Transition Culture

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9 Jan 2015

What makes a good mediator?


Part of the Power to Convene (our theme for January and February) is the ability to bring groups and people together to work in new ways. The story of the South Devon Cycle Link campaign and in particular the role of James Furse has many useful insights for this.  “You have to share enough of yourself to bring people into their trust – it’s a combination of tact, diplomacy and determination” he tells me.

James is the non-executive chair of what has hitherto been known as the Littlehempston Cycle Path team but is now known as the South Devon Cycle Link campaign, which has been lobbying for a particular route to connect the National Cycle Path from Newton Abbot and on down to Plymouth and beyond via Totnes.  We started by asking him to tell us the story of the campaign:

James FurseCould you tell us the story of the campaign?

It has a long history and in a way, that’s commendable because those who have been pushing for this for some time have never diminished in their energy and effort, but have been frustrated at times by the lack of progress and inability to engage with stakeholders who really hold the key to unlocking this particular pathway for them. It has been running for many, many years, driven by a logic that this is the most attractive and most importantly safest route from the villages between Newton Abbot and Totnes to get to this main communications town (Totnes) and then take the route down to the South West beyond Plymouth.

What’s your sense of where this campaign has got to? What progress has been made and what’s stopping progress from happening?

The campaign has been successful in whittling down the options for the route. Inevitably in between Newton Abbot and Totnes there are many routes this cycle path could take, picking up as many villages in the safest way possible. A number of years ago a range of routes were offered and really it’s come down to two (you can see the various proposed routes here). 

The campaign's preferred route for the cycle path.

By having two options and polarising them there is a risk around that, but it has given really great focus to bring absolutely to the fore the impediments to creating the preferred route which is over the footbridge by the South Devon Railway as opposed to a route that goes more onto main roads. At the present time, the team is focusing on ways in which it can bring stakeholders together to achieve the preferred route which is through the villages from Newton Abbot through into Totnes.

Are negotiations still ongoing or does it feel like it’s got stuck?

The discussions are still ongoing and if we look at how the problems arise and how they might be resolved, the one success I would say of the cycle path team is that they recognise that the tactics employed up until the last 18 months have been more of the direct action kind and maybe have not thought through carefully enough how stakeholders like to see and receive information and be engaged with.

This isn’t about my capability as an individual, but the presence of a neutral person who has a good understanding of the arguments on both sides as a mediator has been seen by the stakeholders as a very positive thing and the comment I’ve received directly as regards my performance in doing it has been that the presence of somebody like me has been really useful in taking the heat out of what has hitherto been a more shrill and confrontational campaign.

Group bike ride along the least desirable route, joined by local MP Dr. Sarah Wollaston.

As a result, I’ve been able to improve understanding amongst key stakeholders, local authority, landowners of the route and the issues surrounding it, so at least decisions and positions that have been taken are better informed. That also allows me to support the cycle path team in thinking of ways to address what are legitimate concerns of the stakeholders.

As community groups, our default position when we want to shift something like that is to go into what you call the “shrill” kind of mode and run campaigns and be as much of a nuisance and put as much pressure on as possible. Is your sense that actually it would have been better to have taken a different approach from the beginning? Or that actually where we find ourselves now is that we’ve moved a certain distance because of the more adversarial kind of campaigning and now it just needs a different approach to take it further. I wonder what advice you would give to other communities who might be at the early beginning stage of something like this.

There has to be a period of awareness raising, and inevitably these sorts of projects succeed by a weight of public opinion and public interest from those who will be the beneficiaries of whatever it is that’s being considered. It’s inevitable that there will be a public element to the campaign. It wouldn’t survive otherwise because if you’re looking to bring people together and persuade people, they need to understand that this matters and this is important.

One of the issues with the cycle path is that it has perhaps been seen by some stakeholders as a little local issue trying to give a shortcut into Totnes for 200 people, rather than seeing it as a national issue where the connecting of the cycle route nationally affects many more people beyond the village of Littlehempston. There’s something about how you position a campaign that needs to be thought through that won’t apply everywhere, but it’s probably an opportunity that was missed early on here.


When it comes to engaging with those who may take a contrary view, then again I come back to an earlier point around reflecting on how the people you’re trying to address like to receive information. The risk of a direct action campaign is it’s a one-size-fits-all approach and the risk is you may find some of the key people you want to influence are receptive to that and others are simply not.  Care needs to be taken to understand those minds you really want to influence, and then reflect carefully about how they like to receive information.

Part of my engagement has been to do a bit of repair work. Not to make huge apologies on behalf of the previous campaigners but I have recognised openly that they got a few things wrong, and that notion of humility in discussion has, I think, been a help in this situation.

So yes, right to raise awareness, right to show the breadth and depth of interest in finding the resolution, but before direct action type campaigning gets underway, really think hard about those people you wish to influence. In the end, what might make them feel vulnerable if they weren’t to come to the table and have a discussion. So it is about historic, almost military campaigning tactics.

You mentioned before about the national context here. So at the moment we operate in a political climate where communities are, on paper at least, being given all manner of powers through the Localism Act, the Right to Build, the Right to Bid and so on and so on, referendum powers on certain things. What’s your sense of the balance of that? For a campaign like this, what additional powers would be useful?  I was up in Scotland recently, and they have a thing called the Community Empowerment Bill which is going through the Scottish Parliament. One of the powers in that is an Absolute Right to Buy, so this would be a community compulsory purchase order power which would be extremely useful in this case!

PosterIf you take this particular project, or perhaps any project, where you have an idea, a campaign that you wish to progress that seems eminently sensible and will benefit many, but you encounter people who hold all the positions and say they don’t want this to happen either because of funding or land use or whatever, there is a risk that if you take a coercive – a compulsory purchase or a community purchase to resolve the issue, it has to be done with real care because you’re going to have to be neighbours with these people and have a relationship with them for many years to come.

My preference, which perhaps is more in my nature, is to try and come up with a consensus, a coalition of willing parties rather than taking the route of coercion. That isn’t in the spirit of achieving a harmonious community. In the particular instance that we’re talking about, whilst it may be possible to force through at some point a particular route, the route will cross the land of three people, it will affects tenants of some of the land or property and their ability to make life unpleasant through their own direct action is just clearly a risk.

I still believe that consensus is right. But I think the need is to explore and make it very clear to all sides what the rules are and what the lie of the land is, so one could pull a particular lever if one wished.

All too often we think in terms of “this is happening and I don’t agree with it”, so the default position is to rush to opposition. If instead people were to look at filling the mediator space, what would you say are the qualities of that? What other skills does one need in order to perform that role, and what’s it like to be in that place?

For a mediator? To be engaged, then one or other party has got to think that this is a good idea. It’s how you build trust and confidence between the two parties, that you will be an honest broker of information between the two sides in an adversarial situation. Inevitably it was the cycle path who found me and asked me if I’d get involved. I got involved because I have a strong sense of justice and fairness and it seemed peculiar that this wasn’t happening, and could I play a part in actually rebalancing the relationship. So I do it for nothing, and it’s a project that interests me because I’m just intrigued by human nature, use of language and all those things, that’s why it attracted me to start off with.

In terms of the benefits it brings, then you have to have a very clear logical mind and be a very active listener in trying to establish some kind of rapport across and confidence between the parties. You have to share enough of yourself to bring people into their trust. And so it’s a combination of tact, diplomacy and determination.

Albert Einstein on a bicycle. But I believe, in all that I do, in fresh air and frankness. I was in very direct discussions with the cycle path team and similarly with other people on this subject. It’s not being manipulative, just saying it how it is and trying to find common ground and also to develop tactics. 

For example, because of the way I work I was looking to say “What is it they’re really looking for? What would cause them concern?”  In the case of the railway, fine, they were looking for a significant Heritage Lottery Fund bid, so I know that the railway is seeking funding. If the railway needs money, what can we do to help them get some money that I could offer in the sense of reciprocity? So the answer was, we will put 1400 people behind their bid, saying you’ve got huge community support, you’ve got all the schools and 1400 people, isn’t that great?

It turned out they decided not to progress with the Heritage Lottery bid … but nonetheless it was trying to find ways where you could bring something of benefit to them and making sure that in the event of progress being made, behaviour would not be about triumphalism or crowing, but about celebrating that something had happened. Now with the local authority, finding areas of reciprocity is less obvious, but personal reputations do matter, so the thought process has to be the same.

Here is the podcast of this interview for you to listen to or to download.