The Historic Towns Forum conference on 'Achieving Added Value Through Community Engagement', held in Chester, 23 September 2010
My article in last October's Newsletter closed with a question: might 'The Big Society' bring improved outcomes for local democracy where the Local Government Review and the Local Development Framework appear to have failed? No sooner had that article gone to press than the HTF announced this conference, which I attended on the Society's behalf to see what lessons there might be for Ipswich and Suffolk. Trailed as a response to the new coalition Government's agenda which advocates devolution of power down to neighbourhoods, and promoting a 'Big Society' based around social responsibility and community action, the conference posed the questions; 'Is there any evidence that this will work, and are there examples of good practice?'
Chester's response to community engagement has been a resounding 'Yes'. Many significant successes include the re-development of Chester's Old Port, which integrates heritage buildings amidst new residential developments in a derelict industrial area, echoing our own Waterfront, and the Water Tower Gardens in which even the local schoolchildren are now stakeholders. But how were these successful outcomes achieved? Plainly not through the Big Society since, as most speakers acknowledged, that remains even to be defined, let alone established. They undoubtedly demonstrate a great potential for enthusiastic and constructive partnerships between government, the private sector and communities in designing developments to properly satisfy everyone's aspirations. But the point was repeatedly emphasised that all three groups have to want to co-operate, and to achieve proper mutual engagement is not at all straightforward.
For Civic Voice, Tony Burton asserted that 'everyone has the right to live somewhere they can be proud of', but too often solutions are bulldozed through. Only afterwards are communities asked if they are happy with the results, and even then the answers are too often not properly listened to. Engagement is an attitude of mind rather than a methodology, and it is worth the effort. He closed with a quotation from American anthropologist, Margaret Mead: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.'
From English Heritage, Deborah Lamb alluded to the inevitable tensions between local and national or institutional interests, for instance between community 'knowledge' and architectural 'expertise'. Architect Tony Barton urged that from the outset every opportunity to overcome such potential for conflict between interested parties should be taken by engaging them in every available form of constructive dialogue, while Cllr Mike Jones asserted the important but complementary view that such dialogue will succeed ONLY if politicians respect the views of communities (even if they disagree) AND if communities abandon NIMBYism and seek to understand the bigger picture.
These strong messages for the three essential groups encapsulate the significant lessons learnt, but it was also clear that much of the success had been enabled by the recent creation of the Cheshire West and Chester unitary authority, whose councillors told me how many significant barriers to progress under the former two-tier system had simply disappeared. The new unitary system positively calls for community engagement both for its own sake and to promote better value for money. This places the local authority at the focal point for creating the necessary partnerships. But elected representatives and officers alike simply hadn't known how to engage with communities: they had had to learn new communication skills and attitudes, and likewise, communities had had to be encouraged to reciprocate. It had been very hard work, but very worthwhile. Could this be what the Big Society looks like? It is evidently very different from two-tier Ipswich and Suffolk. But if unitary local government is such a catalyst for success, why has the Secretary of State suspended the creation of new ones? If it is good for Cheshire West and Chester, a historic town in a largely rural setting, then why not for Ipswich in Suffolk? Or will the County Council's 'New Strategic Direction' prove to be a comparably successful alternative for Suffolk?