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Jennings: 'People are tired of being duped by developers'

  • 7 Comments

Will Jennings, the organiser of the contest seeking rival ideas to Heatherwick Studios’ contentious Garden Bridge, on why people are ‘tired of being marketed to, rather than talked to’

Two quotes from the recent article, The battle of Norton Folgate: a victory for social media, resonate for me.

One, from Joe Morris of Duggan Morris, goes: ‘There is a rapaciousness which isn’t halting – a definite shift in attitude. There are people out there who are repeatedly sending out a negative message and there are things like Twitter to stir up the frenzy.’

The second was from Paul Williams of Stanton Williams: ‘What the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust showed at its exhibition [and subsequently online] was a misrepresentation; a distortion of our scheme that was tantamount to propaganda.’

People increasingly feel as if changes to the environment around them happen despite them and without considering them. When projects increasingly appear to pass through the planning process with little apparent regard for citizens’ comments and ignoring residents or action groups who had opposed them, is it any wonder people look to new forms of protest, solidarity and spreading their concerns?

And what of the many people that cannot easily negotiate the labyrinthine online planning portal? Or don’t know it exists? It can be a complicated process not only to find information, but then to register and communicate an opinion. Not everybody has the abilities or skills to engage on this level. The democratic process should be in place to work for all, not just those that understand the systems and how to play them.

Many large-scale projects make little effort at putting out the full information

Many large-scale projects make little effort at putting out the full information of their proposal. I set up A Folly For London largely because of the sheer numbers of people who didn’t know any details of the planned Garden Bridge beyond its being a crossing somewhere in central London, trees sitting on it and some sort of connection to Joanna Lumley. And this was after The Garden Bridge Trust had been through the planning process and proudly claimed they had fulfilled all public consultation required of them.

If something that big, with such an effect upon citizens financially and aesthetically, can pass through planning without people even knowing they have the right to oppose it, let alone understand the real information both for it and against it with which to make an informed opinion, then it is clear that the current system has flaws.

Morris completely misses the point about new forms of communication with the implication that Twitter was to blame for a ‘frenzy’. Firstly, what to him was a frenzy was to others mass public engagement in architecture and local environment. Secondly, Twitter and other social media is inert; it does not cause anything in itself, but if only one side of any discussion are using it to disseminate their views and raise awareness then of course it’s going to seem to him like a ‘frenzy’.

As for Stanton’s comments, it could be perceived as extremely disingenuous that a stakeholder in such a development project is accusing community groups of ‘propaganda’. People are tired of being duped by developers who promise more than is ever delivered for the local community and use heavy marketing, PR with spectacular renders to present their one-sided case. Whether it is the wind turbines on top of the Strata in Elephant and Castle, which were key to the building achieving planning but now do not turn, or the Sky Garden in the Walkie Talkie, which ended up entirely different to the romantic bucolic images used to sell the scheme to the local authority, and through that to the public, people are tired of being marketed to, rather than talked to.

People are tired of being marketed to, rather than talked to

It is something I am seeing hugely from the Garden Bridge Trust as they sell Londoners the dream of a ‘floating’ park over the Thames. In the planning documents there are numerous renders showing the scheme at different times of year and from different locations. They had to provide them as part of their planning application. Some show the Bridge in extremely bad light, especially the views from the South Bank at pedestrian eye level, which clearly show the impact upon the vantage towards the North Bank and St Paul’s. But the only renders issued to the media and widespread online are totally unreal and not representative in the slightest of how a member of the public would experience the project. There is the drone view, which, I suggest, is strategically positioned to provide as little information as possible in really understanding the true position of the bridge, whether that be the South Bank location, proximity to Waterloo Bridge or sense of scale. Then there are various ‘on-bridge’ images, all of which show empty open spaces with no more than seven people present. This on a bridge with capacity for 2,500 and queuing for the same again. These are misleading and inaccurate renders.

People are used to this misinformation and spin in developer-led schemes, but to have it for a project requiring an initial £60 million of public finance, along with such repercussions for loved views and loss of public space in London, is shameful.

A few weeks ago the Garden Bridge Trust commissioned a poll of views of their project. It was brief and asked extremely vague and somewhat meaningless questions. Before the question ‘To what extent do you support or oppose this proposal for a Garden Bridge?’ the 2,000 telephone interviewees were given a short statement to describe the bridge: ‘The Garden Bridge is a proposed pedestrian footbridge over the River Thames, from the top of Temple underground station on the North Bank to the South Bank, which will include gardens and trees.’

There is no attempt here to objectively describe the bridge. As has been well documented, there are many issues that any respondent may consider useful to know – public expense, private ownership, closure for corporate entertainment, loss of existing views and more – which are surely critical before giving a fully informed response to the question.

But, instead, we see headlines saying that ’80 per cent of Londoners support the Garden Bridge’ – spin and marketing to sell us a project we are already funding. Why treat citizens with such disrespect? Is the Garden Bridge Trust’s confidence in its own project so low that it fears telling people the positives and negatives?

Garden Bridge planting visuals

They don’t need to ‘sell’ the idea to us any more, seeing as it has passed through the democratic process of planning and they have proudly fulfilled their public consultation requirements. So, it’s worth looking at the data of their own recent poll, as there is one question asked which their PR exercise doesn’t mention. ‘Before now, had you ever heard of the Garden Bridge?’. 37 per cent of replies were ‘Never heard of’, 15 per cent ‘Heard of but know nothing about’ and a further 38 per cent replying ‘Heard of and know a little about’. If 52 per cent of people know next to nothing about it then the ‘widespread public consultation’ by the Garden Bridge Trust and the planning process has clearly failed.

Twitter, blogs and local campaign groups offer valuable connections to create an engaged audience

Most people do not go trawling local authority websites to discover new planning applications. Most do not even notice signs pinned to lampposts near proposed sites. We also cannot rely on a neutral and informative local press – the Evening Standard should be the go-to place for Londoners to really understand the issues with the city and, for instance, should be impartially reporting on positives and negatives of the Garden Bridge. But, instead it is little more than a PR machine for the political allegiances and opinions of its owner. So, in this connected world, media like Twitter, blogs and local campaign groups offer valuable connections and communications to create an engaged audience who want to understand what is happening in the places they live.

Possibly the very last thing certain organisations want – whether that be authorities or developers – is an engaged audience. People asking questions, entering into a dialogue and trying to understand issues deeper than the swish render and meaningless statements only slow down the process and stop their plans becoming reality. And so we see the games and devices of appearing to engage their audience, with statements of fulfilling all required public consultation without considering if it is genuinely sufficient or working, of deceptive polls and misleading press releases.

No wonder people have had enough

No wonder people have had enough. No wonder that people are using the new networks afforded by technology to create their own solidarity and dissemination of information. This is not ‘propaganda’; it is democracy in action, and it is fundamental in sustaining an engaged democracy who are part of the conversation relating to how their environment is affected and not just annoyances in the way of a grand vision.

Will Jennings is an artist and the organiser of the Garden Bridge protest ‘project’ A Folly For London

Official response from The Garden Bridge Trust:

Will Jennings’s suggestion that the Garden Bridge Trust has not done enough public consultation about its plans is nonsense.  We have done a huge amount of consultation, and this is an ongoing process.  We want the local community to help shape our plans and we want their feedback.

We are currently consulting on our plans for the operation of the Garden Bridge.  We have just held three drop in sessions and a Community Forum is taking place shortly.

People are encouraged to get in touch with us via e-mail, by using our online questionnaire, coming to one of our consultation drop-in events and using the freepost questionnaire on one of our leaflets which have been extensively distributed to residents and businesses in Lambeth and Westminster.

Earlier this summer, we consulted about our construction plans.  Once again, there were drop in-sessions held in June, dates and times were put on our website and published in a leaflet distributed local and on social media, and a community forum was held in July.

We carried out extensive consultation before submitting our planning application to Lambeth and Westminster City Councils with 2,451 responses in all. Consultation undertaken prior to the planning application submission found high levels of support. Additional events in Lambeth post planning submission included public meetings, drop-in sessions and engaging with community and local interest groups. We also ran a market stall for several days last summer in The Cut giving out information and answering questions.

We will carry on consulting on all aspects of our plans in the run-up to the opening of the Bridge in 2018, and we will be seeking views on the design of the South Landing building in the next few weeks

.

As with any development, the images we have produced are for illustrative purposes designed to give an overview of the setting of the Bridge.  We will be issuing more images in the future showing different facets of it.

The Garden Bridge Trust commissioned the highly respected independent research company ComRes to conduct our recent poll research into attitudes towards the Bridge.  They designed the questions about the Bridge not to be biased or leading in any way.  The questions asked were to gauge front-of-mind support and opposition to the Bridge as well as priorities for any development of a footbridge in the area.

The questions did not address the potential advantages nor the potential disadvantages of the bridge. The only information provided in the question about the Bridge was a neutral description of the bridge.  This is standard practice for any polls undertaken.

Full details of our consultation process are available on our website: www.gardenbridge.london/consultation

Bee Emmott, executive director of the Garden Bridge Trust

  • 7 Comments

Readers' comments (7)

  • J MORRIS

    Will Jennings' article ('People are tired of being duped by developers'. AJ 24.08.15) raises many pertinent issues which we as citizens of a major metropolis like London have to encounter on an almost daily basis. Spin. Jennings talks about people not wanting to be lied to. He states that we should be seeking to work within a democratic process which '...should be in place to work for all, not just those that understand the systems and how to play them.'

    I couldn't agree more.

    Having worked as a professional within the construction industry in London for fast approaching two decades, I have spent a large proportion of it increasingly involved in critical dialogue regarding the evolution of our city fabric with possibly thousands of individuals. I spend almost each week presenting ideas to clients, local authority planning and policy officers, design review panels at both a local and national level, local action groups, resident associations, pupils and students, user-groups and stakeholders, businesses, neighbours and so forth...and in return spend a significant portion of my working life considering 'critical' feedback and adapting the thoughts and ideas of my practice in response.

    Being able to exchange 'directly' with those who might be either affected or simply interested is clearly important. Jennings suggests that '…possibly the very last thing certain organisations want is an engaged audience. People asking questions, entering into a dialogue'. This sweeping statement is massively dismissive and overly general; public engagement is necessary, encouraged and is not without its complexities.

    As an often used term suggests, getting the horse to water is the first challenge, but you can't necessarily get it to drink. Meaning, public engagement needs to be a two way exchange where critical and objective exchange can result in enhanced outcomes.

    In the time our practice, alongside several others, have been involved in one project Jennings refers to (Norton Folgate) the project team actively engaged in several hundreds of hours of community engagement over two years through exhibitions (on and off site), focus group presentations and workshops, one to one meetings and drop in sessions, letters and emails. In fact, we seemed to be putting together material for these sessions almost weekly at points. During this period of time various aspects of the project evolved. In many cases resulting in parts of the scheme, at varying times, transforming from the original concepts to take into account public reaction and perception.

    Could one call this active and productive mass engagement? Possibly. Probably.

    The process of 'design strategy', 'design reflection' and 'design evolution' (i.e. design iteration) takes time and is complex. Sedimenting ideas such that integrity remains a constant is harder still. And when engaged in a project who's starting point is one of contention and notoriety (I refer to British Lands original plans for Norton Folgate in the 1970's) you are always working against a stream of negative consciousness...making things harder still.

    The AJ article (24.08.15) 'Tower Hamlets’ own planners have said it would be ‘challenging’ to defend the council’s decision to reject plans for Norton Folgate' bears the evidence of the complexity of this scheme which has, subsequently, been wholly misunderstood by the planning committee which represents (through the democratic process), the public it serves, despite the solid efforts we have extolled to openly exchange the macro and micro detail of the project. Which returns me to Jennings accusation (quoted from AJ Article 'The Battle of Norton Folgate'. AJ 06.08.15) that I may have completely '...missed the point about new forms of communication' in reference to the social media campaign stirred up by the #SaveNortonFolgate campaign.

    It is true that Twitter (and similar media platforms) are perhaps 'inert' but the implied strategy for those wanting to 'abuse' it, is that it is easy to elicit misrepresentation for one’s own gains. In the case of Norton Folgate, this means the ease of achieving a widespread negative character dissemination of your opponent through spin doctoring. The campaigners, led by a nationally revered historian and TV personality, continually layered their campaign of opposition with (at best) bent truths and (in many cases) misrepresentation bordering on lies.

    So, are we to assume this latter approach is of benefit to the local residents and businesses affected. Does this carpet bombing of deception justify the means. I don't think so. And as Jennings and I both agree, we should be seeking to work within a democratic process which works for all...'not just those that understand the systems and how to play them.'

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  • Good points made.

    As tweeted by one-world design architects on July 29th 'With new media & immediate detailed info the days of PR machines and possibly contrived polls/ surveys are over'.

    I still contest that for at least £64,000,000 of our money we should have a public right of way - if not why not? The GBT simply don't answer.

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  • The point is well made. It comes as no surprise that the Garden Bridge Trust doesn’t want Londoners to know the full facts but when the sources that Londoners rely on like the Standard conceal the truth then new media is our only hope. Earlier this year this “privately funded” project was about to implode because they didn’t have an underwriter for the maintenance costs and it was saved at the last moment by Mayor Johnson stumping up public funds to the tune of three million a year for the purpose. None of this was reported in the Standard. It then managed to use as the basis of a fulsomely supportive editorial the highly suspect conclusions of the so-called survey of Londoners’ views of the project. And while it consistently acts as a PR arm of the Trust, getting its writers to big up the project at every opportunity, the Standard fails to remind its readers that its proprietor is one of the trustees.

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  • I wonder if we've reached 'the point of no return' on the 'garden bridge'?
    Whether all the high profile participants - from Joanna Lumley through politicians, newspaper proprietors, nameless (?) financiers with deep pockets and various members of the design professions - are going to have to live with the consequences of their high-handed and anti-democratic imposition on us of this monumental bit of self indulgence.
    It'll be constructed at a time of drastic and sometimes very damaging cuts in public expenditure, but will rely on public finance to make it possible.
    There are some architects among the designers, and they must be very hungry for work to get involved in this most conceited and dishonest example of public-private partnerships.

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  • Chris Rogers

    I entirely agree with the thrust of this piece but a few things are worth noting. I don’t think it’s fair to describe the online planning portal as either “labyrinthine” or “complicated”; every single planning authority in the country puts online every document for every application - all you need do is google planning and the name of the council. Yes, you do need to know the site address ideally or the ref number, and know that the design and access statement is a good place to start, but you can then submit an online comment which will be considered. Some councils, including mine, have a registration facility so you are automatically notified of new, local applications but since many of us will also want to know about other places, i.e. where we work, there could usefully be a single site for that. But it’s worth knowing the Corporation of London publishes every new application in summary in the Evening Standard each Tuesday.

    But maybe you DO need to notice signs the pinned to lampposts near proposed sites, as I do, since whilst it’s arguably a Catch-22, often people simply aren’t interested in planning, even big projects. Trust me, I’ve seen it.

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  • Two years ago Bennetts Associates was involved in a similar project in Spitalfields and we came across the same difficulty of opposition groups, supporter groups, mis-information and consultation, all of which achieved precious little. Tower Hamlets Council refused planning permission against officers' advice and it was 'called in' by Boris Johnson who gave consent. The problem with campaigners who find a voice through the internet is knowing who they really do represent. We came to the view that, whilst some people had a genuine reason to dislike aspects of our scheme, many others actually supported it but didn't have the organisation to express those views (other than to the planning authority). The planning policies for the site, with which we complied, had of course been arrived at democratically through the decisions of councillors who had been elected for the purpose. By contrast, there were several local community groups (including the one led by Dan Cruickshank) who seemed to be saying different things. Twitter and online petitions are a really significant development in terms of local expression of opinion but (a) they are open to gross misrepresentations and (b) there is no way of knowing if the opinions are truly representative of the community as a whole.

    We always engage in what we hope is proper consultation but when the sides are as opposed as they are in Spitalfields it is well nigh impossible to avoid confrontation. The very best schemes do not come out of that process.

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  • This is a great and timely piece as London prepares to build a substantial amount more housing over the next 20 years. The only reason people 'aren't interested' is because they feel they have no influence - it's Catch 22. I think people could be interested. I have seen public engagement in Helsinki: probably not perfect, but so much better than London. We need more physical spaces for engagement about development, with local and regional authorities very present in that, where people can physically see what's coming over the horizon and get excited about it (in either direction!) The NLA does a great job in London but it's only a start: more places are needed in more local, populous spots. For those who might say: 'but what would this cost?', think about how much all the delay and rebuttals and appeals cost. My blog post on this topic is at http://bennieontheloose.com/helsinki-civic-dialogue

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