The borough council recently posted an item on Facebook urging readers to respond to its Local Plan consultation. The council said that it had received only twenty nine responses so far. But the result was a small barrage of criticism. We added our own thoughts, which we did so wearily, as we’ve made the same comments before.
The consultation is unnecessarily long and off-putting. It has over 140 pages and it includes lots of references to other documents. We suspect that it’s actually the full Local Plan in draft, rather than a focused resident-friendly consultation. But what we’re concentrating on today is just one aspect; is the document easy to read? In our view, it categorically isn’t, but don’t just take our word for it.
In discussing previous council documents, we’ve mentioned the Flesch Reading Ease Test and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels. These are well-established ways of finding out how easy a section of text is to read. They’re so well-established that they’re part of Microsoft Word’s functionality.
A document’s Introduction is key in helping the reader to decide whether to read on, or to quit. So we took the second paragraph of the Introduction in the draft Local Plan and we asked Word what it made of it. The paragraph is:
“The Surrey Heath Local Plan, once adopted, will replace the Council’s current adopted Local Plan which is the Core Strategy and Development Management Policies document, including saved policies from the 2000 Local Plan and the Camberley Town Centre Area Action Plan.”
This is what Word told us:
Look at the last two measures. The Flesch Reading Ease score is 8.4. Dig into the internet and you’ll find tables such as:
Flesch Reading Ease Score in English
- 100 = The text is very easy to read and understand.
- 65 = The text is relatively easy to understand.
- 30 = The text is difficult to understand.
- 0 = The text is very difficult to understand.
Conclusion: The council’s introductory text is close to being ‘very difficult to understand’. To put this in context, the following are said to be typical reading ease scores:
- BBC Primary schools website (73);
- Daily Star (66)
- The Sun (60);
- Guardian/Daily Mail (58.5)
- Daily Telegraph (54.6)
- Nature (34.6)
It appears that the council’s consultation is far more difficult to read than Nature, the learned scientific journal.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is slightly harder to interpret, as it uses US school grades as its reference. But, very approximately, it indicates the number of years of education needed in order to understand a piece of text. A typical quote from the internet is “Text intended for readership by the general public should aim for a grade level of around 8.” However, our sample of text is grade 22 – residents need something like ’22 years’ of education to understand the council’s Introduction. Clearly, something is terribly wrong.
(Before we’re accused of ‘cherry-picking’, we’ll accept that our sample paragraph is worse than quite a lot of the document. But the paragraph IS in the Introduction, so it’s particularly influential, and there’s more than enough other badly-written text to put readers off.)
There are two villains in this piece. Firstly, the council – paid officers – for writing such an unsuitable document. Secondly, and particularly, the council’s Executive Committee – elected representatives who ought to be able to identify with less-able residents – for approving the document for release. The challenge is for them both to accept that a mistake has been made, and to withdraw the consultation in its current form. If their leadership cannot achieve this, then new leaders are required.