In recent years, the window in which it is acceptable for consultations to take place has got progressively smaller.
For some time, we’ve been avoiding August, as well as the weeks immediately around Christmas. While this could be frustrating, it left a good chunk of the year free to consult in.
This chunk has, however, been shrinking. The August ‘embargo’ has extended considerably. It’s become no consultation during any school holidays and half terms – and the Christmas and New Year dead period now begins at the end of November and runs to mid-January!
Add to this Bank Holidays and religious festivals, and it’s beginning to feel as if a majority of the year is a no go period for consultations.
But is this really right? Is a consultation that takes place predominantly in August any less valid than a June or February consultation?
Our experience this year is that, if well publicised and appropriately paced, consultations held in August can be extremely successful.
Our work for Lewisham Gateway, one of London’s largest regeneration projects, is a case in point.
External factors dictated that we had to consult on a major masterplan amendment this August. When we announced the consultation, some immediately branded it a ‘sham’, claiming everyone would be away.
However, everyone isn’t away. Only a lucky few go away for more than two weeks, so we made sure we had a good spread of events repeated over a number of weeks. And, of course, online participation opportunities were also offered.
This consultation is just finishing and more people participated – in more depth – than they did for a similar consultation last year, held outside the holiday season.
Lewisham Gateway is not an isolated example. This summer we’ve run several consultations. Each has prompted a debate about whether interest levels and participation might suffer. In no case is there any evidence that they have.
The perception of when consultations should be held appears to have been ‘caught up’ in a general societal trend towards having more time off. If people are having time off, they won’t want to take part in a consultation, goes the argument.
However, our experience suggests the opposite could to be true. With more time on their hands, some people may actually be happy to have something to do!
So, get your publicity and pacing right and a consultation run during the traditional ‘months to be avoided’, may actually be more, or at least just as, effective as any other.