Norfolk County Council (NCC) wants to build an incinerator (for domestic rubbish) just outside Kings Lynn. The EDP has written quite a few articles on the subject and the local district council has even balloted residents on the issue – perhaps unsurprisingly those residents voted overwhelmingly No! (Despite this NCC has apparently signed off on the project.)
Now I don’t want to get into the detail of the debate – I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong – and I don’t know much about incinerators or other forms of waste disposal. My concern is the value of that vote – and all votes like it.
You may think it was a good example of local democracy in action – and to a point I agree with you. Politicians should consult the people and we should definitely have more local and national debates like this. But they should also be honest about the complexity of the issues. In politics – as in life – many of the big decisions involve compromise, trade-offs between cost and convenience, they rarely come down to simple yes and no choices.
From what I can gather, West Norfolk District Council just asked residents:
“Do you support the construction of a mass burn municipal waste incinerator on the Willows Business Park, Saddlebow, King’s Lynn?”
Now that might strike you as a good question – one that gives a clear answer. But I’m not convinced it really works as a democratic tool because it does not ask people to vote for an alternative. So residents can happily vote No in protest, without having to make any hard choices about how the council should deal with their rubbish.
A more detailed, and to my mind honest, question might go something like this:
We have to dispose of X tons of rubbish every year. Currently most of that goes to landfill, but the tax on sites is set to increase by £££ over the coming years. We therefore need to consider alternatives and select one that does the least damage to the environment, while being affordable and efficient. Whatever solution you choose is likely to affect your council tax, your refuse collection services and your local environment. Here are some alternatives – please rate them for desirability.
- Reduce, reuse and recycle… here are the arguments for and against from the various interested parties – cost to you £x a year, affect on services etc.
- Landfill – arguments – costs etc.
- Incinerator – arguments – costs etc.
- Any other alternatives to the above…(assuming there are any serious commercial contenders).
OK – not a perfect question – it’s not meant to be – rather I am simply trying to show that the real question is far more complex than the one put to the voters. To pretend otherwise is to demean the democratic process and to patronise the voters (which may be the intention but that doesn’t make it right). Note: I suspect NCC will use an argument like this to discredit the vote in any court case challenging their decision.
I have a similar problem with the forthcoming vote on AV, which will apparently just ask us whether we want to change to AV or stick with FPTP (I haven’t made up my mind). Yet again, this seems to completely gloss over the complexity of the argument (including the fact that no voting system is completely fair). It pretends to give you choice but of such as limited range as to be meaningless. Surely if we are to vote on changing our voting system we should choose from a number of options after considered debate (not party political haranguing)?
Likewise, the argument over government spending (cuts) the deficit, the budget, the national debt seems to have degenerate into yes or no territory: Yes – all cuts good all borrowing bad, No – all cuts bad, all tax rises good. Missing from all this seems to be a much bigger debate on the structure of government spending, taxation and borrowing.
Maybe it’s too much to ask in this age of glib one liners and news-flash policy making that we have proper arguments – not the five-minute sort that simply turn into yes/no shouting matches but sensible debates that help people weigh-up the issues and seek understanding before being asked to choose. And perhaps all such votes should include the option: ‘Think again!’
Any thoughts? If so, add them below and feel free to share.