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Creating space for community

Posted on 11 April 2018

Three documents have come across the desk in the last few weeks. 

The first is the Government’s green paper on Integrated Communities, a set of plans and proposals aimed at bridging the gaps in engagement and attainment between people of different cultures and origins.  The second is the consultation by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) around its funding proposals for 2019 onwards – how do we define heritage and how should we support those who might want to play a role in protecting it?  The third is another consultation, this time from BEIS, on plans for deep underground storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste – who decides where it should go and what are the social and economic implications of that decision?  You can’t say the job’s not varied.

On the face of it there’s little to connect these three documents but a look at the fundamental questions being asked suggests otherwise.  At the core of each is a conversation about place, about the way communities define themselves, and about the need to ensure everyone has a voice. 

Discussions around integration need to grapple with the fact that people define themselves differently in different circumstances.  We all have our origins and our cultural and family ties and these need to be understood and reconciled as we live alongside each other.  The Government’s strategy puts much store in promoting opportunities for mixing and mingling and for collective decision-making about issues of genuinely shared interest.  But how do we ensure that all voices are heard and what they say is equally valued?

Similarly, how should a funder like the Heritage Lottery Fund put value judgments on our differing notions of heritage?  Our pasts are different, often very personal and we all value different elements of them.  The consultation document puts forward proposals for more place-based investments, using an appreciation of heritage as a way of informing the social, environmental and economic development of local areas – particularly areas that are more disadvantaged.  It’s a compelling argument – and a very positive shift in emphasis – but again relies on us being able to frame and broker local conversations between people and groups with different stories and different histories.  How do we draw on our collective and individual pasts to develop place-based solutions that don’t make some people feel less connected as a result?

Perhaps surprisingly, the document that delves deepest into the mechanics of community engagement is the one about nuclear waste.  This consultation recognises that – if we’re going to store nuclear waste deep underground somewhere in the UK (which is currently recognised as the optimal technical and environmental solution) - then a community has to be found that is willing to act as ‘host’.  This throws up a whole series of questions around motivation (largely considered to be long term investment in jobs and infrastructure), information and education (how does a community understand the impact and satisfy itself of the risks) and representation (what are the mechanisms for making a decision and whose voices count the most). 

Drawing on expert input from seasoned community development professionals, BEIS has developed a model for guiding communities through this process from awareness raising and informal conversation to formal engagement and consultation leading ultimately to a point of decision, with get-out clauses all along the way.  The consultation envisages this process being supported by technical advice, with experts ‘on tap not on top’, dedicated support workers and funds to help a community prepare but also to benefit in the here and now as the exploratory and preparatory work is done. This may take many years so crucially the process has the added benefit of time – allowing a community to explore the issues and come to a decision at its own speed.

Whilst figuring out where to site a geological disposal facility for highly radioactive waste is a very specific issue, it’s instructive to consider what could be drawn from the conversation that might aid thinking and inform practice in other areas, in particular the renewal of housing estates.

Estate regeneration is clearly not as contentious a subject, but it can have just as much impact on the lives of those involved.  It changes the face of places for good.  It makes a break with the past.  It disrupts and separates and often it can be accused of benefiting those caught up in the middle of it least.  Lessons from history have taught us that all of these risks and consequences can be mitigated through the provision of good – and early – information, enabling people to be in control (not necessarily of everything but of those elements that are most important to them or most manageable by them), and giving people the time and support to make decisions.

As with the HLF consultation, those shaping, planning and funding regeneration need to recognise that ‘the community’ is a collection of diverse interests, cultures and experiences gathered in one place, all of which need to be understood and valued for what they are.  It’s also important to recognise that, although regeneration projects are predicated on the notion that they’re creating a better future, in most communities there is pride in the past.  However difficult and disadvantaged a neighbourhood the sense that this is ‘our place’ can be strong.  Once this is understood and harnessed it can provide a spur to better consultation and better design.

One of the most effective tools to achieve this is to focus – as the Integration Strategy suggests – on the places, spaces and experiences that people share.  In most regeneration programmes the core aim of community consultation and engagement is to gain acceptance of plans and then provide a channel of communication about what will happen to people’s homes.  These can become very personal conversations about people in very specific circumstances.  They can be contentious and confrontational.  What is sometimes less contentious – and more empowering – is finding ways for a community collectively to drive elements of the regeneration process.  Open spaces or facilities such as youth clubs, playgrounds or sports pitches are often thought about once all the 'important and difficult stuff' has been resolved.  But why not help the community to shape and drive these elements of the plan from the outset?  Not only will the result be better but the process of planning, designing and managing shared spaces can develop the trust, confidence and connections communities need to engage in other decisions.

The other significant learning highlighted in the BEIS consultation is that good community engagement on difficult issues requires investment and professional support.  We can’t assume residents will 'step forward', nor can we expect them to know everything or speak with one voice.  Community 'engagement' can involve a number of different processes from helping people formulate ideas and set agendas to voting on detailed proposals.  It’s important to know what process is in play when and to use the right tools and techniques to manage them.  This always benefits from a supporting infrastructure – experienced intermediaries able to reach out to all audiences and skilled at brokering conflict and negotiating consensus.

This is well understood in some areas.  For example, providing a platform to help young people demonstrate they care about an issue and offering practical support to help them make a constructive contribution is what good youth work is all about.  We know we need to invest in this specialism if we want to ensure young people’s voices are heard and the 'youth sector' – from the National Citizen Service to the Scouts and Guides - stands ready to help. 

Cuts in neighbourhood management and community development budgets make it harder to provide the infrastructure support needed to ensure effective engagement, but it’s vital that we do.  Those same cuts in local services mean that more communities are going to have to engage in decision-making and voluntary action in their neighbourhoods to maintain the places and facilities they cherish and to cope with the change going on around them.

 Making sure the right technical, emotional and financial support is available to everyone who needs it is our next big challenge.

A version of this blog was first published as part of the estate regeneration online network at 

Post by Graham Duxbury, CEO

Groundwork UK