Lydford Parish Plan
Back in 2006 Lydford Parish Council decided to produce a Parish Plan. The resolution "This parish council should implement a Parish Plan" was placed before the meeting held on 18 July . The vote taken was four in favour, one against and two abstentions. Carried by majority. (LPC Minutes 18/07/06 Para 87.3). A budget of £2025 was available for the parish plan.
At an early stage it was decided that two parish councillors should sit on a 'steering group' along with representatives of various groups e.g. 'young people', 'bell ringers', 'horse riders' etc. West Devon Borough Council’s Regeneration Officer, seems to have attended several of the early meetings. It would have been interesting to know just who did sit on the Parish Plan Steering Group but, particularly in the later stages, it proved difficult to find out as no membership list, consitution or terms of reference were published.
One of the sad aspects of this whole affair was the secrecy that has surrounded it. For a while minutes of the Parish Plan Steering Group (PPSG) were posted on the parish council web site. That stopped after August 2007. The lack of minutes was queried and various excuses given for not posting minutes, some more credible than others. One explanation given is that no formal meetings of the Steering Group were held after August 2007.
The whole point of a parish plan is that it should be a reasonable representation of the views of the people of Lydford. Effective public consulation is therefore important. For a time the Steering Group seemed to be making the right noises with respect to consultation and the April 07 PPSG minutes record that a questionnaire was to be made available to all Lydford households by 28 May 2007.
Public consultation was to be carried out by means of two questionnaires. An intitial one to help decide on questions for a second one. Unfortunately something seems to have gone wrong with the distribution of the initial questionnaire and some people did not get theirs or were slow to do so.
This matter was brought to the attention of the Chair of the Steering Group but there was no discussion of the problem recorded in minutes. One wonders if the Steering Group got to hear of the problem with distribution at all.
The lack of formal minuted meetings after August 2007 is worrying. It seems to be the case that during a critical phase where the content of the final questionnaire (an essential part of the public consultation) was being decided only informal meetings were held and no minutes taken. Whilst most people would agree that the answers one gets to any questionnaire depend very much on the questions asked and, of course, how those questions are phrased, there is no public record of who was making these decisions in respect of the Lydford Parish Plan. This is anything but transparent. Where is the accountability and the openness that the public have a right to expect from their local representatives?
Lydford Parish Councillors were made aware of the shortcomings in the development of the parish plan. One of the responses that they seemed to favour was to claim that the Parish Plan Steering Group was somehow independent of the Parish Council. In fact at one time the Chairman and treasurer of the Steering Group were the Vice-Chairman and Chairman of the parish council.
The grant of £2025 towards preparing the parish plan was paid to, and held by, the parish council. It was the parish council who voted to implement a parish plan and it was that body who would have to adopt the plan and monitor progress with it. There never has been any publically available constitution, terms of reference or membership list for the Steering Group but we know that the membership included two parish councillors and one of these chaired the group. How then was it independent? How did it differ from a council sub-committee?
Does this really constitute the level of transparency that one would hope for in the development of a plan purporting to be representative of the views of all parishioners of Lydford? ‘Openness’ and ‘Accountability’ are, of course, two of the Seven Principles of Public Life. The development of the Lydford Parish Plan was anything but open.
Finally in June 2008 the main questionnaire saw the light of day. Unfortunately it left a good deal to be desired
Authoritative guidance suggests that there should be a clear introduction to the questionnaire covering:-
- the purpose of the questionnaire
- why it is important for you (and why it could be useful for the respondent)
- how long it should take to complete
- what will happen to the results
- complete contact details
- final date for reply
Although the collection date was given on a slip of paper attached to the envelope in which the questionnaire was delivered, the other bullet points were absent. There was not even any return address given.
A particular concern was lack of information on who published the questionnaire. Although West Devon Borough Council, Dartmoor National Park Authority and Lydford Parish Council are mentioned on the cover page of the questionnaire there was no indication that the document was published not by these bodies but by a supposedly 'independent' organisation, the Lydford Parish Plan Steering Group.
Several of the questions asked for personal or business information and were intrusive so confidentiality was a concern. Despite the fact that names and addresses were not required to be put on the questionnaire it would have been relatively easy to put names to certain questionnaires. Given the uncertainties surrounding the Parish Plan Steering Group could we be sure that personal information was going to be treated in accordance with the Data Protection Act? The slip of paper attached to the envelope did say that questionnaires would be kept confidential but this was meaningless as it did not say who would have access to the information.
Some of the other questions that did ask for parishioners views on relevent issues were poorly thought out, some so much so that they were never going to be likely to yield any reliable information.
Perhaps the most serious problem with the list of questions is what was not there. The Parish Council was aware that closure of the Lydford public conveniences was a contentious issue. There was no question on that. Similarly there was no question asking what people would have liked to happen to the Old Spring. These were issues at the time but a survey today may well consider different issues.
One issue relevant then and now is farming. More than anything else it determines the appearance of the parish outside of the built-up areas. Because of this its future development affect all who live in Lydford, not just those employed in this activity. There were questions on businesses but nothing specifically on farming. Considering the changes that have taken place, and the uncertain future, this was a serious omission.
Environmental issues similarly got little mention in the questionnaire. There were two questions on recycling. There was also a group of seven questions in a section entitled "Environment" but these questions contained almost nothing on climate change, renewable energy, or sustainabilty. Mention was made of renewable energy in question 35 (along with issues such as a vistor survey and a noise survey) but even at a simple level of determining peoples attitude to large scale generation of renewable energy as against micro-generation there was nothing.
Environmental issues including climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion will affect us all. How to protect the environment is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. It is also a challenge that has implications at all levels, global, national, regional and local and yet in this survey it got barely a mention.
What the survey should have done is help to determine just what sort of parish residents want to see in the years to come including how they wished to see the parish develop, indeed if they wished to see it develop at all or stay much the same. Unfortunately the questions in the survey were not particularly helpful in this respect. Many of the questions seemed designed to gather personal and business information rather than to arrive at a consensus view of how Lydford should develop.
At the time it was hard to find anyone, other than parish councillors, who were complementary about the survey document. The July 2008 minutes of the parish council record that one former member of the council felt moved to attend the meeting in order to express disappointment. The problem with not having a parish plan based on a proper survey of residents' views is that it leaves the way open for development to take place driven by small groups who may be vocal but may not be representative.
In 2009 one of the recurring excuses for delays was to blame Devon County Council who were being paid to collate the survey results.
More than three years after the parish council's vote to produce a parish plan and more than a year after the circulation of the final questionnaire, we learned that it was all for nothing.
The minutes of the December 2009 meeting of Lydford Parish Council, made plain that the Parish Plan Steering Group would not be using the results to prepare a plan. After all the secrecy, the delay, the refusal to publish minutes and a lot of effort from those ordinary parishioners who took the time and trouble to fill in the initial and the final questionnaires the LPC minutes contain the following statement about the plan:-
"This was discussed and sadness expressed over the seemed lack of interest from the parishioners"
So there we have it, after all that, no blame attaches to the councillors. It is the parishioners' fault! What an appalling statement to make and what a text book example of how not to produce a parish plan.
Many ordinary parishioners took the time and trouble to fill in their questionnaires. Despite the problems with the questionnaire there may still be some benefit from considering the results. Although some results are now out-dated others, such as concern over road safety, are not. For this reason the collated results from the tick-box section of the 2008 questionnaires and a summary of the comments section are published here and may be accessed by clicking the links below. Both are in .PDF format (opens in a new window).