The road to nowhere? A critical case study of the political discourses in the debates around the decision to construct a bypass road around Aberdeen.
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This research examined the role of communication – and in particular public relations (PR) and public affairs activities – in the decision-making processes around the proposal to build a bypass road around the city of Aberdeen. The study focused on the relative power of various discourses embodied in the arguments and strategies pursued by the promoters and opponents of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Road (AWPR) to affect eventual outcomes. The research sought to revisit theoretical accounts of democratic decision-making as conceptualised by Habermas (1984) in the deliberations of the public sphere, and Foucault (1970) on the role of discourse in structuring civil debates. In his classic study of New Haven, Dahl (2005) found empirical evidence to support a pluralist paradigm. Yet in Flyvbjerg’s (1998a) study of urban planning in Aalborg, Denmark, Lukes’s theories on the second dimension of power and a Foucauldian conceptualistion of power were found to have more acute explanatory power. These major theories have been applied tentatively to the field of public relations by Burkart (2009) who advocates for the utility of a consensus-oriented approach to public relations (COPR). Motion and Leitch (2009) theorise that discourse analysis provides important analytic tools for PR practitioners. This research used the AWPR issue as a case study spanning four key decision-making phases from 2004 to 2012. These stages include representations to the Scottish Parliament; a public local inquiry (PLI); judicial review to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and a hearing in the UK Supreme Court. The research drew upon triangulated methodologies including Fairclough’s (2012) political discourse analysis; observations at public meetings; and semi-structured interviews The research found that whilst both sides promoted a range of established discourses and PR strategies, the relative power of these discourses and the implementation of the strategies was determining. Political discourse analysis of key texts from the pivotal post PLI phase of the case study provided evidence of the dominance of discourses around economic development and community over weaker environmental discourses. Save Camphill’s campaign was more effective due in large part to the calibre of the professional public relations advice retained. Road Sense used public relations strategies in the early phases of their campaign but the implementation of these activities tended to be tactical, partial or counter-productive. Road Sense focused resources on a legislative strategy which largely eschewed any further attempt to engage with government, community and media stakeholders. The route of judicial review was unsuccessful due to a combination of second dimension power factors, including the reluctance of the UK courts to intervene in planning issues despite the existence of European directives to protect the environment. The AWPR case study concluded that examples of decision-making, as demonstrated by Save Camphill’s success in altering the route, confirm the existence of both the public sphere and pluralism in action. Yet, following Lukes (2005) and Flyvbjerg (1998a), there is equally evidence of a second dimension power variable which yielded more plausible explanatory accounts of the decision-making in favour of the Scheme at the PLI, and subsequently in the Courts. The case study also finds that a Foucauldian interpretation of discourse is required to fully appreciate the weakness of the environmental agenda at the local level especially when pitted against prevailing discourses of economic growth and the popularity of the contemporary car culture. Against this background, Road Sense’s PR strategies were secondary to their ultimate legislative strategy and lacked the requisite consistency on goal alignment and relationship building in lobbying and media relations. For campaigns to be effectual, public relations professionals must audit the power of prevailing discourses as theorised by Motion and Leitch (2009) before Burkart’s consensus-oriented public relations (COPR) approach can realise pluralist outcomes consistent with deliberative democracy.