Shire consultation needs to provide a place for residents to talk to each other, so communities can form their opinions.
First community meeting, Riddells Creek Movement Study
I went along to the first consultation session on the Riddells Creek Movement Study, 5th April. Getting the notice on a Friday for a meeting Tuesday evening the following week was a bit tight, but no problem, I didn’t have anything else that couldn’t wait.
I had in fact pitched the idea of planning for future traffic in Riddell to Council on behalf of Getting Riddell Right, Greening of Riddell and Landcare. Deep in the midst of covid, that Council meeting was online, a sea of small faces on the screen. I had 15 minutes but something hit the mark, and the good Councillors decided to get the admin to find $60k for a movement study.
Pedestrians are safe as they get ready to cross the Kilmore Road
I got enthusiastic and ran three Saturday morning walks for interested residents around the centre of Riddell, to think collectively about what was going on traffic-wise. I sent a summary to the project manager at the Shire, and he came out for a meeting face-to-face, which was good of him. And then I heard no more.
For a year.
Now it is Tuesday night in the Senior Citizens, with a new project manager, a clutch of MRSC staff, thirty interested citizens, and the task is to gather community opinion to guide the scope of a movement study that will look at current problems in the town.
Gathering opinion is a good idea, but forming an opinion comes first, and I want to argue that these meetings need to be a place where we can talk together and hear out different points of view, and eventually settle on the most important problems that need attention.
The Shire's failure to set up a place for discussion within the community leads to a suspicion that it is just going through the motions of consultation. The 'gather opinion and take it away' approach is experienced by residents (even if it isn't intended this way by staff) as 'you tell us and then we'll make the decisions.' Given past experience of the Shire here in Riddell, that easily becomes 'tell us what you think, and we'll do what we think is best.'
That's not a good way to start a conversation. Let's consider the first three questions put to us that evening, and some options.
Question 1. Our vision if traffic was handled better is a roundabout way to get at our values (cars first, or people first, or bikes, or safety, etc). But dear sincere engineer out the front: the start of a meeting about current traffic problems is not the right time to talk about vision. People want to get stuck into talking about the problems and let off a bit of steam. Get to the vision after we have looked closely at the problems, when have a bit of a sense of others in the room. We want to get to know each other a bit.
When you want us to look at the future, let's actually look at it by running a few alternate scenarios. 'Enlarge the shadow of the future', and we'll pretty quickly work out what future we want.
Question 2. What do we like about living in Riddell? Please! We've been asked this so many times. Go read what we said in the Riddells Creek Town Strategy.
Question 3. What problems need attention? At last, something to get our teeth into.
The map out the front is too small to see from the middle of the room, so why not do a quick poll of hot spots in the whole group, then invite us to split up and work with people concerned about the same hot spot. Give us some work to do:
a) what specifically is problematic here at this hot spot, and what are the downstream impacts?
b) what are the underlying drivers of what's happening?
c) what's our summary argument, to put to the whole group, as to why this problem needs attention?
This would make this a community meeting. I swear, when I next find myself in a Council consultation that presumes that the Shire is there to gather the opinion of individual residents and take it away to a back room and sort it into generalised statements and affix it to whatever they in their professional opinion decide is best, I swear I will let out a long, loud wail of frustration that will stop polite conversation and embarrass everyone, including me. My apologies in advance.
Here's our situation as a town: on the issue of traffic, we’re out of time. The only way we have half a chance of getting in front of the development pressures we face, and their ecological and social consequences, is by sitting down and drawing together our different, distinctive understandings of what is going on and what is needed, struggling toward some agreement, and using that to guide the services and planning the Shire commissions.
The purpose of face-to-face community consultation is not to gather opinion and take it away and sort it. That’s best done in (yet another) online survey. What you do face-to-face is set up a conversation between the residents of the town and politely step back. Be clear what you want to know, how our opinion will influence Shire decision making, then get out of the way and let us sort things out between ourselves.
Collectively, we know a lot about the town, and in this instance, a lot about car, bicycle and pedestrian movement. We live here. We have risked life and limb crossing Sutherlands Road to get to the supermarket. We tap our fingers on the steering wheel as we wait for the geese to cross, and wonder how many geese is enough for a small town.
We notice how long it takes us to get onto the Kilmore Road and wonder if it isn't the town-to-town traffic that makes it hard to slip out, as much as the traffic moving around Riddell. We look around for a park outside the Post Office and wonder, as we cruise to the end of the slip road, all the best spots taken, at how fast Riddells went from a place where it was dead easy to get a park outside the shop you were going to, to having to park and walk 100 metres.
Some of us have lived here for 30+ years. Many of us have lived in other places and moved to Riddells Creek to get away from the traffic nightmare caused by unconsidered growth. More than a few of those in the room that evening have day jobs as complex as traffic and pedestrian movement in a small rural town.
All we needed that Tuesday night was this instruction:
‘We're commissioning a study into the problems in current movement around Riddells. We want the study to focus on what matters most to you as residents. As a town, work out where the traffic/pedestrian/cycling hotspots are, and why each is important. Then we'll all listen to that.
We can handle it from there. We will very likely have different points of view, and disagree as much as we agree. That's the point of the discussion - we need to work things out as a town. The Shire can help create the time and place where we do that.
The flipside of this is also true: as a community, we need to stop waiting for the Shire to provide leadership on the development of the town. We initiate around specific interests - the Lions Park, Riddell Roundup and community management of the Neighbourhood House are all examples - but now we need to initiate discussion and action on the overall development of the town.
Ross Colliver Riddells Creek Landcare