As part of our Space in Common project we’ve been looking at how to make debates about the future shape of GreaterManchester into more inclusive and constructive conversations. At our latest workshop we were fortunate to hear from Richard Lee, coordinator of Just Space about their inspiring experiences in Greater London.

What is Just Space and what makes them special?

Just Space describes itself as ‘a community-led network of voluntary and action groups’ who come together to speak with a louder voice on decisions about how Greater London is developed.

Their emphasis is on supporting communities to speak up, rather than speaking for them. They gather evidence from the local level and feed this into policy debates at a strategic Greater-London-wide level.

Rather than just talking about ‘planning’ they recognise that planning decisions at this scale touch on so many other topics and talk about the issues that matter most to people.

They aim to work in a ‘horizontal’ way, for instance they don’t have an elected committee. Naturally those more involved have more influence so they emphasise the importance of using this to amplify the voices of others. Continuing to get new people involved has been crucial to ensuring it’s not just a network for the already active. For instance, they always aim to ensure that a good number of speakers at community conferences are new to the movement. The Just Space seat at public hearings on the London Plan is reserved for those unable to take part in the formal process. In their experience disagreement isn’t as much of a barrier as it might seem, there is much that unites communities on these topics, and they focus on where there is consensus(interestingly for Greater Manchester Greenbelt development was an issue where this hasn’t been achieved).

How did Just Space come about?

A key development was three main organisations working together informally: The London Tenants Federation; The London Civic Forum, and The London Social Forum. They worked together informally in response to the London Plan, along with some other organisations, then formed a network out of this.

One thing that made a difference was that the London Plan had to be examined at public hearings before the Planning Inspectorate, an organisation separate to local government who could call for revisions. This was an appealing prospect for those frustrated by responding to consultations without knowing whether they would really be listened to or not.

Following the Examination in Public on the London Plan the then London Mayor decided to grant fund the emerging Just Space network in recognition that they’d managed to bring new people into the room who didn’t normally engage on planning matters.

What has helped them grow and succeed?

As well as bringing new voices into debates Just Space have also seen policy debates shift overtime on many of the issues that they’ve campaigned on. So, what has helped them to succeed?

Over time they’ve become recognised for their expertise about planning policy at this strategic level, in a context where few other organisations are looking at this scale. As they’ve learnt who to speak to within the Greater London Authority on these matters, this has helped attract more people to get involved with them.

It’s easy to burn-out when spending all your time in a reactive mode, responding to consultations often without success. Instead Just Space have had an emphasis on being proactive and creative. Their relationship with University College London has been a big part of this. Universities are always looking for project work, JustSpace are able to approach them with projects they need their help on. The communities Just Space work with are often ‘over-researched’ but Just Space take a different approach. They involve communities in steering these projects,and the communities get something from the projects rather than researcher just coming with their own agenda.

Recently they’ve started to think more about how what happens in London affects other parts of the country, and to take the message of their way of organising to other places.

What projects have Just Space helped make happen?

Examples of projects that Just Space have helped initiate include:

  • Developing training in Social Impact Assessment within a postgraduate course at UCL. This was a response to the lack of social impact assessment in planning decisions and focusses on enabling communities to conduct this kind of study.
  • ‘Just Map’. This mapping project plots 250 community organisations, alongside statements of their purpose obtained through interviews. It also shows community assets under threat, which helped improve awareness of many BME community centres that previously suffered from a lack of visibility.
  • A community-led plan for Greater London (see below).

A community-led plan for Greater London

The decision to take this proactive step was partly borne out of frustration at their opposition to plans being ignored because they were too radical to be considered as a change to the proposals being put forward. The election of a new London Mayor in 2016 was also seen as a good time to put this vision forward.

This proactive step was only taken after several years working together during which time the network had built trust in each other and developed strong links into communities.

Conferences were held on the plan, out of which working groups were formed to develop individual parts. No-one was brought in to write it, but instead the network collectively drafted this. Through the process new people became interested in the network and what they were doing.

You can find out more about Just Space through their website. If you’d like to know more about Space inCommon, or are interested in taking part in these workshops please contact mat@demsoc.org

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