Sunday, March 25, 2012

In Exmouth no one can hear you scream

"It's sad" as Elton John once said.  "So sad".  Warming to his maudlin theme he described it as "a sad sad situation" and ended with the sobering prognosis: that "it's getting more and more absurd".
Clearly Kiki Dee had a cob on about something the Brown Dirt Cowboy was doing - and about that it’s probably not wise to speculate, except to say that if it’s what immediately occurs to me then the same thing’s been happening to the people of Exmouth ever since I can remember.
It's just another way that those wistful words of Elton's seem poignant and prescient for us, gentle reader, with the depressing proviso of course that our situation is worse still in Exmouth since we've tried to "talk it over" and apparently the council and the people of the town can’t even agree on what talking something over actually means.  
EDDC's latest public consultation on the future of Exmouth, with it's betwittered and enfacebooked website replete with kitesurfing proactively empowered children garnered a risible 507 responses.  507 people out of a population of getting on for 35,000.  To put the failure of their ineffectual multimedia consultation in perspective: Exmouth Citizens' Forum managed 10,500 signatures for their campaign against the supermarket on the Exe by employing the somewhat lower-tech expedient of two women volunteers with clipboards who stood outside Somerfield on Saturday mornings.  
Ten and a half thousand signatures for an outlay of.....well....bugger all to you.  As opposed to 507 questionnaires completed for an outlay of......figure undisclosed.  But I bet it'd make your eyes water, especially when you think of how hard it is to find your hundred and something council tax every month.
Ten and a half thousand ‘against’, costing you the taxpayer nada, nil, nix, rien, zero, zilch, diddly-squat and sweet f.a. - versus 57% of 507 people ‘for’ - which is 289 people give or take a fraction of a percent - I’m rounding up cos I’m feeling generous - costing you the taxpayer a major wedge of cash.  Does that sound like a rout to you, as well as an inexcusable waste of your hard-earned money?  It wouldn't if you worked for EDDC.
The jolly lads in Sidmouth are putting a brave face on the abject failure of their consultation and acting like we've all had a lovely fireside chinwag and talked the whole thing out and come to some final and binding conclusions.  And guess what those conclusions are?  After all the consultations stretching back into the mists of time of which the Austin-Powers-sounding Masterplan is only the latest incarnation, after all the face time with councillors, the petition and the referendum and COLP (Community Organisation Liaison Panel) meetings, all of which told the council the same thing, that we don't want a giant breeze block shed full of chicken kievs on our estuary, what do you reckon the council discovered?  Yeah.  We want a giant breeze block shed full of chicken kievs on our estuary.  Surprise!
The fact that only 507 people responded, and almost half of them to reject the plan, doesn't get a lot of mentions in EDDC meetings, as you'd expect.  
In the first week of March Richard Cohen EDDC's Deputy Chief Executive, said there had been "extensive public engagement over an extended period." (a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of the word "extensive" from Richard, there) and that "90% of those who responded to the latest Masterplan consultation exercise agreed with the general aims and signed up to the vision for the town"
Remember the general aims?  I can't seem to get a hold of the questionnaire but as far as I remember one was confronted with a series of gut-wrenching moral conundrums along the lines of "Do you like fluffy baa-lambs?" YES/NO "is it good to be rich and happy and madly desirable to the opposite sex?" YES/NO and "Would you like a nice cup of tea?".  YES.  Answering in the affirmative to the sort of anodyne positivity in the opening part of the questionnaire in no way means "Yes I would like my town centre eviscerated by a major corporation".  Or so one would’ve thought.
I think I know why people didn't respond to the questionnaire - and here I speak anecdotally but, I hope, authoritatively, since there are almost as many people in my tentative study as the (don't laugh) 38 participants (which is roughly the number of people I talk to in the bus queue) cited in the EDDC’s preliminary findings here.
I think the reason they didn’t respond is that the people of this town have no faith that EDDC give a flying French Connection UK about our opinions.  They've been asked so many times before and been ignored so they thought this one would be no different.  
Despite the desperate attempts to appeal to my sense of civic responsibility which was the last resort of local councillors at the time of the questionnaire being handed in (when they realised the number of responses was going to be pitiful) I didn't respond, because I knew that my mere participation would be used by the council as spurious evidence of my endorsement of it's plans.  c.f. Mr Cohen's 90% statement above.
We've recently read about the freedom of information act disclosure of the cost of EDDC’s quixotic crystal palace debacle.  
Thirty three grand for architect’s fees, building regulation costs and planning fees spent on a building which none of us wanted in the first place, the abandonment of which was portrayed, incredibly, by local councillors, as some sort of victory for democracy.  I should imagine that the cost of all these consultations, Unlocking Exmouth, The Masterplan etc, must've amounted to a figure which dwarfs thirty three grand - all to tell us something we already know, which is then ignored.  And when, after being asked again and again, each time patiently giving our response and each time apparently failing to give the right answer, we finally turn away in disgust from the whole bankrupted pantomime of democracy, the charade of participation, they use the opinions of the (literally) one in a hundred people they actually managed to persuade to agree to this thing as a mandate for a huge building project which will completely change the character of the town.
Isn't democracy a scream?