Public Participation in Oxfordshire Growth Board

Transparency is fundamental to building trust and confidence.

14 January 2017

Our response to an invitation from Oxfordshire Growth Board to comment on the Board’s public participation procedures.

Oxfordshire Growth Board
Oxfordshire Growth Board
[photo: Oxfordshire County Council]
Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on our experience of public participation at the Oxfordshire Growth Board (OGB) meetings and to make proposals as to how the OGB’s engagement with the public might be improved.

We are fully aware of the Terms of Reference of theOGB and the currently agreed OGB public participation scheme. We also fully understand that the OGB is a statutory joint executive committee established according to provisions of the Local Government Acts 1972 and 2000 and the Local Authorities (Arrangements for the Discharge of Functions) Regulations 2012. We understand that there is no statutory right for members of the public to participate in the OGB in any way. It is a matter for the discretion of the members of the OGB whether to permit public participation and, if they do, to set the procedural requirements that will apply. We appreciate that by exercising its discretion to permit public participation in its meetings, the OGB has gone beyond what is statutorily required of it.

Our key aims:

  • Equitable and sustainable Oxfordshire growth. That is to say growth which provides the basis for resolving existing deprivation and hardship emanating from the complex but chronic housing problems and those of mobility and environmental degradation.
  • A governance model which is widely understood and commands public respect when taking decisions on Oxfordshire’s growth

Our key considerations

  • Our overall hope is that the evolution of the OGB public participation scheme is considered as part of the evolution of Oxfordshire’s devolved governance structure. The evolution of the scheme must ensure that there is proper public debate about important public policy choices.
  • We are not convinced that the OGB purpose and governance model are understood by at least some councillors, professionals and the public at large. At many public meetings on Oxfordshire development issues, questions have been asked by the public about who is making strategic decisions, on what issues, when, why and how.
  • More generally and linked to our overall hope, we are not convinced that the OGB governance model adequately facilitates high quality decision-making processes that go beyond discovering the preferences of various stakeholders.

It should be clear from our key considerations that we are keen to support the evolution of the OGB governance model. This consultation is a welcome opportunity for us to set out what parts of the current public participation scheme are inadequate and what improvements we would like to see.

Reflections and recommendations

  • The current OGB public participation scheme focuses on the participation of the public in OGB meetings. This focus needs to be complemented with a scheme to explain the OGB governance model to councillors, professionals and the public at large. We are convinced that such transparency is fundamental to building trust and confidence in the political process.
  • Under the current public participation scheme, members of the public may ask questions of the OGB Chairman, or address the OGB on any substantive item at a meeting subject to certain restrictions, which include the scope of subject matter and giving notice of the question in advance. Further:
    • The scheme does not allow discussion of the question or the answer at the meeting.
    • The length of time allowed for statements is very short (3 minutes). The scheme dictates that the public participation component of any meeting (all statements and questions) must not exceed 30 minutes.
    • Although it is intended in the scheme that questions will be answered within 10 days of the meeting, experience shows that answers are sometimes provided after much longer periods and sometimes only after further prompting.
    • Even after a delay the response may sometimes be inadequate (examples are available on request).
  • We suggest that this public participation scheme is much too constrained for it to facilitate representative democracy within a well-informed electorate and elected representatives fully aware of their constituents needs and wishes. We urge that this should be an aim of the OGB public participation process.
  • We suggest that the capacity for effective civic leadership will be much enhanced with more effective collaboration with all stakeholders, including the public. This includes the capacity to develop a vision for Oxfordshire coupled with a governance arrangement that can ensure effective and accountable delivery.
  • We understand that when officers considered the design of the public participation process reference was made to the public participation scheme that had operated at the West Northamptonshire Joint Strategic Planning Committee. This was used as a basis for the scheme currently applied in Oxfordshire. The OGB has noted (in a written reply to a question from the public at an OGB meeting) that it is not aware of public participation schemes that differ radically from that now applied in Oxfordshire. It has undertaken to continue to ‘scan the horizon’ and make amendments as appropriate. We are interested to know what potential improvements this scanning has identified and hope that this consultation will include the results of the ‘horizon scanning’.
  • From our own research we consider that there is much to learn from the public participation experience of further similar joint strategic planning committees, evolving arrangements for Combined Authorities and LEPs.
  • Our Oxfordshire Futures Group would be delighted to collaborate with OGB on making sure that the work of the OGB is better understood. We will be happy to discuss this with the OGB chair at any time.

Peter Thompson
Chairman, Oxford Civic Society