Maybe I’ve become more patient, more accepting, more tolerant, but I am finding that there is much to be encouraged about in how decisions are being made, particularly at a local level.
Perhaps it is as a result of the response to COVID. It seems there is a willingness to see and think about things differently.
The past six months have been revelatory in Cork. Things that weren’t before thought possible, or were subject to interminable gestation, were coming immediately into being.
Café society, outdoor dining, a largely pedestrianised City Centre have been knit together almost overnight. Kilometres of protected cycleways were marked out, seemingly out of nowhere. What has been most impressive about this new dispensation is the degree of public buy in that is being achieved.
When I first was elected I used to despair at what passed for public consultation in this country. Where it existed at all it was at best a venting exercise, where people were given the opportunity of stating concerns or misgivings, without ever having those concerns addressed.
For any consultation to be effective, it is important that those being consulted with believe that their views can change what is being proposed. Of equal importance, is that those who eventually decide realise that whatever is proposed may have to be changed.
One area where in Cork we have seen particular benefits of this approach, has been in approving new social housing projects. Over the past eighteen months since I have returned as a councillor, we have had around a dozen housing projects to consider. All have been approved and have been comprehensively approved.
All of these projects were significantly changed from their original proposal to what was eventually decided on. As current chair of our local area committee, I have had the opportunity of seeing through a project from its original design stage.
From my previous experience of public consultation I’ve learned that, too often, it has it proved to be a passive experience. Legislation requires the placing of advertisements in local newspapers then wait to see what response, if any, follows. Engagement has to coaxed. It can’t exist in a vacuum.
With this housing proposal I sought to provoke engagement. I copied the site map and delivered same to householders living around the site. This provoked about a dozen reactions. Some of which were more negative than I hoped. This brought about a virtual meeting between local residents, councillors and council officials. The concerns were real. They were about boundaries, about vantage points, about possible increased traffic levels.
It made formulating a scheme difficult but not impossible. The council officials have come back with a scheme that has buildings with less storeys, but the same number of units with a different configuration.
Having a consultation that has been deeper and more real, met with a willingness to consider and adopt change, is bringing about an acceptable and necessary housing scheme. All this without ever crossing the threshold of social housing, of its nature, being thought of as inherently wrong.
Experiences like this are still exceptions rather than the rule. That they are happening at all gives me great cause for hope.
Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator and serves as a Green Party councillor on Cork City Council. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle