Liberal Democrat councillors representing Lewes say they have lost confidence in the consultation process the district council is undertaking on the controversial subject of ‘special expenses’.
Micheal Turner, who leads the Lib Dem group on Lewes Town Council, has written to the Chief Executive of Lewes District Council, Jenny Rowlands, saying the wording and structure of the consultation questionnaire is “loaded” and smacks of “interviewer bias”.
‘Special expenses’ is the device by which the district council wants to charge for open spaces owned by the council. Its projections show that Lewes residents stand to be hit with an average £56 increase in council tax from next April, and Newhaven residents by £27. In his letter to Ms Rowlands, Cllr Turner says the Lib Dems were already concerned about the district council’s proposals to charge special expenses to Lewes residents for the upkeep of certain amenities, but wanted to at least await the outcome of the consultation process.
“However,” the letter says, “the loaded way in which the questions are worded and the amount of Yes/No answers for questions that may well have many nuances leads me to lose all confidence in this consultation exercise.
“Furthermore, I feel the questions betray a large element of what the research industry calls ‘interviewer bias’.”
Cllr Turner lists three examples of the Lib Dems’ concerns, including the “misleading” title of the consultation, and two questions he considers irrelevant and which lead him to suspect “an ulterior motive”.
He also criticises the council for doing the consultation only on-line, saying this cannot give an accurate view of the district’s population.
Cabinet papers confirm the Conservative-run district council wants to introduce special expenses in its 2014-15 budget. Council Leader James Page has said the average reduction in council tax across the district will be £24, but has not confirmed that bills will actually come down by that much.
A spokesperson said: “Lewes District Council spent time framing the consultation questions to make sure it promoted a good public response. We also deliberately avoided using technical legislative terms such as ‘special expenses’ that only finance and legal professionals at best might understand. However, mindful that some respondents may be interested in the legislative background we provided the reference material to the Cabinet report that commenced this process.
“The survey provides an opportunity for comments on questions 1 and 2, which many respondents have already taken up when submitting their response. Questions 4 and 5 were specific areas that Cabinet wished to consult upon and these can be found in the first and fifth bullet points of paragraph 6.7 of the Cabinet report.
“We are seeking the best possible response to this consultation by drawing every resident’s attention to it in the autumn edition of our District News magazine, as well as articles about the consultation appearing in local papers including the Sussex Express. We also provided a contact number, 01273 484141, for those who wish to respond other than via the website. The results of the survey, which has not been designed to deliver a specific result, as suggested by Micheal Turner, will be summarised in a report for the council’s Cabinet meeting on November 18 and this will be a public document. Residents have until October 31 to complete the survey online at www.lewes.gov.uk, or contact us on 01273 484141.”