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engaging policy-making

Engaging with communities is a big focus in contemporary urban planning – and a focus for a great deal of uncertainty about how to get it right. Most discussion tends to focus on how to involve “the community” in developing proposals for specific places, or in drawing up particular strategies or plans.

But should we not be looking at the bigger picture too? The default approach is still to ask communities to engage with professionals on our terms – to fit in with our strategies, plans and timetables. Whilst there’s a long way to go before we get this right, I believe we should also be considering the bigger issue of gearing policy-making more to the needs of communities.

Two things have brought this home to me recently. The first was a seminar organised by the Scottish Government’s Town Centres and Local High Streets Learning Network on Whole Town Strategies in October 2009. Through the course of an excellent day of discussion and presentation, one issue cropped up continually: how can we engage communities meaningfully?

The second thing is some work that I am currently doing with Architecture + Design Scotland, Highland Council, the British Council and Willie Miller Urban Design, on preparing a new city vision for Inverness – using a more community-based process than has been used in the past. This innovative pilot project is based on collaboration and harnessing creative energy from across local communities.

Giving local communities an opportunity to influence particular projects – say a new housing development or a town centre regeneration initiative – is essential. But if we are really to deliver on the Scottish Government’s aspiration of more community engagement and empowerment, we need also to consider how to ensure that higher level strategic frameworks reflect local aspirations. (And this should include residents, businesses, visitors, young people, disadvantaged people… the whole spectrum.) Why is this important? Because it’s at this strategic level – Community Plans, Structure Plans, City Vision and so on – that sets the parameters for where those new housing developments or town centre regeneration initiatives happen.

What policy-makers should do, in my view, is to think not how we can make the public engage with our consultations; but how we as professionals – which includes me – should change the way that we organise our public contact so that policy-making and consultation is more meaningful.

One way of doing this is to put a more meaningful interface between traditional consultation and the public. The diagram below suggests a way of doing that, by inserting a layer of co-ordinated engagement between traditional policy consultations and the public. The idea is not to add another layer of expensive and time-consuming plan-making: it is simply to co-ordinate what already takes place (from Citizens’ Panels to Local Development Plan consultations) into an ongoing process of engagement and feedback. These collaborative, engagement processes focus on the left side of the diagram; plans, strategies and policy wording (and any associated technical or legal consultation) should remain the preserve of the ‘technical’ side on the right.

diagram

The idea is to allow technical and policy documents like Community Plans and Local Development Plans to be tools rather than drivers of change. At the moment they are forced into doing performing both of these roles and, I believe, suffer as a result. They would no longer have to establish vision, objectives and parameters as well as legalistic detail like policy wording – which at the moment only obfuscate the bigger things that community and stakeholder engagement should focus on.

There are lots of questions about the detail of how this should be implemented – not least whether it should organised by the government or by local authorities. And I’m not suggesting that policy documents should reflect only what emerges through community and stakeholder consultation: they need to reflect national political priorities too. But I do believe that something needs to happen – with the diagram being one way forward – if the policy talk about community engagement and empowerment is to be transformed into action.

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