Why it’s time to rethink community engagement

On Thursday 30 June we launched our Rethinking Community Engagement programme, with an online roundtable featuring speakers from across the built environment sector – including grassroots community organisations.

Our speakers were:

  • Kate Batchelor, Head of Landscape and Placemaking, Peabody
  • Amy Beasley, Service Manager for Place Planning, Stockport Council
  • Palma Black, Independent Community and Resident Engagement Consultant
  • Eileen Conn, Community Activist, Peckham Vision
  • Sion Lee, Just Space
  • Michaela Packer, Associate Director and UKIMEA Stakeholder Lead, Arup
  • Santiago Peluffo Soneyra, Co-director, Latin Elephant

Why do we need to rethink engagement?

“Community engagement is still seen as a tick-box exercise rather than a critical and important process within the planning process, and many practitioners in the built environment sector don’t trust communities to know what’s right for them”, explained Palma Black at the start of our discussion. It’s no surprise then that in 2019 Grosvenor’s survey into public trust in large-scale development found that just 2% of the public trust developers and only 7% trust local authorities.

There are also many communities whom we don’t hear from often enough or at all, including black and minority ethnic communities – and particularly those who don’t speak English as a first language.

Too often, there’s an assumption that the perceived challenges of consultation (reaching minority groups who are seldom heard from, building trust etc) can be overcome by finding novel ways of engaging with communities. But what’s actually needed is a change of attitude: we need to rethink community engagement.

“The whole regeneration and built environment agendas – house building, placemaking and more – are all about communities. If they’re not about people, then what are they about?” Palma Black

The panel identified that ‘rethinking community engagement’ means…

  • trusting communities
  • being inclusive
  • allowing more time and resources
  • being open to change – and open to criticism
  • coproducing with communities
  • gathering evidence.

You can read a summary of insights from the event below or watch the video to hear the full discussion.

Rethinking community engagement means…

Trusting communities

Residents are the best source of knowledge about how communities function and what they need. Redevelopment plans are too often devised by outsiders and shared with local people far too late in the process. Instead, Eileen Conn suggested we should “start with what’s there and incorporate local knowledge”.

One of the ways in which that local knowledge is generated and shared is through what Eileen refers to as ‘horizontal engagement’: the community’s own discussions about a place that happen at local events, in local newspapers, on local high streets. The consultation process should incorporate this into the consultation timetable.

Being inclusive

If we want to engage with more people, particularly those who are seldom heard, the sector needs to communicate better. Santiago Peluffo Soneyra argued that at the heart of this is demystifying the planning process by using less jargon and translating information into all the different languages used within a community. It also means rethinking how we present content. Amy Beasley explained that Stockport Council is producing more video content because that’s what young people have said they want.

Post-covid, it’s clear that online consultation is here to stay. Digital methods have many advantages, but we need to be mindful of digital exclusion. “There’s a danger of assuming online is convenient for everyone,” said Sion Lee. Some people lack the skills and confidence to participate in digital spaces, others have limited access to broadband and/or the devices needed to engage online. Tackling digital exclusion means addressing both issues and, importantly, always offering communities a choice between face-to-face and online consultations.

“And the other element we [the built environment sector] need to really improve is how we define community” said Michaela Packer. “Every project is different and will require us to define what we mean by ‘the community’ based on the project. Whether it’s elderly people, those who are digitally disadvantaged, or those who are seldom heard, we need to think a little bit more about how we’re defining ‘community’ and how we can make it fully inclusive.”

Allowing more time and resources

Community engagement practitioners have long called for more time and more resources to do engagement in a more meaningful way. Several speakers pointed out the need for more resources for community groups (through the provision of affordable community spaces, for example) and capacity building so that local people feel confident about engaging with planning and development.

“There’s always this sense of urgency in this sector and, actually, pausing, reflecting and taking things a bit slower, is a really good thing to do. But it’s quite challenging because you’re faced with the pressure to deliver things quickly. I think we should do things more slowly.” Kate Batchelor

But our panellists also stressed that the learning goes both ways: practitioners have lots to learn from local people and about coproduction processes, too. Palma also suggested that starting the development process by sitting down with communities could save time and money because architects and developers would then be in a better position to design a scheme or building that the community both wants and needs.

Being open to change – and open to criticism

As well as building in time to reflect into both consultation and planning processes, the sector shouldn’t be afraid of difficult conversations with, or criticism from, communities. Santiago gave the example of a workshop that Latin Elephant did with market traders in response to a planning application for a temporary relocation site that their businesses were being moved to.

“Within two hours the traders had filed dozens of objections to, and comments on, the application (including the shop fronts, lack of lifts, the rent, the fact that there wasn’t a specified service charge),” he explained. In January 2019, when the application went to planning, there was a long session with Delancey (the developers involved in the project), officers, councillors, and traders but they managed to get significant improvements to the temporary site. “Planning needs to be a more democratic process but that’s currently absent,” added Santiago.

Group of people huddling together in front of houses
Community engagement at Thamesmead. Image courtesy of Peabody. 

Coproducing with communities

One powerful way to achieve trust, to engage inclusively, and to be open to change and criticism is by coproducing with communities. However, as the term ‘coproduction’ is used more widely across the sector, it’s important to be clear about what it means and how it differs from traditional engagement methods. Without this clarity, there’s a real risk of ‘coproduction washing’ – where the term is used by developers and local authorities to gain trust but without making any real meaningful change to the way that community engagement is done.

52% of the audience who came to the launch don’t have a clear understanding of what ‘co-production’ means in the context of the built environment. 99% think the sector could benefit from greater clarity and agreement on how to do coproduction.

For Kate, real coproduction means transferring power to the people who live in a place to make decisions about that place. For Sion, coproduction means joint action and equal partnerships. For everyone on the panel, coproduction requires early engagement – and then ongoing engagement. And it needs to be embedded into existing structures within organisations and across partnerships.

Gathering evidence

Building the business case for better, more meaningful, engagement – particularly coproduction – is important but the positive outcomes that practitioners are seeing from these engagement processes are still largely anecdotal. This can make it hard to push for internal change, to persuade partners and to make the case for more time and more resources.

Starting small, with a pilot project, can be a good way of demonstrating what the benefits are to all the different stakeholders involved.

 Conclusion

The challenge now for the sector is to not only start rethinking engagement but also to put these ideas into practice. Listening to, and learning from, communities through early and ongoing engagement will result in better outcomes for the sector but also a better built environment. Co-production offers a compelling approach, but it must be done properly. How the term is being used across the sector and what that means in practice will be a key focus for the remainder of this programme.

For more information about our Rethinking Community Engagement programme, please get in touch with Sophie Nellis