Doubts cast over Halifax library survey

Anne Kirker campaigner with a Don't Bulldoze Our Library petition.
Anne Kirker campaigner with a Don't Bulldoze Our Library petition.

THE organisation opposed to the construction of a new library in Halifax has complained to the Local Government Ombudsman about the council’s latest consultation exercise.

The coordinator of the Don’t Bulldoze Our Library Campaign, Anne Kirker, said: “If ever anybody wondered what prompted Mark Twain to coin the phrase Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics, look no further than the results just published of the independent consultation carried out by Ipsos MORI into the future of Halifax Town Centre.

“Twain’s implication is that statistics represent a sophisticated way of lying but it is not the numbers that lie, but the interpretation placed on them by the reader. And one virtue of statisticians is that they feel honour bound to tell you how they processed the data and so you can work out where the flaws are.

“Before we get to the numbers, however, we need to go back to the questionnaire. DBOL has argued all along that it was cleverly designed, along with the supporting paperwork, to produce the result the Cabinet wanted. We have raised our concerns in a formal complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman and this complaint is under investigation.

“The questionnaire starts with a string of questions about motherhood and apple pie. Of course we all want a better town centre, better shops, better access, better transport, better ... , better . . . The lie is that these objectives cannot be met without moving the CL&A.

“The questionnaire offered us two Options – A: Clear the Northgate Site (including the CL&A) and have a bright new retail development; B: Retain the CL&A with a green space in place of Northgate House. The elephant in the room, or rather, not in the questionnaire, was Option C: Build a bright new retail development around the existing CL&A. This is the option that would have had the greatest support, which is why it was omitted.

“Of course, implementing Option B would more than likely lead to development of the site between the Library and the Bus Station but this vision was cynically manipulated by the Cabinet, with the idea of the green space conjured up deliberately to suggest the hole that has disfigured Bradford for 12 years. What is not spelt out either is that Option A could just as easily result in a (bigger) black hole, or green space, if no developer comes forward to build new shops on the site. The Cabinet is hell bent on taking a massive gamble on the future of our town. With reports just in of the demise of Comet, to add to the growing list of retail closures across the UK, when will they take their heads out of the sand?

“Instead of option C, we were offered “Neither of These”, a deliberately negative phrase that leaves anybody ticking that box feeling like Scrooge at Christmas. Many of those opposed to moving the CL&A found themselves confused because neither did they want a green space in the middle of town. When asked how such people should fill in the boxes, advice was conflicting and confusing; some said go for Option B; some said go for Neither. It is no surprise that people were confused, since that was the intention. We were told that those ticking Neither would be counted as opposing Option A but now it seems that this is the case only if they explained their intent in the comment box . . .

“Now, we get to the numbers.

“The first thing to note is the small print that explains that the numbers have been weighted to the profile of adults resident across Calderdale. It is not explained how this is done but perhaps this can be deduced from Fig 2.1 of the Ipsos MORI Report (12-033299-01), which looks at age, gender and employment status.

“To illustrate, in the Under 25 age range, respondents represented 2% of all those who replied. But in the population of Calderdale 12% of people are Under 25. Therefore the responses from those 2% have been counted 6 times to represent 12% of the total (of all ages) who responded.

“At the other end of the scale, 33% of the responses came from people Over 65, but in Calderdale only 20% of people are over 65. Therefore their responses are factored down by 0.6 times so that they represent only 20% of the total. This results in the opinion of anyone Under 25 carry10 times the weight of anybody Over 65! This process is repeated across the age ranges. Similar weightings are applied to account for the fact that nearly twice as many women than men responded, and responses were higher than average amongst retired people and lower amongst working people.

“On the face of it, perhaps this weighting is reasonable but we shouldn’t forget that the 5,000 forms were sent out at random across Calderdale. We must assume that the statisticians accept that this is a high enough sample of the 200,000 or so residents to give a representative result. Therefore, the forms went to representative numbers of Under 25s, men, working people, etc.

“The fact that returns were lower from these groups simply means that more of them were not sufficiently interested to reply. Where is the justification for assuming that the 150 Under 25s who didn’t reply would have voted the same way as the 30 who did? Or for reducing the responses from 494 Over 65s to the equivalent of 299 responses? You might as well say that Labour votes should count more than Conservative votes because turnout is always lower amongst Labour supporters – we know there are lots of supporters out there who haven’t voted, so we’ll cast their vote for them!

“This is what gives statistics and statisticians a bad name. Manipulating the figures to give the answer they want – or their customer wants.

“The net result of all this chicanery is to discriminate against the views of older residents, retired and unemployed residents, and women residents. (And who knows what other weightings have been used to skew the results.) And the grounds for this discrimination? These groups were interested enough to get off their backsides and fill in the questionnaire that came through their letterbox, with a reply paid envelope . . . If you are a retired, woman, over 65, you might as well not have bothered because nobody wants your views.

“This kind of manipulation may be valid, and useful, if you are researching people’s preference for Corn Flakes or Sugar Puffs. But this is the biggest, most controversial, political decision to have been discussed by CMBC in 10 years or more.

“Then we come to the Open Consultation, where everybody across Calderdale was asked to access the questionnaire, fill it in and send it back (either on paper, or on line). Over 1,250 people did just that, almost as many as the 1,496 that responded to the Representative Survey (out of 5000 distributed).

“It seems they were also wasting their time. Why? Because these 1,256 are even more biased towards older, retired, people. Not only that, most of them visit Halifax, shop in Halifax, like Halifax, but, most damning of all, many of them actually use the Central Library - and some even use the Archives. What possible value could there be in their views on the future of Halifax Town Centre and the Central Library and Archives? Far better to listen to the 1015 people who never use the Archives but know that they are not “Modern”.

“The Ipsos MORI report says ‘While this difference in the profile of the responses does not mean the responses to the open consultation are less important . . .’ We challenge Ipsos MORI or the Cabinet to table any evidence that any importance, let alone equal importance, has been attached to the Open Consultation responses.

“Ipsos MORI also say ‘To reconcile the two opposing results from the representative sample survey and the open consultation, the profile of those who responded to each strand needs to be taken into account.’ They offer no suggestion, however, of how this should be done. In the Directors’ Report prepared for the Cabinet, this conundrum is neatly solved by allocating 100% weighting to the Representative Survey and 0% to the Open Consultation.

“But perhaps we should not feel too hard done by. Ipsos MORI also report the views of 12 people who responded by writing to them, 15 responses from organisations in Calderdale, representing over 7,000 members, including two major mosques

5 responses from stakeholders, a petition with 1,292 signatures, 3,461 signed DBOL fliers.

In each of these cases a large majority was opposed to Option A but, again, the Directors’ Report assigns a weighting of 0% to them all.

“Similar lip service is paid in the Directors’ Report. “Whilst the results of Strand 3 (the Open Consultation) are useful, and should not be ignored, the mandate . . .” Perhaps these Directors could explain exactly what use has been made of these “useful results” and perhaps demonstrate that they have not been ignored.

“We are left, therefore, with 39% of respondents to the Representative Survey in favour of moving the Central Library and Archives to the Square Church Site. That leaves 61% who are either opposed to the move, or were so confused that they didn’t know how to respond, or couldn’t care less. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for a project that represents a huge risk for the residents of Calderdale. [Bear in mind also that Ipsos MORI quote a 95% confidence in these figures to an accuracy of around +/- 3.5%. In other words there is a 95% probability that the number in support of Option A is between 35.5% and 42.5%.]

“The picture is further muddied, however, if we delve into the full, 141 page report issued by Ipsos MORI, which contains interesting detail, conveniently omitted from the Executive Summary.

“Considering the Representative Survey, which is the only data Cabinet will consider, how did people respond to some of the broader questions asked around the CL&A?

“Question 14 asked whether we agreed with, amongst other things

moving the CL&A will help to improve the Piece Hall area Agree 29% Disagree 25%

moving the CL&A means more footfall thru shops Agree 26% Disagree 27%

“Question 17 asked whether we agreed with, amongst other things

CL&A should stay where they are Agree 31% Disagree 22%

moving CL&A will improve HX town centre Agree 28% Disagree 27%

a new modern CL&A should be built Agree 27% Disagree 28%

“These figures seem to contradict the views expressed about Options A and B and, indeed, contradict each other. Of course, this could result from the margins of error discussed above but, at the very least, they would seem to suggest some confusion in the minds of the respondents. They certainly do not indicate overwhelming support for the Cabinet’s proposals. “It comes as no surprise that answers to these questions are far more supportive of the present CL&A, if we look at the Open Consultation and all the other responses, but there is little point quoting these figures since Cabinet will simply ignore them.

“At the time of the Local Government Elections in May, DBOL sought the views of councillors and candidates on this proposal. The Conservative Group and the Independents were all opposed to it. Of the replies received from Labour and Lib Dem, most of them said they would reserve judgement, pending results of the consultation, but would support the proposal only if substantial support was demonstrated.

“We can only hope that those councillors will now be true to their word and reject the Director’s Report to Cabinet. Councillors might do well to reflect that, if the plan goes ahead and becomes Halifax’s Forster Square, they will not have the comfort of claiming that they had the people of Calderdale behind them when they took the decision. They might also reflect that the people whose opinions carry so little weight with Ipsos MORI and the Cabinet are precisely the people most likely to go out and vote in the next Local Government elections.

“For the rest of us, our only way of influencing proceedings will be to go to the Cabinet Meeting on 12 November and the full council meeting on 28 November and make our views known. And in the meantime, we can write to our own councillors urging them to stop this madness.”