Chris and Hilary respond to Nigel Kays comments on their previous letter.

Sorry for another long letter about the Faversham Creek Neighbourhood Plan (NP), but we cannot let Nigel Kay’s response to our previous letter (Plan Is Not Being Written In Secret, Faversham News, January 3) go unchallenged.

We asked about flood risk. We got no answers, just patronising platitudes: don’t worry, it will all be taken care of.

The following have yet to be resolved: ‘flooding, contamination, silting … inaccuracies of the flood map … low-level pollution: a better quality of contamination samples and more definitive information about flooding is needed to inform thinking’ (NP workshop report, Nov 2012).

To qualify for government funding, the NP has to be inspected by an independent examiner before the end of March. We cannot see how these complex issues, unresolved after more than a year of planning, can be dealt with properly in the short time remaining.

In any case, this plan cannot proceed without compromising flood risk, because its starting point is building on Flood Zone 3B (functional flood plain, only water-compatible and essential infrastructure allowed –ie, not suitable for development).

Development is enabled by changing the designation to the less-restrictive Flood Zone 3A(i). The flood risk remains the same: this is just a device to pave the way for developers, as is openly admitted in the Fullwood Report (2010).

And Cllr Kay can’t understand why people are suspicious about the NP process? It’s because of tactics like this, a cynical determination to force through development regardless of the risks.

It’s also because the process has been dragging on since October 2011, costs have rocketed, nobody can see where the money is going or what we’ll get out of it, the plan (due in May 2012) has not even been started, and there is hardly any time left for meaningful consultation and review.

People get suspicious if they feel excluded. There has been just one open consultation, in May. The results were never published, and the only reported feedback is being misused to claim that the public wants mixed-use development on the creekside.

This is derived from a loaded question which presupposed that there had to be development and offered three choices (housing, employment, mixed use) – there were no other options which many people might have preferred, such as public amenity, open space, wharf, or ‘just leave it alone’.

Cllr Kay is complacent about transparency. The steering group minutes tell a different story. ‘Action: The Chairman will develop a communications strategy’ (Nov 2011). ‘No progress has been made on this item’ (Jun 2012). ‘Difficulty in managing communications and engagement … increasing concern about communications’ (Jul 2012). And again: ‘Action: to draw up a communications and engagement strategy’ (Aug 2012)

Now he says a strategy will be published ‘shortly’ – at least 15 months too late, and only ‘published’, we note, not put into practice.

The steering group shows no willingness to reach out to the public. Its primary motivation is to do the minimum necessary to satisfy the examiner – a ‘thread of meaningful consultation running through to show the Inspector’ (Jul 2012). It debates ‘what [the examiner] would consider to be sufficient’ and ‘whether the engagement to date would be sufficient to satisfy the independent examiner as well as the wider public’ (Aug/Sep 2012).

We can’t speak for the examiner, but as members of the wider public, the answer to that one would have to be ‘no’.

Communication is seen as strictly one-way, to ‘increase residents’ understanding of the process and proposals’ (Jul 2012) and present the plan in the best possible light: ‘the general message should be a positive one’ (Nov 2012).

The guidelines on NP development describe this kind of ‘talking at’ the public and ‘marketing’ the plan as bad practice. Good practice is continuous community engagement throughout the entire process – which shows up Cllr Kay’s excuse for lack of consultation (‘the plan has not yet been drafted so there is nothing to consult on yet’) in a very poor light.

The steering group needs to open up and stop talking only to the usual suspects. The general public has a right to know what’s happening – and might just have something constructive to contribute: useful expertise or influential contacts, fresh ideas or funding suggestions; not everyone thinks that planning gain from housing is the only game in town.

Have they heard of crowdsourcing? Have they thought of using new media creatively to get people interactively involved? There is only one mention of electronic media in the entire minutes – creation of a Facebook page – and even this seems not to have been done.

Cllr Kay, if you want the trust and support of the public, stop treating us as passive voting fodder. Give us opportunities for genuine participation in the development of this plan.

Chris Berry & Hilary Whelan Upper Brents, Faversham

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