COMMENT: We stand with residents over Arun consultation criticism

Arun Civic Centre ENGSUS00120130227103532
Arun Civic Centre ENGSUS00120130227103532

Scrutiny of a 20,000-home blueprint for the Arun district got off to a stuttering start on Monday as residents rounded on the district council.

The Arun Local Plan examination will be a tricky time for the authority, with the government’s hefty housing targets leading to a cache of contentious development proposals.

Significant issues set to be discussed over the next few days are complex – but the first day of the hearings saw Arun face criticism over what should have been a simple issue. Consultation.

Consultation is critical, especially if residents are to accept the imposition of thousands of new homes on their doorsteps, complete with the infrastructure issues which will undoubtedly accompany them.

Yet the unanimous allegation from community figures on day one was that Arun’s efforts were lacking – and its statutory consultation far too confusing.

Critics spoke of a ‘megaphone diplomacy’, with little chance for genuine engagement. The clear consensus was Arun’s consultation methods required improvement.

Despite overwhelming testimony of those present – the very individuals Arun was charged with consulting – council officers held firm, insisting it had met its legal obligations.

Even if Arun had met the minimum requirement, we question whether this is good enough. In light of the significant ramifications for the district, this was clearly a case where the council should have gone the extra mile. Public exhibitions and meetings to promote its plan would have gone a long way.

Instead, community campaigners who immersed themselves in the local plan process were left disappointed with Arun’s efforts. How must ordinary members of the public have felt?

The latest changes to the local plan were made under challenging time pressures. This may have contributed to the difficulties residents reported. But such a key moment in the district’s future demanded more than a box-ticking exercise.

Further consultation criticism

No sooner after this week’s print edition of this newspaper gone to press, Arun was again facing consultation criticism.

Bognor Regis residents said they had not been approached by Arun over plans for new promenade public toilets.

The scheme was deferred by councillors, who called for more information, and some members sided with residents’ concerns.

In this case Arun can, in one respect be praised. It had a right to build the new above-ground toilets under permitted development rights.

Instead, it rightly chose to go through the transparent planning process. But again, notwithstanding the usual consultation process of planning applications, Arun seemed to do the minimum.

Residents would rejoice if Arun transferred its approach to shirking permitted development rights to consultation.