We need to put a Community HEART Strategy into every high street

Ahead of Civic Voice’s latest #inconversation with Matthew Mckeague, I wanted to continue to share my thoughts as to how we can do high street regeneration differently.  My message, echoed by Professor Cathy Parker is that it is important that everywhere has a group of people caring about it.

A community is the life-blood of every place. It is why, every high street needs a Community HEART Strategy. 

CAthy Parker BID

The role of high streets and town centres in contributing to the local economy and the health, wellbeing, cohesion, and cultural life of the local community is vital.  Covid-19 has been devastating for the health of the nation in so many ways. We must use what has happened to rethink the traditional models.  We need to start a new era of community led high streets.

We should use this devastating period to not just #buildbackbetter but instead to create the economy and society that we want.

So, what can we do?

Community – It all starts with people meeting together 

We need a focus on bringing people together.  If you allow people to take steps to meet their neighbours, they will.  Do you have a ‘a central heart’ – a ‘gathering space’ where you can meet as a community? Somewhere to meet a friend or to bump into a familiar face?? it can be park, square or library. Every high street needs places to gather. Where o you gather as a community on your high street?

Do you know where the heart of your high street is?

  • H – Heritage
  • E – Economy stupid, but for everyone. Establish priorities
  • A – Accessible for all. Make you area attractive for everyone.
  • R – Redefine it. The recovery will happen…. but it needs to be planned
  • T – Together and embrace technology

Heritage – A sense of place. 

  • Every place is unique, and every place is different, with its own distinctive assets and sense of place.  A one size fits all approach does not work. People do not want a clone town. 69 high streets across England have now been selected to receive a share of the £95 million fund. Learn about these!
  • Identify the civic infrastructure – libraries, charity shops, pubs – places that people connect. Showcase your community’s unique characteristics. Find the heart.
  • Much can be done locally, but not everything. It is okay to look to other places for inspiration. Places will be affected differently by Covid-19 and will face a different recovery period. Use frameworks that can be adapted for local conditions. Check out IPM’s 4 stage model and adapt it locally.  

Economy stupid, but for everyone. Establish priorities.

  • Britain’s shopping culture is changing. The future of retail is dead. High Streets will need to share retail space with residential, working, leisure, health and educational spaces.
  • A diverse economic strategy needs to support existing businesses,  but has to create a culture that supports local entrepreneurs and innovators to drive forward the area. 100 employers employing 2 people will in the long term be better than 2 employers employing 100 people. It will make you more local, more resilient.
  • Focus on creating a local economy with local jobs supported by local people. Speak to the council about support available to stimulate new businesses. Ownership should be in the hands of the community. Power to Change supports people to start and grow community businesses to revive local assets, protect the services people rely on, and address local needs. Community businesses help make places better, for example by saving local shops, giving more training opportunities for local people or providing affordable housing.

Accessible for all. Make you area attractive for everyone. 

  • For everyone. – Bikes, pedestrians, business, residents, young and old…. everyone has a role to play. It should be a place for everyone to visit and a place where everyone can feel like they can set up a new business. This will mean reducing the number of cars on our roads. It can be done .
  • Accessible for all. Create a viable future by connecting local community groups together. Connect the dots and map out what is happening.  You need to coordinate partnerships and stop working in silos. Inspiring more community involvement will be the single and most important thing you can do to build a resilient high street. Broadstairs Town Team aim to make our town an even nicer place to live in, work in and visit.  Collaboration is key to that. It’s all about Community working together.
  • Attractive for all: Give different people a reason to visit.  Don’t shut the high street at 6pm. Aim for the Purple Flag Award. In every community you will have talented musicians who need a platform. Make a music festival.

Redefine it. The recovery will happen…. but it needs to be planned 

  • Make sure you register with the High Streets Task Force and follow the Task Force recovery plan with suggestion to transform your High Street.
  • The Wimbledon Society decided to produce their own plan (Vision 2040), which started with the local community wishlist, and deals with the major issues facing ‘High Streets’ on a national level.  The society were keen to have ‘proposals’ not just ‘policies’, and to be ‘proactive’ and not ‘reactive’. Most importantly, through ‘Vision 2040’, they want to show what kind of town they could look forward to, including: relocating traffic, pedestrianising and planting extensively, celebrating the historic environment, all in a plan that is produced “bottom up” by local people, rather than the usual “top down”
  • The time is ripe to focus on creating varied communities in towns, that cater for the people who live in them. Utilise the Tactical urbanism approach. Tactical urbanism is about focusing on low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment.

Technology and a planned transition to a new ways of trading

  • Technology: Can you count the footfall on your high street? Do you have a virtual High Street? Do you do digital? Do you have a social media presence?  Would it be possible for someone to work from a local cafe? Do you have free WIFI? You need to be able to answer these questions.
  • Together:  By thinking differently, working together and putting the ‘place’ as the priority, we can overcome great obstacles. Put politics away. Focus on place. The People’s Town Centre Vision , put together by Aldershot Civic Society is showing what is possible. Read more here.
  • Transition: A transition plan will help you bring together the different ideas and focus on the future in a focused, deliberate manner

We need to put the Community HEART into every high street.

We need to use this chance to do things differently, but the solution for our high streets is already in them. We must reignite a sense of pride and ownership within a local community and encourage residents and businesses to join in investing in the area, the solution for our high streets is already in them.

Remember, places are not limited by their opportunity; they are limited by their leadership. Let’s inspire the community leaders in our towns to step forward and help shape the future.

Finally, start establish a Community Heart Action Plan. Do not wait for the local council to do this. If you start, other activities and priorities will start connecting together! Civic Voice’s webinar series will cover the detail of what this might look like.

NEXT STEPS

If you want to part of a growing movement wanting to shape our towns and cities, I would suggest that you sign up for Civic Voice’s #inconversation events on for the w/c 22nd June.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

At Civic Voice, our goal is to continue to give communities a voice at the national level on the issues and decisions that affect you locally. I pledge to you that we will continue to collaborate with communities to make great places.

Civic Voice is a part of the Government’s High Streets Task Force. The High Streets Task Force has been set-up to strengthen local leadership in high streets and town centres in England. It will do this by providing information, advice, training, knowledge and data – helping people to make a positive difference to their local communities.

We encourage civic societies and community groups to register to receive task force updates from https://highstreetstaskforce.org.uk/

If you want to consider the idea of establishing a  Community HEART Strategy,  get in touch at info@civicvoice.org.uk

 

We need to put a Community HEART Strategy into every high street

A number of civic societies have been in touch to ask a simple question – What is a Community Improvement District?

A work in progress……

My own progression to ‘Community Improvement Districts’, builds on from the Big Conservation Conservation and my work championing  ‘Conservation Area Improvement Districts’. With 100s of conservation areas being high streets in their own right, I wanted to explore ways of unlocking money that could be ring fenced for improving the historic environment. Sharing the idea with community groups led me directly to the idea that ‘Community Improvement Districts’ could be a solution to give communities a more meaningful voice in shaping their high street.

Yet, as much as I like to be the fount of wisdom on all great things, I have discovered that this is not a new idea.  Engaging London’s Communities: the Big Society and Localism put forward the idea in 2011 suggested ‘Community Improvement Districts’  as a possible way ahead when the idea of Big Society was in our lexicon. My own research has unearthed Community Improvement Districts in the US (29 in Georgia!), but they seem to be more common to BIDs, just with a slightly different name. 

BIDs should be replaced with CIDS
MHCLG Select Committee

The MHCLG Select Committee was attracted by the idea that BIDs should be replaced with Community Improvement Districts (2019).

The National Lottery funded organisation, Power to Change is  also looking at CIDs as part of their own 10 year vision to see community business recognised as a new economic model.  

Momentum is building in England, but Scotland is ahead

In the placemaking agenda, Scotland is one-step ahead of the rest of the UK on many fronts and it seems to be the same with CIDs! @JoeJamesBarratt recently highlighted to me on twitter that Improvement Districts operate in Scotland and could be a model for England to follow.  But it was thanks to Simon Quinn, IPM, who messaged me to share a story about a ‘Pilot Community Improvement District’ in Scotland.  See the story here.CIDs in Scotland

This isn’t a CID yet, but well done Scotland for leading the way and bringing an idea to life. I am a firm believer that we should share ideas and information and not to reinvent the wheel. It also gives me an excuse to visit Scotland when the lockdown is over!

We know that High Streets have been suffering across the UK as peoples’ shopping and leisure habits change. The impact is now being accelerated due to Covid. So, when things change, the way we do things should change to. The governance of our high streets needs to change.

I can see Community Improvement Districts working alongside traditional BIDs, but focused on smaller high streets and smaller towns, where, a BID alone may not be financially viable. For example where a critical mass of businesses don’t exist, but that they need to work together for the greater good.

The CID model can break down the barriers between corporates, citizens and councils, and can everyone to better understand the challenges and the importance of collective action. Every action will count when added together!

So, what might it look like:

  • A Community Improvement District (CID) would be a defined area of business and residential properties, whose owners choose to pay an additional precept (think how town and parish council are funded!)
  • The governance would be centred on the power of “community”.  By bringing together corporates, community groups, citizens and councils in a collaborative partnership, to give everyone a meaningful voice.
  • The additional revenue is then decided upon by the local people and dedicated to services and improvements within the high street’s boundaries.
  • It may well be a charitable trust.

Covid-19 is changing everything

As Covid-19 has shown us, we are all connected. We need the local family running an independent cafe, or a library with hours the allow children to attend after school, or a local park to be open and safe. Our problems cannot be solved in isolation. But the future leadership in our towns will be trusted, transparent, place-focused networks, with the community at the heart. Its ‘garlic bread… its the future.’

Informal networks on high streets

Let me be clear: BIDs will continue to have an essential role in reviving our town centres, but a BID is just one mechanism that might help us redefine our High Streets more effectively. We have to bring the community to the heart of our high streets. It is critical that we collaborate together to show how much we value where we live.

Next steps

If someone wanted to proceed with a Community Improvement District, then I would suggest you register for Civic Voice’s #inconversation event on June 23rd. Phil Prentice from Scotland’s Town Partnership will be sharing perspectives as to how the  Possilpark traders are pulling together to pilot a Community Improvement District. 

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Civic Voice is a part of the Government’s High Streets Task Force. The High Streets Task Force has been set-up to strengthen local leadership in high streets and town centres in England. It will do this by providing information, advice, training, knowledge and data – helping people to make a positive difference to their local communities.

We encourage civic societies and community groups to register to receive task force updates from https://highstreetstaskforce.org.uk/

A number of civic societies have been in touch to ask a simple question – What is a Community Improvement District?

Using the Place Alliance’s housing audit criteria to assess housing planning applications – want to join a working group to mainstream this?

On the day that national bodies, including Civic Voice and the Place Alliance, join together to call for a national design delivery unit, Leeds Civic Trust share a perspective on housing and how they are making the case for higher quality local design. 

If you have read the Place Alliance’s report (January 2020) into the state of 142 new housing developments in England over the last five years, I am sure you will agree that it makes sobering reading. For those who are unfamiliar, the report can be downloaded here: http://placealliance.org.uk/research/national-housing-audit/

The following bullet points give a flavour of some of the findings to come out of this audit:

  • Although there had been a small improvement on the previous survey, new housing design is mediocre or poor based on the assessment criteria used in the audit
  • One in five of the 142 schemes considered should have been refused outright. Even when some of these schemes were refused, they were won on appeal
  • Lower density developments tended to be of poorer quality (it is suggested that this is because there is less incentive to be creative)
  • Those who buy the properties like them. Those who live nearby often do not. But both parties agree that these estates are often too car and road dominated.
  • Less affluent communities get poorer designs even though the cost differential between a poor and good design is marginal

Pretty damning stuff.

And yet for many of us in the business of looking at planning applications and development proposals, the prospect of commenting on new-build housing developments is not one that fills us with joy. These are often dwellings that are designed by numbers – often without the influence of an architect. It seems strange that we spend hours poring over the design details of a “statement building” in a city or town centre, but all too often developments such as thee receive little attention, even though in volume terms they have a much bigger impact;  Leeds has one of the highest targets for new housing in the country – around 50,000 to be built between 2017-2033. If most of these sites are developed, their impact (for good or for ill) will be huge.

So at Leeds Civic Trust, we have decided to pay more attention to these schemes by adopting the 17 criteria using the Place Alliance in its housing audit assessment. The difference is that we are using them to consider planning applications rather than completed schemes. With that in mind, we have made some adjustments:

  • We have tweaked the criteria to add a few additional areas for consideration.
    • For example, we have added consideration of climate emergency (under criteria 4: Environmental Impact),
    • how the edges of developments are treated and screening implemented (under criteria 6: Existing and New Landscapes)
    • and quality of fencing and walls (under Safety and Security). 
    • We are also considering adding an 18th criterion, which will consider broader public health issues. Although the criteria will guide our analysis of all housing applications, we are unlikely to use it in full for the smallest schemes (the Place Alliance audit was focused on volume housebuilding and so excluded developments with less than 50 units).
  • We will also include under each criterion a relevant policy reference – for example, an appropriate section of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), A reference to the National Housing Design Guide or to Leeds City Council’s Neighbourhoods for Living document. This ensures that our observations are underpinned by policy

Using the criteria in practice

  1. Swithins Lane – scheme layout 

Swithins Lane – scheme layout

  1. Swithins Lane Example House types 

Swithins Lane Example House types

The first scheme we looked at was a development of 66 dwellings on Swithins Lane in Rothwell on the outskirts of Leeds, our overall assessment of the scheme was that it was poor to mediocre – it only scored “good” on three criteria (Community Facilities, Housing Types and Safety and Security).

In our assessment we said that:

“the proposal is considered to have low standards and aspirations, particularly with regard to landscaping, sustainability (flood retention strategy, wind alleviation strategy, biodiversity), transport & waste management and context.”

We were also critical of the architectural response (the scheme uses standard housing types) and the way in which highways dominate.

I think it is fair to say that using this criteria-based approach forced us to make a more through assessment than would ordinarily have been the case, and as a result we have produced a much more rounded critique of the scheme in front of us.

Insisting on high quality design

Professor Matthew Carmona, Chair of the Place Alliance made an interesting remark in a recent blog post in which he critiques the government’s latest Planning document Planning for the Future. He says:

“On the one hand the document espouses a ‘world-class planning service’ and the need to ‘create beautiful and sustainable places’ for everyone.  On the other it talks a language of deregulation wrapped up in extending permitted development rights, expanding the use of zoning tools, and giving automatic rebates of planning fees when local authorities loose appeals.”

This was written before the Covid-19 emergency had really taken hold. It seems likely that the volume housebuilders will lead the call for a further relaxation of planning rules to get the construction industry moving and to address the housing crisis after months during which housebuilding plans have been put on hold. So, in the face of an economic downturn, there is a danger that design considerations will be pushed further downgraded. The role for civic societies in insisting on good design and placemaking will be more important than ever. The rigour offered by these audit criteria provides us with a framework through which we can demand higher standards in Post Covid-19 world where there may be pressure to allow standard to slip further.

Martin Hamilton

Director, Leeds Civic Trust

@LeedsCivicTrust

The design quality of the external residential environment will be measured against seventeen topics:

1. Community facilities – Does the development provide (or is it close to) community facilities, such as a school, parks, play areas, shops, pubs or cafés?
2. Housing types – Is there a mix of housing types to meet varied local needs?
3. Public transport – Does the development have easy access to public transport?
4. Environmental impact – Does the development have a low environmental impact?
5. The locality – Is the design specific to the scheme?
6. Existing and new landscape – Does the scheme exploit existing landscape or topography and create a new bio-diverse landscape?
7. Character of the development – Does the scheme feel like a place with a distinctive character?
8. Street legibility – Do the buildings and layout make it easy to find your way around?
9. Street definition – Are streets defined by a well-structured building layout?
10. Highway design – Does the building layout take priority over the road, so that highways do not dominate?
11. Car parking – Is the car parking well integrated and situated, so it supports the street scene?
12. Pedestrian friendly – Are the streets pedestrian and cycle friendly?
13. Connectivity within and with the surroundings developments – Does the street layout connect up internally and integrate with existing streets, paths and surrounding development?
14. Safety and security – Are open spaces, play areas and streets overlooked and do they feel safe?
15. Public, open and play spaces – Is public, open and play spaces well designed and does it have suitable management arrangements in place?
16. Architectural quality – Do the buildings exhibit architectural quality?
17. Storage and bins – Are storage spaces well designed and do they integrate well within the development?

Civic Voice wants to establish a working group to see how we can mainstream this approach and to consider whether training programmes could be developed by a range of providers may provide further material to help understand urban design principles and the specific issues underpinning this approach.

Are you interested in joining this group: get in touch at info@civicvoice.org.uk.

Using the Place Alliance’s housing audit criteria to assess housing planning applications – want to join a working group to mainstream this?

How can we do high streets differently?

In the latest of a series of blogs, our director Ian Harvey considers how we can all play a part in the future of our high street.

Ahead of Civic Voice’s high street conversation with Graham Galpin, I wanted to share a few thoughts of my own as to what communities can do.  My message, echoed by Professor Cathy Parker is that what’s important is that everywhere has a group of people caring about it.

We all to need to get involved.CAthy Parker BID

According to the Government’s own research, 57% of people want to have influence over decisions that are happening in their area; yet 26% of those individuals do not feel they actually influence those decisions.

My message to those individuals. Now is the time to act. Your local area needs you more than ever.

We all have something we love about where we live. It might be a patch of green space or a historic building. Or maybe you have a conservation area that makes you proud, or a local high street that has lots of independents.

What has happened in the past few weeks has made us all realise how valuable our towns and city centres area.

And now, more than ever, your local high street and town centre needs you. The next few years will be some of the most challenging that we face.  Yet it all starts with me, you, all of us.  The local area and high street needs you. The future of our high streets will be led by local activity and local ownership. There are now over 300 Business Improvement Districts established across the country and they are a key mechanism to help support businesses in areas that have one. Unfortunately though, many areas do not have a BID.

Civic societies and community groups have been champions of our town centres and high streets for many years. In the past, it has been so easy for people to say ‘it is the responsibility of the council to take action’. That attitude is not acceptable anymore. If you want to see your high street and town centre succeed, you need to get involved. Councils have a key ‘enabler/facilitator’ role, but we can achieve so much through local place leaders coming together and curating the area to be a ‘community district’.

There are so many ways to show that we care and to play our part –  we can shop locally, launch a town vision, engage business, maybe start a campaign? But we need local leaders.

Every high street needs a long-term vision about what it is offering and this needs to fit in with the wider challenges faced by society. For example, the UK has a serious housing shortage. Why don’t we seriously consider converting some empty shop units into housing? In my opinion, the future leadership of our high streets needs to be driven by informal place-focused community and business networks.

What we need is action and we can start today.

How can we save our town centres and high streets? Through working together;

  1. Find out what the council plan for your area? Stay apolitical, but talk to local councillors and the MP.
  2. If they don’t have the answer, start a social media campaign – ‘What do you love about your area?’ What are the 3 things you would change?
  3. After that, if you do nothing else, register with the High Streets Task Force. The High Streets Task Force was set up in July last year to support local authorities, business and community groups to transform their high streets. Register here.
  4. Once registered with the Task Force, get in touch with local media and tell them that you want to start talking about where we live. Use local press and radio, advertise in the local library, church or town hall! Have a town conversation!
  5. Organise a ‘virtual workshop” to get people to start thinking about the recovery and that you want to start mapping the different business and activities that you have on the high street?
  6. Get everyone engaged, e.g. speak to the Friends of the park, local residents associations, church groups, business associations etc
  7. Host a networking lunch on Zoom with local businesses – can they work together to provide services to the community?
  8. Launch a ‘loyalty card’ to encourage local shopping
  9. If possible, get people together and organise a socially distanced litter pick
  10. If possible, go and support a local cafe … even if you all stand 2 metres apart. It’s a start.
  11. Then do more. And more. And more.

When people ask what your response was in the recovery to covid-19, be the person that can say that you cared about where you live! You didn’t wait for someone else.  You started a twitter conversation, you connected with others, you Zoomed.

The future of your town centre will be thankful.

At Civic Voice, our goal is to continue to give communities a voice at the national level on the issues and decisions that affect you locally. I pledge to you that we will continue to collaborate with communities to make great places.

Ian Harvey

Executive Director

@ianmichharvey

How can we do high streets differently?

Kevin Trickett,Wakefield Civic Society, shares his thoughts on the Society going from the “physical to the digital”

When’s the best time to fix the roof? In the summer, when the sun is shining, or in the winter, when it’s pouring with rain?

Now, you might argue that the winter is the best time – after all, if it’s raining, you can see where the problems are while in the summer, when there’s no indication of any problems, you just want to relax and enjoy the good times.

In some ways, this analogy is akin to the coronavirus epidemic. Before it hit, we were all getting on with our lives and not really thinking about storm clouds on the horizon. But then the virus emerged and life, as we knew it, changed for everyone, and suddenly we had to start fixing the roof.

Joan Humble and Kevin trickett - manifesto
Joan Humble, Chair of Civic Voice and Kevin Trickett

My point here is that events can overtake any of us, unexpected and unbidden at any time. Some events will be relatively minor – no more than a slipped slate or roof tile – but others will be much more serious and have huge consequences – more akin to the whole roof coming off. Coronavirus definitely falls into the latter category.

So, how prepared were you for the calamity that has beset us? I’m talking here about how equipped your civic society was to manage its way through the situation. How agile and resilient is your society to keep going through the current emergency?

As some readers will know, I’ve been ‘involved’ in the civic society movement for over 30 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes over that time. Some societies have been on the front foot (and I’d like to count my own society among that number) while others have been much more hesitant and, indeed, resistant to change.

I became a member of Wakefield Civic Society in 1989 having already enjoyed some of their outings and events prior to taking out membership. In April 1990, I agreed to join the Society’s Executive Committee and then, in 2002, I became its president. When I first joined the committee, minutes and newsletters were printed using a typewriter and copied using an old-fashioned duplicator. They were then assembled, put in envelopes and hand delivered or posted to members, a time- consuming and costly process. Electric typewriters and eventually computers were introduced but ‘modern technology’ was still a minority sport. When I became president, I decided to ‘modernise’ by getting everyone on the committee to use email. It took some effort to convince people that this was the future and some people never made it on-line; they either retired or passed away without ever using a computer. But we pushed forward, extending email distribution of our newsletters and other information to our wider membership. Over the years, we have moved from having just a handful of members on email to the position we are in today, where we have over 95% of our membership now receiving their news from us by email. On top of that, we have a website and make full use of social media – yes, we are on Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram.

These channels allow us to communicate not just with our members, but with a much wider audience – stakeholders, partners and the general public. We do, of course, still keep in touch with members who are not on email. This is usually by post (and sometimes telephone) but occurs less frequently than for those on email.The coronavirus epidemic changed everything. We have had to cancel all our events for the time being which is a considerable blow and will affect our ability to fundraise and attract new members.

However, we have not stopped working. We continue to talk to our members, mostly by email of course, but we are using social media too. Oh, and we have just opened a Zoom video conferencing account which has enabled the committee to see and speak to each other at our monthly committee meetings.

Once you get used to the technology, it’s actually good fun to ‘see’ people in this way. On 23rd April, we even held the Society’s Wakefield CS AGM VirtualAnnual General Meeting using Zoom. It was a much-slimmed down version of our usual AGM and we asked for volunteers from the membership to take part. The important thing is that we did it and that enabled us to do the legal stuff we have to do to comply
with the requirements of our constitution and also the Charity Commission.

One benefit from the experiment is that it has given us confidence to start experimenting with more on-line communication, possibly even putting short videos on-line. It’s early days yet, so we are not sure exactly what we are going to be doing, but it clearly won’t be business as usual. We need to be innovative if we are going to stay relevant. We certainly don’t want people to forget we are here! So, by fixing the roof while the sun shone – by which I mean moving on-line early on and then, over the years, building up communication lines with members and others through a variety of channels, we were reasonably well-placed for when the weather turned bad. Who knows, even after lockdown ends and the need for social distancing is reduced, we may continue to apply some of the new methods we are adopting now. Video conferencing might not always be the way we would prefer to work, but it’s a really useful facility. In fact, so many people are using it that I now find myself taking part in meetings with people across the country to the point where my diary is once again filling up – and the real beauty of it is the convenience and low cost. I no longer need to do a two-to-three-hour commute to get to a meeting in London, say, and then repeat the journey to get home, taking a whole day out of my calendar and a wodge of cash out of my wallet.

I’d like to think that the civic society movement has cottoned on to the benefits of technology and that civic societies are firing on all cylinders still. Sadly, though, I know that’s not always true and I have heard from a few people who don’t know how they will keep things going over the next few months. Well, now is the time to start experimenting. Open that Twitter account, think about video conferencing and try to get email addresses for as many of your members as you can.

Don’t worry too much about getting things wrong to begin with; we all make mistakes in the early days, and you can always ask others for help if you get stuck. One useful tip is that you can often find on-line tutorials on YouTube for almost anything you need help with (some better than others!). They have certainly helped me on a number of occasions! Now, I know that some of you will say ‘most of our members aren’t on-line, so there’s no point’ and you’ll shrug your shoulders and do nothing. I’ve encountered that reaction so many times over the years! But you have to start at some point and now is as good a time as any – it’s not as if you’ll be going anywhere, is it? Take the plunge – start a tweeting, ask your committee to join you in a video conference, start broadcasting to the world about what you are doing!

And while I am not advocating that you abandon your members who are not on-line, think about the future of your society. Is the future of the civic society movement going to be based on an outdated model of printing and posting newsletters to a predominantly older membership group, or is it going to be based on attracting lots of new members who are geared up and wired for both sound – and video?

Kevin Trickett,Wakefield Civic Society, shares his thoughts on the Society going from the “physical to the digital”

The Civic Movement: Coronavirus and beyond

The current coronavirus lockdown has disrupted the work of civic societies, along with
almost everything else in our national life. However, the enforced hiatus in so many of our activities gives an opportunity for those of us involved in the civic movement to pause and reflect on how things might develop in the future. It already seems clear that the eventual outcome will not be “business as usual”. Our patterns of work, travel, shopping and leisure are likely to change on a permanent basis and this could have profound effects on the economy and development of our cities and towns.

Members of the Civic Voice Board have been working together to consider how Civic Voice can best help civic societies in these unprecedented times. As an important first step, we have produced and circulated a survey asking societies to let us know how they are coping and what their future priorities will be. We have had over 110 responses so far but we need more. We are aiming for a minimum of 200 responses. We plan to use the results to shape our future priorities and seek funding support to carry them out.

Here are some of the key findings from the first batch of studies:

Have you had to cancel events

  • Despite having cancelled many events and meetings, most Civic Societies are continuing key functions during lockdown, including scrutinising planning decisions,nand many are making use of videoconferencing facilities.
  • The vast majority of societies are confident of surviving the crisis, but around 20% of them think that the crisis may have a major impact on their future sustainability.
  • Many societies are concerned that there will be a lack of proper scrutiny of planning applications and that resources for planning will be squeezed even further in future
  • The key priorities for Civic Voice campaigning are seen as:
    o Bringing new life to town and city centres
    o Giving local communities more influence in planning decisions.
  • The main types of support that societies would find useful are: developing IT and
    social media skills; developing community engagement in planning; local
    campaigning and profile raising skills.Do you intend on doing any of the following

Do you agree with these, or does your society have a different perspective and other
priorities?

If your society has not yet responded, please try to do so by 3rd May at 5pm. The link to the survey is here.

We none of us know for certain what the long-term impact of this crisis will be but we need to be prepared for change. England’s need for a strong and active civic movement will be at least as great in the future as it has been in our past.

David Evans

The Civic Movement: Coronavirus and beyond

As we continue to move from the physical to the digital, Ian Harvey shares a perspective from attending a virtual planning committee meeting.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s first ever ‘virtual planning meeting’.  Utilising the MS Teams software, the event was live-streamed on Thursday 9 April at 6.30pm, and featured members from the RBKC Planning Committee.KBKC Notice of meeting

I made some notes from the session which I’d like to share with you as we work to get  more people involved in changing the way we involve communities in planning. I can see that using technology will help support Civic Voice’s ambition to build on from the already engaged in planning, to getting absolutely everyone involved. 

  • I had to register as a guest, but think, in future, Councils should be making people register with full contact details to increase transparency for everyone involved. It would then decrease the likelihood of people abusing the process i.e. See Somerset Council. 
  • A good chair and focused agenda is essential. 
  • A PowerPoint was shared with participants and we were able to listen in as Council Officers presented three different schemes. It worked okay until the need to go back to review parts of the presentation. Unfortunately the slides went forward….
  • It felt like that the discussion was less natural, but I am sure this will evolve as people become more comfortable with the format. 
  • Paperwork/plans/photographs etc should be circulated to an email list of participants and posted on social media for further interest well-ahead of the meeting for people to access.
  • It should be possible for questions to be submitted ahead of the meeting, then at the point in the meeting, individual(s) introduced to speak via a digital platform. If the individual cannot attend, the question should still be recorded and responded too.
  • Councillors need time to consider potential questions/points from the public so that they can prepare a reply.
  • A full report/recording from the meeting should be circulated to all individuals registered on a mailing list. 
  • The Committee considered the Planning Officer’s recommendation and arrived at their decision by means of a vote…. A decision to approve and whether to impose conditions occurred as it would in a normal physical meeting.
  • I spotted on twitter, one comment that someone had difficulties with the time it took for the website to load, but I can only speak for my own experience. It worked well.
  • In summary, it worked okay for the first meeting and RBKC should be applauded for being one of the first councils to do this. It can be easy to be critical of councils trying something new, but someone has to start the process!  

Will we see more people engaged and participating?

With the introduction on ‘virtual planning meetings’, the challenge will be to recreate (as best we can)  the sense of involvement that people gainCllr Cem Kehali from attending face-to-face meetings. 

Responding to a comment on twitter, RBKC Cllr Kemahli,  tweeted that nearly 200 members of the public watching at one point. This is a positive.

Even Somerset Council, which reported incidents of misuse and irresponsible comments, reported a higher than usual turnout. These are early positive signs.

In Civic Voice’s experience, we have found people are prepared to be polite, to play by the rules and to allow space for meaningful participation.  We shouldn’t allow a few minority of idiots to stop what is a positive step for the planning system. 

Some suggestions for local councils to consider to enhance the experience:

  • Have access to widgets (like video, infographic, document and podcast libraries) to support the presentation of the scheme
  • Allow registered users to contribute live (managed discussion) and to see other people’s thoughts and suggestions to increase interaction. 
  • The quality of individual internet connections will no doubt vary. We do not want to see lots of frozen screens and drop-outs, so ensuring the testing of the quality of internet connection. 

So, How Do We Ensure that Planning Committee remain inclusive?

When the average time that someone can speak at a planning committee meeting is 3 minutes, do we class them as inclusive now? Or perhaps the time of day is a barrier to participation? We know some councils hold committees during the daytime, so does this immediately exclude working people from participating.

The planning committee is only one part of using “digital” to enhance “democracy”  and all public comments throughout the process should be visible. The first #plantech company to build a platform to enable the above to happen will be in a strong position!

Planning committee meetings are public meetings where elected councillors assemble to decide whether planning applications should be approved or rejected and whether approved applications should have planning conditions or planning obligations attached to them. And they are physical. But no more. They will now become digital. 

The key will be integrating the physical and digital going forward. It needs both.  

Should communities embrace or fear the virtual planning meetings?

If anyone should fear the change, it should be local councils. Both Somerset and RBKC reported a significant increase in the number of people registering to participate. That is as a positive. The more people that participate, the more aware and accountable councils will be to the electorate on the decisions they are taking.

Summary

We know that some councils plan to delegate all decisions to officers during this period. I do not think that is very democratic or transparent. We need to build trust in planning and that means transparency.  There is no easy path for councils, and there will be limits as to what can work, but with the advancement in technology, we should be embracing this change and not letting the “perfect” answer, get in the way of progress. 

It will be interesting to see what elected members and the public make of the operation of the new rules over the next year or so and my colleague Sarah James is putting together a guide that will look at the good, the bad and the ugly so that we can improve and enhance the experience across the board. 

A review of these regulations will be undertaken by MHCLG and we are urging councils to do the same. We are pleased that RBKC have already shared a survey asking for feedback. You can see it here. We will be sharing this with other councils as it is by learning and sharing that we can improve the process together

My colleague Sarah would welcome hearing the experience from others via info@civicvoice.org.uk. We will be undertaking our own assessment of the way councils are working, so please do register your interest at info@civicvoice.org.uk to be kept updated. If you have participated in a virtual planning meeting, let Sarah know:

  • Any general comments on the Virtual Planning Meeting
  • What worked well? 
  • What could be improved?
  • What would you like to see changed?
  • Were you able to hear participants?
  • Were you able to see participants?
  • What would improve the experience and process for future meetings?
  • Would specific guidance be helpful?
  • When you submitted a question, were the responses back to you helpful?
  • Was the information sent to you about attending the meeting to ask a supplementary question or about how to submit a supplementary question, 

Digital tools can certainly be used by councils to ensure that community view and recommendations can inform and influence local decision making.

Ian Harvey

Civic Voice

As we continue to move from the physical to the digital, Ian Harvey shares a perspective from attending a virtual planning committee meeting.