Wellington Scoop

Politics, consultation, and the cycleway

The Wellington City Council has come under pressure over its consultation process on the Island Bay cycleway. Opponents are claiming that one of the options – simply preserving the status quo – wasn’t even on the table, despite the route from Island Bay to the city not having a history of cycling deaths or injuries.

Is the council simply starting with the conclusion they want, and then working backwards to the “consultation”? In the vernacular, are they actively screwing the scrum?

The traffic planning fraternity has a long and illustrious track record of this behaviour, of course – the recent defeat of the NZ Transport Agency at the hands of the Basin Reserve flyover Board of Inquiry is a prime example. The criticism levelled by the Board centred around their view that the Agency had not properly considered all the options. All that money and all that time and all that “consultation” appeared to be nothing more than a forced march to a foregone conclusion.

In microcosm, the city council’s approach to the cycleway seems to have some disturbing similarities to the mess that the Transport Agency got itself into. The first round of consultation presented two options – both of which assumed there will be a cycleway. It may well be that councillors think they have a mandate to push it through, based on the election results, and damn the torpedoes. Yet as the opponents of the Basin flyover clearly argued, “do nothing” is always a viable alternative that needs to be considered if the conclusion is to have any credibility. And it wasn’t on the table for Island Bay residents. This has clearly given rise to some opposition to the plan.

And it’s always fascinating to watch how the scientific method intersects with political reality.

The assumption most people have is that council officers will proceed from evidence to conclusion; that alternatives will be weighed and assessed, and that the right course of action will be soberly agreed upon after the facts are agreed. Yet in many cases, the information provided to ratepayers seems to be missing some salient items, the conclusions don’t always appear to be linked to the evidence, and the mechanism for getting from facts to outcomes seems to require an alarming degree of magical thinking.

The result is a loss of credibility for the process, and a sense that consultation is an exercise in smoke and mirrors before the inevitable conclusion is reached. At least, that’s the cynical view – which generally comes after people have had a few rounds of presenting logical arguments and inconvenient facts, and realising that they count for naught.

Which is where good old messy politics comes into play.

If the city council can’t be convinced by logic, then the only alternative is political opposition – at the public meetings, on the Internet and at the ballot box. There is clearly a gathering tide of it in Island Bay, and it will be interesting to see how hard the disaffected residents push councillors over the issue. Will this be the impetus for Paul Eagle to stand for mayor? If the cycleway is defeated, will Andy Foster lose the Transport portfolio? And how will Celia Wade-Brown – cycling advocate and Island Bay resident – manage to navigate the shoals between unhappy neighbours and assertive lobbyists?

There will undoubtedly be more rounds of consultation to come. Will local residents will see them as a way of shaping the cycleway, or just as a way of rubber stamping a design that’s been agreed behind closed doors? At this early stage, the political ramifications of how the process is handled have yet to make themselves felt around the council table.

Ian Apperley: Democracy in action