Leading a team with colleagues from Cass Associates, we’ve recently completed two series of community workshops for Wrexham County Borough Council in Wales. The aim of the workshops was to feed community aspirations into their new statutory plan to guide development in the Borough for the next 15 years.
This was a new venture for the County Borough Council. New planning legislation in Wales is putting far more emphasis on community engagement in the planning system, as in other parts of the UK. The Welsh government now requires Councils to involve local communities far earlier than they have in the past. So, rather than Councils produce a plan and then ask people what they think about it – the conventional model of consultation – there is an increasing movement to ask people how they want to see their local communities, before starting to draw up the plan of how to achieve those changes.
Each local authority in Wales is tackling this differently. After all, this is new ground for most Councils, and there are clearly established ways of doing it. Wrexham’s approach was to look for experienced consultants who could run two series of community workshops to explain the process and get people thinking about how they wanted their areas to improve, and how planning could help in that.
We won the bid to run the workshops, in two phases, with 7 or 8 evening sessions in each phase. Each session covered a different part of the County Borough.
the first round of workshops
The first phase of workshops took place in January and February 2007, before any plans or proposals had been prepared. It wasn’t a full public consultation, but focussed on existing community organisations like Community Councils, and other local residents who had expressed a wish to be involved in preparation of the new plan. The aim was to get people thinking strategically about how they wanted the County Borough to develop over the next few years – such as what kind of communities they would like to live in and what sort of jobs they would like to see appear. We deliberately avoided the use of any plans. This was about discussing ideas and concepts, not physical proposals. Much of the evening was spent in facilitated group discussions, with the facilitators encouraging participants to share their ideas and discuss amongst themselves as much as possible.
In parallel with these workshops, the Council was busy consulting with other stakeholders (adjacent local authorities, developers, housing associations etc) and collating statistical information about population projections and rates of development in the Borough – all essential information to help prepare a long term plan for the area. Out of this process they drafted a high-level strategy for the area – suggesting which settlements might be the focus for future growth and development, and identifying key issues for the plan to tackle such as sustainability and economic change.
Key to the whole process was that this strategy was very much a draft – a document to stimulate discussion rather than set the agenda.
the second round
Our second round of workshops, in October 2007, were given greater publicity and achieved generally higher levels of attendance than the first phase. We also had a higher level of involvement from Council planning officers than the first phase – necessarily so, to accommodate the greater level of interest.
Although we had a draft strategy to work with and discuss, we actually kept the format and objectives similar to the first phase of workshops. Many people attending the second phase of workshops had not attended the first phase, and were new to planning and local government. So we took time to explain the importance of the new plan in determining the future of their areas, and why it was worthwhile for them to get involved. The group discussions were in many ways similar to those in the first phase: focussing on big headline issues like what sort of new jobs should the area try and attract, the need for higher quality of new development, improved transport and infrastructure, and many other issues.
giving people confidence
What is difficult to convey on a website is the importance of good facilitating in giving participants an environment where they can discuss complicated, difficult issues without feeling threatened or intimidated.
Giving people confidence was a big issue. Many people care about what happens to their local communities. But to people who haven’t been involved in the formality of planning and local governance before, putting their views across can be daunting. By encouraging people to share their views with each other, we were able to give people confidence that their opinions were valid, and were worthy of feeding into the new plan. And, for me, the workshops gave yet more evidence that people are perfectly capable of engaging on big, strategic issues… take a look at my blog post on this subject for discussion more about that.
If you’d like to see some hard facts about the workshops, you might like to read the reports on each phase of the workshops (below). They contain details of the agendas, numbers of participants, and a statistical breakdown of the feedback that we received from each session.
Thanks to Wrexham County Borough Council for some images on this page.