SYNOPTIC ACCOUNT OF THE BEDFORD SQUARE PUBLIC CONSULTATION
- Background. In 1997, a public consultation was organised jointly
by West Devon Borough Council (WDBC) and Devon County Council (DCC) on
their scheme to enhance Bedford Square by removing two lanes of the carriageway
and excluding all traffic from the area between the remaining two-lane
carriageway and the Town Hall. Of 2981 respondents, 1186 (39.8%) favoured
and 1795 (60.2%) rejected the scheme.
- 1.1 WDBC and DCC decided to try to devise a more acceptable
scheme and, to this end, set up a representative Working Group comprising
2 members from each of WDBC, the Town Council (TTC), Civic Society, Access
Group, Chamber of Commerce and Taxi Proprietors and one from the Business
Association (13 in all). WDBC supplied a Lead Officer to assist the Working
Group and provide technical assistance and liaison with DCC.
- 1.2 Meetings of the Working Group were held in private and members
of it were advised that their deliberations were confidential. The authority
for this ruling has not been made clear. The WGp devised 3 schemes for
consultation. All of these removed two lanes of the carriageway. The WGp
was advised at the outset by the Lead Officer that no scheme would be considered
for consultation unless this was done. It is not clear what authority there
was for this. The Lead Officer told me that it was a stipulation of DCC
officers, but the County Councillor claims that DCC officers were not involved
in any way in the WGp's deliberations until very late in the process.
- 1.3 One of the schemes (scheme C) excluded all traffic from
the area between the remaining two-lane carriageway and the Town Hall (the
Town Hall frontage). It differed from the 1997 plan only by the inclusion
of a rank for 3 taxis and a narrow lay-by, designated for all the functions
(other than parking) served by the present Town Hall frontage, viz drop-off/pick-up,
loading, Community Bus. The other two schemes (A and B) allowed some parking,
but traded this off against space for the lay-by.
- 1.4 Public consultation took place in April 1998 and the result
was published in May. The full figures were never published by WDBC or
DCC except in committee reports, and were not reproduced in the public
press. Annex A gives these
figures at paragraph 1. WDBC's press release indicated only that "63%
of those who favoured change" had chosen scheme C. Note that there
were 1265 for scheme C and that this is just 73 more than the 1192 who
declined to favour any of the three schemes offered.
The 1997 result had been clear: with only 2 options
to choose from, people either supported the WDBC/DCC plan or they did not.
Only 39.8% had, so it was declared to have been rejected by 60.2%. In 1998,
there had been four options, so the intentions of those who chose an "unsuccessful"
scheme became important. Only one of the schemes attracted more support
(73 more people) than "Status Quo/Limited change", and even that
had attracted a smaller proportion (37.67%) of the total respondents than
had the rejected 1997 scheme (39.8%). The consultation had not afforded
any means to determine whether, for example, someone who chose scheme A
or scheme B would also prefer scheme C to status quo. There was simply
no evidence on this point: none had been sought.
- 2.1 Given this lack of evidence, it is clear that assumptions
have to be made about the fallback intentions of respondents who chose
a scheme other than the radical scheme C. It is also clear that various
assumptions are possible and that different outcomes may very well flow
from making different assumptions. Reasonable people might think that a
reasonable way forward would be to calculate the outcomes from various
reasonable hypotheses and consider which was the most likely in the light
of such other information as might be available.
- 2.2 This was not done. Only one interpretation of the ambiguous
result was offered to WDBC's Planning & Development Committee on 9
June: that those who chose any of the schemes were in favour of change
and could therefore be assumed to prefer scheme C to the status quo. Putting
it another way, had there been a straight choice between schemes C and
status quo, all those who had chosen A or B would instead have chosen scheme
C. This interpretation was the only one offered to the WDBC/DCC Partnership
Committee on 15 July. No evidence was offered for this assumption, nor
do I know of any. You either believe it or you do not. This outcome is
the one shown at para 2.3 of Annex A.
- 2.3 An equally reasonable hypothesis, for which there is a good
deal of anocdotal evidence, is that those who chose schemes A or B did
so on the basis that they could see merit in some small changes in the
square, but were categorically opposed, for example, to removing all the
parking in front of the Town Hall. This assumption leads to the conclusion
that, had there been a straight choice between scheme C and status quo,
those who had chosen A or B would have switched to status quo rather than
to scheme C. That hypothesis would lead to the conclusion that 61.07% of
respondents had rejected the plan that WDBC/DCC now intend to impose. This
outcome is shown in para 2.1 of Annex A.
- 2.4 The 1997 consultation result is shown at Annex
B. It provides the only reliable evidence available, apart from the
anecdotal, against which to test these conflicting but equally reasonable
hypotheses. The result was 60.2% against. This is strikingly close to the
outcome of para 3.3, whereas to believe the assumption that must be made
to justify WDBC/DCC's present intentions, we must believe that at least
half of those opposed to the 1997 plan have changed their minds in the
last 12 months. Readers may feel that this is a little fanciful.
- 2.5 Furthermore, study of the actual figures
from last year show that 377 more people responded this year than had
done so in 1997, yet only 79 more people responded positively to scheme
C than had voted "Yes" in 1997, a ratio of about 1:5, ie only
one in every 5 additional respondents favoured radical change. This compares
to 1186 from 2981, a ratio of 1:2.5 in favour of the 1997 scheme or some
amendment of it and 1265 from 3358 (1:2.7) in favour of the radical scheme
C in 1998. It is perhaps fanciful to draw firm conclusions from this, but
one reasonable hypothesis would be that, in PL19 and PL20, the limit of
support for radical schemes is about 1200 souls and that, as consultation
turnout increases, so their proportion of it diminishes. This would explain
the observation that, as the overall response has grown, the percentage
support for the radical scheme has fallen.
- 2.6 People must make up their own minds about the relative reasonableness,
on balance of probability, of the diametrically conflicting hypotheses
in 3.2 and 3.3. I know what I think. For the sake of completeness, I have
also shown the outcome from a middle-ground assumption at para 2.2 of Annex
A. There is no evidence for the assumption.
- Resolving the Ambiguity.
Whatever one's preconceptions about a right and proper future for Bedford
Square, councillors have a duty to take account of what the electorate
thinks about the scheme that will actually result from all of this planning
and consultation. Given that four options were available in 1998, it was
inevitable that the result would be ambiguous. It was ambiguous because
no attempt was made to discern the views of supporters of schemes A and
B about scheme C. Therefore, assumptions had to be made, and the only interpretation
offered to WDBC/DCC was that all supporters of A or B would also support
C. It is also clear that this interpretation correlates poorly with the
result of the 1997 consultation and fails to account for the apparent turnaround
from 60.2% rejection in 1997 to 63.25% approval in 1998.
- 3.1 Conversely, explicit support for scheme C was 37.67% of
respondents, which is slightly less than the 39.8% who supported the 1997
plan. It correlates closely with the 1997 result, as does the concomitant
observation that the total response for Status Quo, minor changes, scheme
A and scheme B together was 61.07% which is close to the 60.2% who rejected
the 1997 plan.
- Anecdotal Evidence.
The Town Council had concerns about the evenhandedness of some of the
documents published during the consultation. Many felt that the questionnaire,
and particularly Qs 1 to 6 and Q7 (which was not a question at all), tended
to discourage people from choosing the straighforward "No change"
option. A majority felt that the infamous "pink document", issued
at the public exhibition, was not only tendentious, but actually misleading.
- 4.1 The Working Group was offered no advice from professional
opinion research practitioners about techniques for avoiding unintentional
bias in questionnaires. Nor was it advised that such advice ought to be
sought whenever questionnaires are used to determine public opinion. I
do not think for a moment that the Working Group intended the questionnaire
to be tendentious. Equally, I doubt if it is possible for a group of lay
people to construct a complicated questionnaire free from unintended bias
unless there had been some professional validation by a qualified opinion
- 4.2 I doubt if I am the only Town Councillor who has been made
aware by members of the public that many of them felt unable honestly to
respond "No" to all of Qs 1 to 6 and thereafter felt pressured
by the instruction masquerading as Q7 to choose one of the schemes offered.
Many people were unsure whether, if they chose "No" in spite
of supporting (say) a wider footpath in front of the Town Hall, their return
would be disqualified. I have a number of letters to this effect. I also
have a letter from an "opinion research professional of 40 years'
standing" who offered the view that the questionnaire was "designed
to minimise the number of responses for 'no change'".
- 4.3 Reasonable people may think it plausible that support for
schemes A and B is more likely to represent an attempt to choose a "least
damaging" scheme than an expression of support for the most radical
scheme C. This interpretation best fits the 1997 result and is supported
by anecdotal evidence.
- Was Scheme C Mathematically Certain? Cynics may feel that schemes
A and B were little more than diversionary. The 1997 experience had shown
that there was no more than 40% public support for radical change to Bedford
Square. Assuming that there could be similar numbers determinedly opposed
to any substantial change, any successful scheme would need to attract
the support of the remaining 20%, as well as that of the radical element.
Only a relatively anodyne scheme could do this. A radical outcome might
be made to seem plausible, however, if two compromise schemes were offered
as diversions, alongside the radical one, and agreement were secured beforehand
to add together all the support for any of the schemes to "see whether
there was general support for change" and then to declare that scheme
which had most support of the three to be the "winner".
- 5.1 This arrangment ensured that it was mathematically impossible
for either of the diversionary schemes to "win". Even if as much
as 10% of the radical support were lost to one of the diversionary schemes
and not a single "no-changer" could be persuaded by either of
them, the result would be:
- Result: C wins again, unless either A or B attracted zero support.
- 5.2 This was the most extreme scenario possible. What in reality
happened was that only a small proportion (2.13%) of the 1997 "Yes"
vote moved to A/B 39.8% to 37.67%). Quite a large proportion (24.7%) of
the 1997 "No" vote moved to A/B (60.2% to 35.5%). Neither A nor
B attracted zero support. It was therefore impossible from the outset for
either A or B to "win", given the rules estabished beforehand.
The outcome of the 1998 Bedford Square Consultation was mathematically
predetermined, once the Working Group had been persuaded of the reasonableness
of the ground rules for interpreting the outcome. As the Working Group
was sworn to secrecy about their deliberations until quite late in the
day, the inevitability of the outcome could not be exposed until it was
- A Way Forward - a Personal View.
Given the apparent determination of WDBC to press forward with scheme
C at high speed, so as to have contractors on site next February, perhaps
mindful of Borough Council elections next May, I do not believe it would
be realistic to press for amendments of scheme C. It is clear from the
foregoing that it is unsafe to conclude that substantial support has been
demonstrated for scheme C.
- 6.1 Given that WDBC and DCC are so committed to scheme C, it
is unrealistic to look for the sort of minor changes that might have had
widespread support, had they been genuinely on offer at the outset. I do
not believe that they were ever on offer. There is no reason, however,
given time for the dust to settle, not to pursue notions such as some widening
of the footway along the Town Hall frontage and additional pedestrian refuges
in the near future. These could be promoted as Local Safety Schemes within
the delegated budget of the West Devon Partnership Committee. For the present,
though, I regret to say that I think that Tavistock is back in the position
of 18 months ago: fighting off an unwelcome, doctinaire scheme, imposed
by a lengthy process of manipulative negotiation.
The 1998 Bedford Square Consultation was flawed because the Working
Group was not advised of the ambiguity that would inevitably result from
having two diversionary schemes. The interpolation of the "compromise"
schemes A and B alongside the radical scheme C made the shape of the consultation's
outcome mathematically inevitable. Thereafter, the method of interpretation
that had been agreed beforehand ensured that only scheme C could be declared
the winner. Most people would call that a "fix".
7.1 The official conclusion that scheme C has majority public
support is unsafe. It is almost certainly untrue. It is completely at variants
with the outcome of the 1997 consultation, which was unambiguous. This
conflict can be explained only by interpreting the figures in close accordance
with the assumptions in Annex A para 2.3. This leads
to the conclusion that the public does not support scheme C and WDBC/DCC
has no remit from the public to implement it.
12 July 1998
BEDFORD SQUARE CONSULTATION 1998
1. Full Analysis by Number of Signatories
NOTE Scheme C has 73 more votes than Status Quo + Limited
| A || 524 ||15.60% || 1716 || 51.10% |
| B || 335 || 9.97% || 2051 || 61.07% |
| C || 1265 || 37.67% || 3316 || 98.74% |
| Variation || 33 || 0.98% || 3349 |
| Spoilt|| 9|| 0.27%|| 3358 |
2.1 Assume all A & B would prefer Status Quo or Limited to C:
Conclusion: scheme rejected by 61.07%
Observation: corresponds well to 1997 consultation result 60.2% rejection). Members may feel that this is the most plausible explanation for the otherwise unaccounted for turnaround this time.
2.2 Assume all A would prefer Status Quo or Limited to C:
Conclusion: scheme rejected by 51.1%
Observation: Scheme A may have been seen as adversely affecting fewest communities of interest. There is substantial anecdotal evidence from local members that many "A" votes were frustrated "Limited" votes.
2.3 Assume all A B & C would prefer C to Status Quo.
Conclusion: scheme accepted by 63.25%
Observation: This is the interpretation offered by the officers' report. It correlates poorly with the 1997 result and no evidence has been adduced in the report to support the conclusion.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Given that only 73 votes separate Status Quo + Limited change from Option C, it is unsafe to conclude that substantial support has been demonstrated for Option C.
Back to main Bedford Square document
1997 CONSULTATION RESULT
The 1997 scheme was rejected by 60.2%
The total number of respondents in 1997 was 3358-2981 = 377 fewer than in 1998, yet the number in favour of the scheme or some amendment thereof was only 1265-1186 = 79 fewer than those supporting Scheme C in 1998. This would be consistent with the notion that support for a radical option for the Square tops out at around 1200 people in PL19 and PL20.