meet four times a year, to set the agenda for the next meeting. Blackheath Village Residents Group aren’t on the list. Blackheath Society isn’t on the list. Having been to the meeting, I suspect that this is because they’ve realised that these meetings are something of a joke. A faux-democracy card-shuffling exercise, designed to give the illusion of power to a few bored individuals, who are going to either hand all of our public services over to the private sector, or just shut them.