People filling out consultation forms for Northampton’s Abington Street revamp ‘may not have been aware of what council was planning’, says audit report

Abington Street reopened to traffic in December 2014. The move, which cost �3 million, is predicted to cost the borough council a further �3 million in interest repayments.
Abington Street reopened to traffic in December 2014. The move, which cost �3 million, is predicted to cost the borough council a further �3 million in interest repayments.

Aspects of Northampton Borough Council’s consultation on opening Abington Street up to cars were not “well managed”, according to a report on the £3 million scheme.

The council’s external auditor KPMG, made the finding in a response to a complaint from a local resident, who had claimed the authority’s decision to de-pedestrianise the town’s main shopping street was “irrational.”

The auditor said the council decision was “lawful,” but concluded many who filled in online and paper consultations might not have been aware exactly what the council was proposing to do.

“We do accept that aspects of the process, the way the results and aim of the consultation were reported to cabinet in December 2013 and the length of time taken to publish the results, could have been better managed,” the report states.

And it adds that the council, during the consultation phase and subsequent decision to press on with the plans, did not provide analysis of how opening Abington Street to traffic would be of benefit.

The KPMG report states: “The borough council has not produced any analysis of the projected impact of de-pedestrianisation elsewhere to support its view, but it did provide a rationale of how it felt the proposals would increase activity in the town centre and Abington Street.”

Much of the report’s criticism is focused on how the 2013 online consultation posed a general question asking for townspeople’s “views” on a scheme to de-pedestrianise Abington Street.

Yet when The council’s cabinet was asked to decide on whether to go ahead with the scheme in December 2013, the accompanying document explained that the aim of the exercise was to gain comments on “how” rather than “whether” the scheme should go ahead.

A total of 328 residential properties, including 40 businesses, were sent letters encouraging them to take part in the consultation.

But KPMG said the report summarising the results of the consultation was not made available to the public until five months after the consultation period had ended.

Labour group leader at the council, Councillor Danielle Stone, (Lab, Castle) said the Abington Street scheme was little more than a “vanity project” by the previous Tory administration.

On the report’s findings the opposition leader said: “Most city and town centres have pedestrianised areas and so Northampton must be one of the very few places going backwards.

“I am pleased the external auditor has agreed that there were problems with the consultation. In addition, they recognise that the borough council’s claim it would increase footfall was not backed up by evidence.”

Although KPMG makes it clear the council had no statutory duty to carry out a consultation on the proposals, it did make recommendations on how the council should consult in future.

Among them it said the authority should ensure the results of “key decisions” are published at the time the decision is made and ensure the “rationale and benefits” of such schemes are set out more comprehensively in cabinet reports to allow the public to fully understand them.

Councillor Mary Markham, leader of Northampton Borough Council said: “We are always looking to improve our processes and will take the auditor’s views on board when planning future consultations.”