False start

José I. Duarte Economist The recent argument surrounding the height of buildings in the Fisherman’s Wharf area is a notable illustration of the uses and misuses of public consultation and the art of obfuscation. Regardless of one’s opinion about the specific issue, there is a lot that can be learnt from the incident. There were two rounds of consultation: that, alone, should have flagged that something big was brewing. The height limits of buildings in the area along the coast and the Guia Hill is bound to be debated and to raise concerns. Previous polemics – and not few decisions – have, in the eyes of many, de-characterised the city and complicated the management of its inner spaces and urban services. Increased congestion in the flows of people, vehicles and goods, and additional environmental impacts are keenly felt. One would expect the administration to be on a sure footing when allowing the construction of 90m-high buildings, increased from the 60 metres initially planned. How was the change of mind explained? It was the result of the consultation process, we are told, as if that explained it all. It would be interesting to clarify how this specific change resulted from that consultation process. Did the terms of the consultation specifically ask for an expression of opinion on that topic? Did participants hear about the pros and cons of the various alternatives? Was a reduction of height also an available choice? Was it clear why a second round of consultation was required and which changes were introduced between each of them? So many questions! A consultation process is a consultation process, not a decision process. It is one of the tools that can be used to underpin and improve the decision process – but this belongs to the administration. If the outcomes of the consultation process are presented as the main cornerstone of the decision taken, then possibly the public services involved should come clean about all the details. Just adding to that ‘explanation’ that there were many more opinions received (on that specific topic or just overall?) than usual is an attempt to give a varnish of popular legitimacy to the decision. But that is not how political will is formed in our political system – and it is an unwise, if not dangerous, argument to use (but that is another subject). To ‘reinforce’ the argument saying the law is very ‘versatile’ (meaning: it is there just to make-believe, we can do whatever we want?) and that in the past, in other cases, changes had been introduced to the original plans, does not add to our understanding, does not explain why and how this decision came about. At best, it just shows a bad conscience; at worst, it is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the argument. This is not a good start for an administration that has just promised to clean up the mess in the construction sector and bring rigor to urban planning.