I’m having a bit of a Talknormalish to-do at the moment with Crossrail, or at least one of its contractors. The people I speak to tell me they are listening, though we all know they’re just tolerating me until I go away. If you’ve tried to complain to anyone with a complaints process recently, you know what I mean.
It’s about what we think consultation means, and what they know it means.
To recap: I live in a flat that’s facing the Olympic site for London 2012. As you can imagine, I’m accustomed to construction noise by now.
From time to time someone pushes a leaflet through the letterbox which tells me the builders are going to lower the street outside my door by two metres (this actually happened), or turn off the sun for the weekend, or put up a giant animatronic statue of Lord Coe.
The contractors are careful to phrase the leaflets in town planning jargon so you actually know less when you finished than when you began. They put a badly-drawn map on the back that looks like it was printed with a potato.
This is what is known in the construction business as consultation. Originally from the word consult: to seek advice, or consider, in this context it means telling us what they’ve already decided to do, and have often already started. It’s like going for a consultation with the doctor and discovering that he already sawed your leg off in the waiting room.
It’s all change in Stratford because, as well as the Olympics, we’re getting Crossrail – a new railway to take some Londoners left to right, and others right to left. It will be finished in 2017, but the contractors need to put this bit of Crossrail in now or else they’ll have to dig the Olympics up again as soon as it’s finished; and by that time they’ll have planted flowers for the tourists.
Crossrail has decided to extend its work to the evening: between the hours of 0800 and 2200 Monday to Friday, and on Saturdays too. They’re do this with a machine that the leaflet calls a piling rig, which is a giant BANG BANG BANG hammer which BANG BANG BANG thumps metal things BANG BANG BANG repeatedly until your KABOOM head explodes. I know this, because they started doing the work the week before they consulted us about it.
I can’t wait to spend the long summer evenings relaxing while I listen to it in action, mixed only with the background noise of tired babies crying.
So, I complained to the consultation number on the letter, and a liaison person called me back. It went like this:
Me: Why weren’t any of us consulted about the extended hours?
Her: We got permission from the Newham Borough Council. We have the obligation to consult you by sending out the letter to say whats happening.
Me: That’s not a consultation then.
Her: We’re just the contractor.
Me: Still not a consultation though.
Her: Crossrail organised the consultation.
Her: Before the Crossrail bill went through parliament*.
Me: But your leaflet doesn’t even explain what’s happening.
Her: What do you mean?
Me: It’s in jargon. Half the people in Newham have English as a second language**. They don’t know what bored piling to form the abutments for the bridge is, so they can’t understand what you’re telling them.
Her: We don’t write the final leaflet. We’re just the contractor.
Me: (overexcited) And you wrote that the work would start at 0800 and finish at 2200, but then that there are one hour startup and shutdown periods, so that means the work will actually take place between 0700 and 2300.
Her: (bored now) I see.
Me: (frothing) And you say that you will keep noisy work to a minimum on Saturdays and in the evenings.
Her: (frosty) Yes.
Me: (triumphant) Ha! But that just means that you will be doing noisy work on Saturdays and in the evenings. This is supposed to be information, you’re not meant to be twisting the truth to make yourselves sound nice.
At this point she offered to ask the director of jargon dissemination (not his real job title) to call me so I can give him the benefit of my irritating advice on his choice of words. I’ll keep you in touch, but I won’t hold my breath.
* To be fair, this consultation did take place. Eight years ago.
** I’m exaggerating here. It’s 47 per cent.