Friday, 18 May 2012

Smoke and Mirrors

What is going on at Sheffield Moors Partnership and is its master planning process just so much smoke and mirrors? The more they talk about strategic roles and the more they invoke the hazy concept of sustainable landscapes the more suspicious we get and the more we cry out for transparency; a transparency that is, er, well, transparent and not bureaucratic obfuscation. I would like to talk to anyone who can explain convincingly in concise terms just what’s going on. I still have no idea just what a master plan will look like despite all the questions I’ve asked and meetings I’ve been to. A true test of transparency surely? Will it be two sides of A4 or will it be a lengthy glossy brochure hyped and scattered with dramatic promotional photos with the serious stuff effectively disguised in a lot of tedious narrative?

One thing I’ll bet my last pair of stripy socks on: it will be certain to stimy any chance of us making Shefield Wildlife Trust accountable for the mess they are making of managing Blacka Moor and putting them on the right rails in their next management plan.

The SMP master plan process has now ended its second phase. The impression is that the main object is to make it look as if there has been a thorough if confusing process of citizen engagement while in reality no meaningful consultation has taken place except among the self-elected partners themselves in their early awaydays before the public and the elected members got wind of what they were up to. And only strictly limited information about that has been allowed to be filtered into the public domain. Yet, and this has to be repeated constantly, these officers are employed by us using public and charitably donated funds.

Eyes were focused from the start on the importance of getting their preferred approach approved by Sheffield Council’s Cabinet at a later targeted date. Public engagement or consultation is a mere detail with a role in the process but not the main point of the exercise. It thus becomes simply a means of giving some democratic legitimacy to what they’ve decided to do anyway.

Experienced officers within SCC know the conventional form and content of such reports and focus their attention on getting all the ingredients in place. So the wider and more vital duty of ensuring there is a well run and participant friendly consultation involving informed comment and intelligent dialogue is at very best a secondary priority - if it is seen to have any place at all.

The first meetings were ‘ideas gathering’ at which those attending were asked to write things on post it notes. The initial questions were about the process not about what we wanted for the moors. SMP’s facilitator said very clearly this was not a consultation. When people had written on post it notes they could go home – they had been told there would be no summarising or rounding up later on. That was for another meeting several weeks later, a Feedback Session, at which there was a brief report to the much smaller assembled gathering identifying some of the things that had come out of the exercise. Then there was a half hearted groups session and my experience was perhaps typical – anyway it was much like others that the conservation industry sets up. Chairing left much to be desired and you didn’t know where the process was leading. The most important and challenging issues were downplayed to fill in time with those that nobody could seriously argue with but had the advantage of taking up valuable time.

Now what happens next, because each time there’s a meeting they give a sort of indication that more serious consultation will be coming later without being specific?
All is calculatedly hazy. One thing we have been told: that they intend now to write the Draft Masterplan. So they consider they have now done enough consultation or engagement or debate and discussion to be able to do this. But shouldn’t the vision that guides the way forward have had some public work done on it before the plan can be formed? Their technique is well established. Avoid at all costs a challenging situation at which there is well informed and well thought out examination of the issues and fill up the responses with general approval or neutral comments from people who are coming at the subject freshly or only after hearing their presentation. And the feedback from these sessions is filtered through their reports which cannot be scrutinised.

Once the Draft Masterplan is ready they take it to various venues during the summer: garden parties and church fetes and agricultural junkets at which they will arrive with a landrover and trailer adorned with posters telling us what a wonderful landscape this is and how much SMP value it. This will attract the attention of people at a loose end or bored with the other displays. A rehearsed but carefully informal chat will elicit general support from people who may never before have seriously considered the issues and will have no background experience of.

But will there be any kind of intelligent debate among the well-informed? My best guess is - not if they can help it.


Mark Fisher said...

Sorry to be a cynic, but this Masterplan is a front. There are two prizes that SMP are aiming for:
- the kudos from amongst the conservation industry that will come from creating a large grazing area as a voluntary Nature Improvement Area, an opportunity for "restoring and connecting nature on a significant scale", consistent with the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper. The expanded area is of course also consistent with the Living Landscapes approach of the Wildlife Trusts, of large areas under an environmental stewardship management that is predicated on our wild nature being required to exist alongside the cultural use of our landscapes. This ties into.......
-the whacking great Higher Level Stewardship payment that they will seek for this large grazed area. Someone in SMP will already be putting the Farm Environment Plan together as a prelude to applying for HLS, and over larding the landscape aspects of the moors that fit with the targets for HLS funding for that moorland area.

It would be a fool who thought that this consultation will make any difference to the way the Sheffield Moors will be managed. Everything that will happen on the moors will be dictated by the strands of the HLS agreement that SMP will sign up to. What it means is that local people will lose all say in what happens on the Sheffield Moors, as it will all be at the direction of Natural England as providers of the HLS money.

Blacka Blogger said...

But. Mark,surely we can trust these nice people who work in charities to be straighforward with us? They wouldn't be so devious as to lead us to believe we can influence what our public money goes towards ... and then go ahead with what they planned to do anyway? Surely not?