I bet my former colleague Simon Marsh had a bit of a busy day yesterday – and probably the day before too.
The Daily Telegraph published an opinion piece by Simon telling of his disappointment in the way that the government’s planning reforms have turned out. Not much news there you might say as that is the polite version of what every environmental NGO seems to be saying in one way or another. But Simon’s views are more interesting than most as he was on a group of four who advised the Minister Greg Clark on how to revise the planning system.
Now the Telegraph describes Simon as one of the ‘architects’ of the new planning proposals who has ‘turned his back’ on the policy. Dramatic stuff!
But it’s always wise to read the article itself rather than the journalists’ description of it. Simon’s piece is hard-hitting (good for him!) but balanced. And it is written by a professional planner and a nature conservationist. Simon points out that there are some good things in the document (which changed in government hands after his input was finished) but also that it raises some real worries (over SSSIs, for example) and primarily the grave concern over the impact of a presumption in favour of sustainable development.
Reading the Telegraph you almost get the impression that Simon has ratted on his own work but that is very far from the truth.
This is a classic case of inside-track advocacy. A person, like Simon, who is a respected expert and who works for an organisation potentially critical of government, like the RSPB, is asked to play a part in drafting policy. They are part of a wider group, in this case involving local authority, building and development representatives. Except, it is made very clear to you, and it is part of the deal, that you are not a representative of your organisation or the sector from which you come, you are there as an expert individual. This means that you don’t have to stick to your employer’s line, you can speak completely openly and maybe even accept that the ‘other’ side has a few good points. And you don’t have to ask all the other organisations in your sector what they think and chip in their views. That’s the deal.
Now, in practice, people do tend to represent the views of their organisations, but that’s largely because people working for NGOs tend to believe in what they are doing – that’s why they are working for NGOs. And people often have a broader chat to colleagues in other organisations to get their views. But you aren’t there faithfully to represent anyone – you are there as an individual.
But that’s what government says when you go into a group like this. When you come out the other side then that tends to change. Suddenly government Ministers say ‘Well the RSPB was represented’ in order to bat back criticisms from other organisations, and ‘Well you were represented’ when your own organisation takes a view. It’s par for the course and I hear, from other NGOs, that that is what CLG Ministers have been saying over the last few days. Often, if you have played your part in helping government, government wants your help in carrying the can – and that’s fair where you had a very powerful say, were listened to and accept the report output pretty much completely. But not if you were ignored and don’t agree. And it’s never cut and dried – you will have won some arguments and lost others. In those circumstances you have to decide whether or not to bite government on the bum and that’s clearly what Simon and the RSPB have decided to do.
And I think they are right to do so. There has to be a way that a respected expert, can inflict some political pain when government ignores their views. And putting your hand up and saying ‘Count me out’ is one way of doing that.
Expert organisations, and the RSPB is certainly expert across a whole range of issues, are often brought inside government’s thinking, asked to contribute, told they have made a huge difference, offered further influence, asked not to rock the boat and that’s all part of the game. You have to judge when to roar.
Simon is no mouse, but I wanted to make the point that rats don’t roar. And when the RSPB sees enough problems with where government is that it roars then it would be wise for government to take heed because it’s not a habitual roarer but it does have teeth and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.