Airport consulations and the ladder of participation

Over the last few weeks there has been a series of consultations around Luton and the surrounding towns, showcasing the plans for expanding Luton Airport. I’ve been to several now, first to observe, then to protest. One of the frustrating things about the events is that all the staff in the room are consultants. They are brought it to run the public events and talk visitors through the plans. They are polite and professional, but they’re not the decision makers.

Neither are they recording complaints or protests. Nobody is taking notes as people voice their objections or point out the many problems with the proposal to double the number of passengers. Opinions are being gathered through a very long survey, but the questions are very limited. It is all about how the airport should grow. There is no way to raise a concern about the idea of growth itself.

This is a consultation that falls squarely in the tokenism segment of Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of participation‘.

Working as a researcher for the US Department of Housing, Education and Welfare, Arnstein developed a theory around participative decision making, and expressed it as a ladder. It’s proved an influential idea, whether we’re talking about planning developments, involving ethnic minorities in politics, or making decisions about medical care.

At the bottom you have no citizens with no power. If there is any engagement at all, it is to manipulate people into agreement through PR. Just up from that comes ‘informing’, where the flow of information is entirely one way – ‘here’s what we’re doing, consider yourself notified’. Consultation considers citizen’s views, and ‘placation’ asks their advice, but without surrendering any of the power. The authorities do not need to listen to what they hear.

At the top of the ladder comes the more democratic processes of partnership, delegated power and even empowered citizens driving the process themselves.

The upper reaches of this ladder are rare. In planning, they turn up in unusual projects such as Engie’s developments, or the processes described in Charles Campion’s book 20/20 Visions. You might find them in co-production models of government services. In politics, ‘top of the ladder’ ideas would include citizen’s assemblies.

I think that improving participation is one of the most promising ways of delivering higher quality of life without requiring further economic growth. It’s a theme in my book The Economics of Arrival (co-authored with Katherine Trebeck) and something we should be pursue in our politics. Giving citizens more of a say in the things that affect them would refresh our democracy and improve our wellbeing. And it can start as locally as you like.

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