Whatever the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decade ahead cries out for a huge programme of housebuilding, new infrastructure and regeneration. While the housing crisis intensifies, our national infrastructure is not only creaking at the seams, it bakes-in inequality and dangerously high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Britain in 2030 must look and feel very different from Britain in 2020. There is a lot of development to do between now and then.
All that development must be designed and delivered in a way that makes communities better places to live. And the best way of doing that is for communities themselves to play a significant role - not engaged, consulted, or asked for approval - but participating as equals.
There have been many excellent guides, strategies and frameworks from government and business aiming to put this into practice, and some shining examples of getting things right. But in reality, communities are seldom involved meaningfully in development projects.
Our own research reveals a pretty salutary experience for most communities: tokenistic and poorly executed engagement; representatives excluded from project governance; and opportunities missed to create living places with adequate services and social infrastructure like parks or places to meet. The language belies the problem: someone must ‘reach out’ to the community, ‘involve’ it or ‘engage’ it - as if the community were a pudding waiting passively to be ‘engaged’ with a spoon.
Getting the engagement process right is important – and Grosvenor’s community charter seems like a great platform for doing that – but we have to recognise that developers, councils and communities start from very different places.
People in the community will often have had no experience of major development projects before, so they’re on the back foot immediately. They may lack resources, organisation and connections. Sharing views requires confidence, yet the prospect of regeneration may cause anxiety and stress in the face of unsettling change and even personal insecurity. Those who are able to participate in consultations and meetings will most likely do so as unpaid volunteers in their spare time.
Contrast this with the likely starting point of people on the other ‘side’ – paid professionals with long experience of development projects, relatively confident and used to expressing themselves in formal environments like meetings. They will probably be well-prepared and comfortable with business language and legalese. They will be equipped with objectives, backed up with government targets and a well-presented plan.
The power imbalance here is obvious and it takes a lot of courage to challenge it - on both sides. When faced with a major regeneration of the Custom House area in East London, PEACH Big Local focused on building skills and confidence in their community and developed their own masterplan, using the same demolition and new-build targets as the council. Over time, investing in skills enabled the group to work with the council, shaping plans and taking collective responsibility for them, rather than campaigning and advocating from the outside.
PEACH Big Local has now begun to mentor and support other communities to take a similar approach. But equally, the individual staff working for councils or developers often have to fight for the autonomy and flexibility they need to work authentically in partnership, and may feel constrained by targets, deadlines and incentives to get the project done.
So this power imbalance is no-one’s fault and yet it is very deep-rooted – a product of the wider context we work in, a political and economic system that tends to centralise power and resources away from local communities, weakening and marginalising them. We need to turn this around, rebalance our economy and democracy and give local communities the power and resource they need to shape their own futures.
Strong communities need shared places to meet, whether pubs, places of worship or community halls. They need active and engaged residents, with strong local leaders who know their neighbourhood and are capable of bringing people together. They need good connections - to jobs, services and wider sources of opportunities. And they need significant resources - PEACH could not have done their work without funding. Without these things, communities will always struggle to participate in regeneration projects as equals.
Local Trust is calling for a significant shift of power and resources to communities, in our Community Wealth Fund campaign – a permanent fund for local communities to draw from, supported by government, civil society and the private sector. Communities - when organised, connected and resourced - can be powerful and expert, have deep knowledge of the people and history of a place, and given the opportunity are well able to act in an inspiring, visionary way.
We need powerful, confident communities to participate fully in the next decade of regeneration.
James Goodman and Georgie Burr work at Local Trust. James has a background in sustainability and systems change, having worked at Forum for the Future as a futurist and business advisor. Georgie has a background in community-led street design and planning tech, having previously worked at Sustrans and The Future Fox
This piece is one of six essays about public engagement from activists, influencers and frontline workers commissioned by Grosvenor as part of their Positive Space Community Charter initiative. The full list is: