HEAD to Adam Smith Square and you can’t miss it. If you walk along one of the square’s paths, you will be forced to stop. A dull orange galvanise fence blocks your way. The fence is tall. You can’t see what it secures, or the nature of work that may or may not be taking place behind it.
This lack of transparency is emblematic of the all-too-often blocked, fraught and fettered consultation channels between residents and energetic city officials, between citizens and governments keen to ignore them.
It has been a month since Woodbrook residents protested to call for work at Adam Smith Square to be stopped.
Work was partially stopped by Minister of Housing and Urban Development Camille Robinson-Regis, who said a consultation meeting would be scheduled, but “upgrade work” on pavements, lighting and the “general streetscape” would nonetheless continue.
Up to last week, the representative for the area, Port of Spain South MP Keith Scotland, was still saying he was poised to schedule a meeting.
Both officials plainly believe residents are in the wrong.
Ms Robinson-Regis spoke of “some misunderstandings” and said she noted the protesters' concerns “despite having already held five consultations with stakeholders” (no details given).
Mr Scotland said the construction taking place – reportedly on a police post and public bathroom – was, in fact, not taking place. He also revealed the real attitude of the State to any further talks:
“There comes a time when consultations have to stop,” he said.
By any standards, listening is not easy. Far from being a passive activity, communications experts will tell you it requires active effort.
Yet it seems both the minister and the MP have adopted a view of the meaning of “consultation” that leaves it emptied of all its substance.
Consultations reportedly began in 2020, around the start of the pandemic, and were virtual.
Whatever took place previously – and we question how many Woodbrook residents might have been able to take part in online consultations at that point – it is plain enough what many residents want. They want their green space preserved, not impinged upon.
Too often, you get the feeling “consultation” is nothing more than a tiresome ritual so that officials can tick that box before pressing ahead with whatever they planned to do anyway.
The recent ruckus over concerns about the impact of Independence Day fireworks is a good example of well-founded concerns being inadequately addressed or completely ignored.
San Fernando mayor Junia Regrello was downright rude when people rightly observed that the half-way measure of using “noiseless” fireworks did not work.
Instead of viewing consultation as a chore, public officials should consider it an opportunity not to advance a set agenda, but to gain direction. They are there to serve the people, not impose their own will on them.