South Ribble Council has sought to clarify its relationship with the organisation which designed a public consultation over the future of the borough’s green spaces - after it emerged that the company is part of a housing association.
The authority says that its on-going ‘green links’ engagement events are being run “exclusively” by council officers.
The month-long series of workshops are based on the “Planning for Real” concept - the trademark of an organisation going by the same name. Both are part of the Accord Group, a social housing and healthcare provider.
The consultation process is focusing on the borough’s plan to better connect its parks and green spaces. But it is also exploring the future of five small open spaces which have been the subject of public speculation since the authority sent letters to residents late last year telling them that “all appropriate uses” for the sites were being considered.
One of those possible uses was to address “the gap in the number of affordable homes” in the area.
The council’s cabinet member for regeneration, Phil Smith, told a full council meeting last month that he was unaware of the link between the consultation concept and the social housing company, but admitted that it would make him “uncomfortable”.
Responding to confirmation of the connection by the Lancashire Post, Cllr Smith said that the authority was using ‘Planning for Real’ “as a tool to effectively interact and collaborate with our residents to gain their views on their local areas”.
“Each workshop is facilitated exclusively by council officers. In preparation for the consultation workshops, council officers completed training provided by representatives from ‘Planning for Real’ to ensure the approach is used effectively.
“The council is not directly affiliated with the ‘Planning for Real’ organisation nor any of their partner organisations,” Cllr Smith said.
One resident who attended a workshop about the area known as Strawberry Valley, on Bent Lane in Leyland, praised the process for “working very well” - but was unsettled by the use of a third party to facilitate it.
“Having worked with consultants myself in the past, they usually have a preferred outcome to whatever they are advising on,” Martin Stringfellow said.
But Planning for Real boss Margaret Wilkinson said the organisation had “no on-going role” with the council and that the approach in which they had trained the authority’s staff was designed to give residents ”a real voice”.
“I have been delivering Planning for Real engagement processes for over 30 years and at the forefront has been supporting local residents...not only in putting their views forward but also being involved in the decision-making process and helping to influence change in their neighbourhood.
“I have never, as a consultant, ever gone in with my own agenda or with a preferred outcome in mind,” Ms. Wilkinson said.
However, Labour opposition councillor Matthew Tomlinson - who highlighted the housing association connection in the chamber at South Ribble last month - once again condemned a decision taken at a private session of cabinet last September to “approve the release of three sites to undertake immediate site investigations for residential development”.
“Since then we’ve heard a series of contradictory statements coming out of the Civic Centre which have left residents in a real state of confusion,” Cllr Tomlinson said.
“The news that they have been using an organisation connected to a housing company to facilitate these long overdue events will only add to the sense of uncertainty and suspicion.
“The whole episode has been handled with a staggering cocktail of arrogance and incompetence. Our residents deserve better,” he added.
The council insists that no decisions were taken about the three locations discussed in cabinet - Balcarres Green, Leyland, Bridge Road/Todd Lane, Lostock Hall and Kingsfold Drive, Penwortham - other than to consult over their future use.
Residents in the vicinity of each of those areas received a consultation letter, along with two others - Bent Lane in Leyland and the former McKenzie Arms site in Bamber Bridge - in December.
Cllr Smith says feedback from the consultation events which have taken place to date shows that residents have found the exercise “positive, informative and interactive”.
“The consultation events have been a huge success so far, seeing hundreds of local residents attending to share their views on our new Health, Wellbeing and Leisure approaches as part of our Green Links programme - and we also have an online survey which launched earlier this week.
“It’s great to see so many people involved and we’d love to see even more people take part,” Cllr Smith said.
HAVE YOUR SAY
The consultation closes on 1st April. The remaining events take place at:
Lostock Hall Library, Wednesday 20 March, 5pm-7pm
Bamber Bridge Methodist Church, Thursday 21st March, 6pm-8pm
Penwortham Community Centre, Tuesday 26th March, 6pm-8pm
Bamber Bridge Leisure Centre, Wednesday 27th March, 4-8pm
The online consultation can be found at: www.southribble.gov.uk/greenlinks