In the Government’s new Design Guidance, community panels or forums can be set up by local planning authorities or third sector organisations, such as civic societies, to represent the views of local communities by scrutinising plans, policies or applications.
Responding to this policy change, Epsom Civic Society recently held an open meeting, ‘Re-shaping Epsom’s Future’ to communicate more widely the planning pressures facing the Borough, and to ask people to become active citizens in the planning process. This is part of the Society’s support for a strong community input to shaping Epsom’s future.
We were prompted to call the open meeting primarily in anticipation of a public consultation on the draft Local Plan scheduled to run March – May 2020. In addition, we wanted to increase awareness of recent planning applications that have generated public concern about impacts on Conservation Areas and Listed buildings, townscape and community facilities.
The Borough of Epsom and Ewell is the smallest of Surrey’s 11 local authorities, and the most densely populated. It has 21 Conservation Areas, three on Historic England’s risk register. 42% of land is designated as Green Belt, with Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Ancient Woodland and Areas of Great Landscape Value also located within the Borough boundary. Epsom is at a tipping point in terms of planning and accommodating new development, with a shortage of urban land available for building. Central government housing targets have put massive pressure on space: build up or build out or do both. New housing delivery is significantly below benchmark, there’s a lack of a five-year housing land supply and delay with the new Local Plan. The Society’s committee was unanimous in deciding it was time for some meaningful community engagement to explain the importance of getting involved and how residents’ views can help shape local plan policies and influence the outcomes on key planning applications.
We set up a sub-committee to plan the event, and publicised the meeting via our newsletter to members and via social media, including a local community website. A cold January night did not prevent an excellent turnout: our chosen venue, a local church, centrally located, was full. People signed in on arrival and were given the option of leaving an email address for us to maintain contact. We also provided a comments book. Our presentation, in two parts, focused on the headline issues, before we moved to Q and A sessions which generated a useful range of questions and comments.
The Society’s committee conducted a post-event review to identify what worked well and lessons learned in terms of the venue, its facilities and accessibility, our programme content and delivery, and audience engagement, participation and feedback. Some key takeaways: (i) it was a worthwhile and timely event, well-attended (ii) audience management is important – ensure parameters are set for Q and A / comments at the outset (iii) use of Slido or similar could extend engagement https://www.sli.do/ (iv) post-event feedback from attendees is very useful (v) maintaining post-event momentum is challenging with a small committee such as ours. As for the Society’s own ‘next steps’, we have had a meeting with our MP (and invited him to join the APPG for Civic Societies) and are currently exploring opportunities as to how best to bring together the relevant people in a co-operative way to explore realistic solutions to the challenging situation we are all facing. We think that Local Plan policies must reflect community priorities in shaping the future of the Borough.
A strong community voice is needed to do this. We are now asking our members to send us their ideas for a future ECS event to support citizen action in planning.
In the words of Epsom Civic Society.
If you are inspired by Epsom Civic Society and would like to organise such a meeting, please speak to Civic Voice and we can support you: firstname.lastname@example.org.