Through the Space in Common project we are using a series of workshops to learn how we create more constructive and inclusive conversations about what gets built where in Greater Manchester and beyond. At each of these we have brought together a group of people interested in the topic from a range of different angles.
In our latest workshop we were fortunate to have a planner from a local council to talk us through how this works at the moment, and what it looks like from the inside. You can see what we learnt through a separate blogpost. Having heard their insight we asked our diverse group of workshop participants to reflect on public involvement on public involvement in shaping the future shape of our cities, and what needs to change. Here are some of the key points we learnt:
Developers have much more resource than councils. This means that developers are in the driving seat of planning, and under-resourced planners within councils can’t get on top. The challenge of achieving cooperation across the mayor and ten districts within Greater Manchester adds to the challenge. It’s in this challenging environment that planners are struggling to work better with local residents.
Political considerations can be a barrier to better decision-making. Some councils are too politically scared to make hard decisions about the future of their places. Sometimes politicians have their own plans and aren’t interested in the views of residents. Election cycles can also be a barrier to working over a period of time with residents. Other forms of ‘political’ cycle such as funding cycles can also be a barrier.
Engagement is currently based too much on consulting on plans, rather than developing plans by working with communities from an early stage. Consultation is often just about going through the motions. Too often it just involves stakeholders that the council is already aware of. There is a lack of capacity and skills in councils to engage with, and work with, communities. The level of anger sometimes received puts councils off engaging, but they need to find a way through in spite of this. One way of motivating councils to engage better could be giving councils funding only if they meet certain standards of public engagement, similar to an approach used by Historic England.
Planning is currently very regulated, structured and legalistic and doesn’t allow for a holistic approach to issues. Engagement should be focussed on having conversations about the vision for a place before detailed plans are put in place. This is better than having an adversarial clash between developers and residents later on. It’s currently hard to look at the bigger picture within discussions of planning, such as how to design for a post-car society or create housing suitable for a society with changing demographics.
There are examples out there of working with communities to make plans, rather than consulting on the end result. There are planners and architects already working in this way. Local access forums, the Beelines cycling lanes project, and the Mayfield development were cited as positive examples. Neighbourhood Planning was seen as another example of this. Often these examples are about the local level; it’s harder to involve people in conversations about a larger, more strategic, scale. To do this you have to find a way into the topic that interests people; a way of breaking it down into issues they care about.
It can be hard for residents to get through the jargon and process, and to get to grips with the evidence base involved. It feels like it’s assumed you already know all this stuff. Save Greater Manchester Greenbelt carried out research into how spatial planning works and cascaded this understanding through training sessions, but the work involved in getting to grips with this stuff was like a full-time job.
Currently some voices within communities are more likely to speak up than others, raising concerns about unequal impacts of planning decisions.
Where resources are created to inform engagement, these are often about working in an adversarial rather than a constructive way; based on campaigning against proposals rather than having better conversations about the future of places. More could be done to provide resources that are independent and encourage a more constructive conversation. Another option is providing independent ‘brokerage’ using methods like Citizens Juries to encourage deliberation about issues in a neutral space.
This workshop was part of a series on this topic. You can express interest in taking part in our next workshop through the Eventbrite page. You can also click the following link to find out more about the Space in Common project.
[Image from the 2016 Draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework]