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

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.


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 We will be undertaking our own assessment of the way councils are working, so please do register your interest at 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.

Local authorities in England handed new powers to hold planning meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology from April 4th

We understand that some civic societies and community groups are concerned about the implications of COVID19 and how this will impact the planning system in regard to Local Authorities processing planning applications.

In the same way that civic societies are saying that they are experiencing challenges in meeting face-to-face, we should not be surprised that this is also the case for councils.

So what is being done about this?

The government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic. This will enable councils to continue to make decisions during the current crisis.

Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows the relevant national authority to make regulations providing for virtual meetings in local authorities, including the Greater London Authority, district, county and unitary councils, parish councils and national park authorities.

The Regulations apply to meetings held, or required to be held, before 7th May 2021.

Does this affect Planning Committee Meetings?


The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.

Anticipating the impact of the current emergency on the planning system, the Chief Planner’s recent ‘Planning Update‘ advised on how councils could respond to ensure that the planning system could operate.

 ” The Government has confirmed that it will introduce legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period, which we expect will allow planning committees to continue.”

Chief Planner, Steve Quartermain

The Government has indeed introduced this legislation and local Councils can now legally hold online only council meetings.  It comes into force on April 4th

What do civic societies need to know?

The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including planning meetings.

Existing rules about the number of councillors or members of a group required to attend to make a meeting valid will remain, but virtual attendance will count.

Government will be working with others to developing guidance for local authorities about holding remote meetings.

Will the public will still have access to public meetings through remote means?

There are still some practical concerns about how these meetings will be hosted, and in particular the manner in which members of the public will be able to participate, but meetings must remain accessible whilst ensuring that councillors, staff and the wider public are able to follow government advice. We will see how this works through in practice.

Waltham Forest Council

The requirement for public meetings to be made accessible to the public remains, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.

An authority would have to make its own decision if it was going to cut back on public attendance and we would ask civic societies to inform us where this happens.

The regulations say:

  • Live webcast of meeting is enough to comply with new rules re press and public: “(9A) In this Act, references to—
    • (a)a meeting being “open to the public” includes access to the meeting through remote means including video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming
  • Where a meeting is accessible to the public through such remote means the meeting is open to the public whether or not members of the public are able to attend the meeting in person;
    • (a)any reference to being “present” at a meeting includes being present through remote attendance;
    • (b)any reference to a “place” where a meeting is held, or to be held, includes reference to more than one place including electronic, digital or virtual locations such as internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers;

Impact for civic societies and community groups?

We don’t know how this situation is going to work out.  It could be that more applications are delegated to officers or it could be that planning committees are unable to meet due to lack of IT skills for some councillors, or that meetings could be held virtually without public participation. What about controversial applications? How will they be dealt?

It is important that you get in touch with your local planning authority to let them know that you want to participate. Being a formal constituted group may well make it easier for the council to engage with you.

We ask you to keep an eye on our blog as we continue to update you on any developments in this area. We will post how councils are responding.

Please do share your experiences with Civic Voice.

These times will push us to new methods of engagement, consultation and decision-making. We want to understand the situation from a community perspective and plan to submit a short report to Government. Please do share with us your experience over the next few months.

At the moment, we are taking a pragmatic view and want civic societies to follow suit.

Our priority must be ensuring that the process is transparent and that civic societies continue to monitor and participate. Throughout this process we are asking civic societies to let us know; 

  • How councils are ensuring that the community has a voice….
      • Are they allowing Facebook comments? Written representations or virtual participation?
  • Are councils delegating even more application to Officers to determine?
  • Are councils delegating major applications to officers?

Share your thoughts


Whilst these measures are only temporary, if they are successful, there is probably an expectation that the government will look to make them permanent in a bid to speed up the planning process going forward.

Utilising existing and emerging technologies to form a 21st century future-ready planning system was a call within the Civic Voice manifesto.

We have to be supportive that councils are trying to adapt in a difficult situation. That does not mean we cannot monitor what is happening, champion the most innovative  and make the case for improvements to the process. 

Local authorities in England handed new powers to hold planning meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology from April 4th

As we move to ‘digital meetings’ what are the ‘Modern Methods of Meaningful Participation’ that we can be using?

Bradford Civic Society toolkit that you can use to to suggest improvements to a specific street:


CreateCommunities tool which allows communities to re-think their city after lockdown.

Social Pinpoint

Social Pinpoint provides a complete toolkit to make it easy to engage with your community and stakeholders online. Listen, inform and strengthen relationships to create positive community outcomes

Community Engagement Platform

First posted on April 2nd:

Our Director, Ian Harvey (@ianmichharvey)  says that community groups need to be aware as to how existing and emerging technologies can give them a meaningful role in a 21st century planning system.

The government recently passed its emergency Coronavirus legislation to enable local authorities to hold virtual meetings, though regulations must be laid by the secretary of state before these come into force.  This was confirmed in a letter by the Chief Planner (see link).

These powers will allow councils to hold “virtual planning committees”whilst the “physical” is not possible. Civic Voice’s preference is support councils meeting in a virtual manner, as opposed to delegating all decisions to officers. It is something that civic societies and community groups need to be aware about and we will be thinking about the implications as to how communities can continue to have a voice.

At Civic Voice, we believe that information systems will play a much greater role in the planning system going forward, but we also know that we need to balance the advancement of IT with the opportunity to ensure that the local community can continue to make the appropriate representations. How can we do consultation when we cannot meet?

With authorities needing to find new ways to make decisions and to use IT, our Director, Ian Harvey shares some thoughts on some tools that he has come across that are helping to balance the system and make it more collaborative. The future of our planning system will sit somewhere between the “physical and the digital” to ensure that we get everyone engaged.

The founders of Built ID aim to democratise the system, making  data accessible to all players, large and small, creating a level playing field for everyone. The platform provides an ideal way for developers to engage with the community and showcase new projects, giving a voice to the often disenfranchised and ultimately leading to the creation of buildings that people truly want.

Alongside interactive timelines and digestible facts about the development, the community are given the opportunity to vote on key questions and decisions for the schemes, with their input having an actionable impact on the resulting planning proposal.

This online platform has engaged over 1 million people in trusted and diverse conversations about the places they live, work and play. The tools help councils and developers to make and evidence better decisions, for example during planning.

According to Commonplace, 70% of respondents to the system, based on 1 million users, are under the age of 45. This is helping to open and create more diverse views and to create a more democratic and transparent system. It passes power to communities as it visualises what everyone thinks, and not just what a local authority wants to concentrate on.

The placemap is a free-to-use , open resource for communities and other to invite feedback and build support for built environment initiatives. Seems to be a good way to be inclusive as a civic society!

It is helping to create a more accessible system (visual) and democratic planning system in that the community can see what everyone thinks and not just what the developer  tells you others think!

VU-CITY is helping to simplify the process of planning and is providing a view of what our towns and cities look like in a virtual way. Until now we have relied on physical models and Urban Rooms (think the London model) and CGIs to help visualise the future;.

VU.CITY has done something pretty impressive and created the first truly interactive digital model of cities, continuously updated to provide a revolutionary tool for everyone to access and to see the cumulative impact of proposed planning application.

It is helping to create a more accessible system (visual) and collaborative planing system in that the private and public sector are both starting to use this system.

The challenge will be to make this system mainstreamed and affordable to communities, but this is the future, today.

An organisation that I admire from afar is CitizenLab. It is based on the belief that empowering citizens can help governments make better decisions, improve trust and strengthen democracy. Obviously, I agree with this!

CitizenLab gives governments a digital participation platform to consult their citizens on local topics and include them in decision-making and they have dozens of case studies about how the system is giving communities a voice via Grab a cup of tea and spend 10 minutes looking through these case studies to see the art of the possible!


Civic Voice’s ambition is to move away from ‘confrontation to collaboration’ and from ‘consultations to conversations’.

This should be a continuous conversation, not just one every four to five years when local elections start. ‘Just voting’ once every few years is no longer enough to run a modern society. We need to equip citizens to become more active participants
in our towns and villages. Doing this will help create pride and commitment to the success of our places.

I believe that these systems are the future, today.

Do you know about other systems? Do you have examples of councils using online technology to support the decision making process? Let us know via


As we move to ‘digital meetings’ what are the ‘Modern Methods of Meaningful Participation’ that we can be using?

My 5 favourite Civic Voice Design Award winners

As we have had to pause the launch of Civic Voice Design Awards 2020, I thought it would be a good idea to use the time to reflect on previous award winners and highlight some of my favourites over the last five years. With so many fantastic schemes, each one a demonstration of civic pride and high-quality design, this task has not been easy but here goes… Hopefully, this blog also highlights a few gems that you may not be familiar with.

 The Enterprise Centre, Norwich

My first choice is The Enterprise Centre at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Winner of the New Build category in 2018, I had the pleasure of visiting the building in early 2019, courtesy of the Norwich Society and the university.

front entrance signage

Said to be one of the most sustainable buildings in the UK, the building screams sustainable design and construction from top to bottom and I was really impressed with the level of innovation employed, not just in the materials used (particularly the modern take on locally characteristic reed thatch) but also in the ethos of the building which encourages collaboration between students and local businesses and fosters a feeling of ‘enterprise’ throughout. The co-working spaces are beautiful, well-used, and offer different types of workspace for new and emerging businesses as they grow. Clearly, the university has led from the front in this innovative project and it should be celebrated for the key role the building and its staff play in bringing business and academic communities together. Something for all university towns and cities to be inspired by.

Read more here.

Briddlesford Lodge Farm Hop Kilns, Isle of Wight

This project, restoring and converting two derelict hop kilns at a dairy farm into a heritage centre was Highly Commended in the Historic Buildings category in the 2016 awards. I loved this project for the sheer care and attention to detail the farm owners had paid to an unlisted, yet unique, building on the island.

SAM_0453Dating from the late 19th century, the brick building, with recreated in-situ concrete barrel roofs, window surrounds and weathered iron extension blends seamlessly into its agricultural surroundings yet displays a modern character of its own. Praised by the Isle of Wight Society who nominated the project for its ‘honest dignity and charming simplicity helping to celebrate the long agricultural history of the island’, I agree! It also shows how undesignated heritage, so easily lost to demolition, can play an important role in revealing an area’s local character and distinctiveness.

Read more here.

Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool


Another 2016 project and Overall Winner of the 2016 awards was Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. The judges were unanimous in recommending this as the winner and after visiting the building at a Civic Voice Design Awards study tour in 2017, I can fully appreciate why.

The result is more than a building. It is a place of calm, with a bright and airy feel which soothes, at a hugely worrying time for young patients and their families. Nature seeps through the design, in the natural materials used in the interior, the playful public art in and around the building and with the views from wards into the surrounding landscape. The building’s ‘fingers’ reach out into the landscape, allowing more natural light to permeate into the wards, responding directly to patients’ feedback and to aid recovery. Everything about this building should be celebrated, particularly in our current testing times. From the leadership the NHS trust showed in ‘doing things differently’, to the design inspiration (a drawing by a 15 year old patient), to the impressive consultation exercise with the local community, staff and patients and, of course, the end product, this project is awe-inspiring.

Read more here.

‘Grey to Green’, Sheffield

Keeping with the nature theme, I must highlight Sheffield’s innovative ‘Grey to Green’ scheme, which won the Public Realm category in 2017. Led by a multi-disciplinary team at Sheffield City Council which collaborated with the local academic and business community to develop the scheme, the local authority must be recognised for leading the way in transforming redundant ‘grey’ road space into a network of ‘green’ flower meadows, wetlands and public spaces.

G2G Late summer

Ahead of its time, the council has created a scheme which shows what is possible within our cities in tackling and adapting to the effects of climate change and how we can reclaim roads as attractive ‘civic spaces’ for people rather than cars. It also highlights the benefits of having in-house local authority expertise to develop creative solutions to problems in our built and natural environment. It’s also pleasing to hear that phase 2 is currently being rolled out, I look forward to seeing the result.

Read more here.

Thames Lido, Reading

5 After

Bringing the Awards up to date, I want to highlight a little gem of a project which won a Highly Commended in the Historic Buildings category in 2018.  Believed to be the oldest surviving outdoor municipal pool of the Edwardian era, the former Reading Ladies Swimming Bath has been carefully restored and modernised into the beautiful Thames Lido.

Closed for public swimming in 1974, it was thanks to a tenacious local campaign, which began in 2000(!), and a philanthropic developer, that the pool was finally re-opened to the public in 2017. The restoration of the historic fabric and facilities offered are simply stunning, delivered with such care and attention to detail, the quality shines out. This project also shows what can be done when the private, public and voluntary sectors work together with courage, vision and careful project management. Once this current lockdown is over, I cannot wait to go for a dip in Reading’s charming and locally loved lido!

Read more here.

What do you think to the above? Do you agree? Feel free to have a look at www.civicvoicedesignawards.comto see lots of other inspiring examples of how communities are helping to influence high quality design.

Sarah James

Sarah is Civic Voice’s Policy lead and oversees the Civic Voice Design Awards and is regularly named as one of the most influential women in planning. Read more here. 

You can follow her on twitter @jamesslf

My 5 favourite Civic Voice Design Award winners

10 outstanding civic societies….. according to Civic Voice’s Sophie Mason

I have been working as the Finance and Administration Officer for Civic Voice for almost one year now! During that time, I have had the pleasure of engaging with some fantastic civic societies doing great work within their local community.

Whether it is bringing like-minded people together, campaigning on environmental issues, assessing local conservation areas at risk or opening their own heritage attractions, here are ten societies which have particularly inspired me the past year…

  • Southgate District Civic Voice

In June 2019, Southgate and District Civic Voice worked with the Civic Voice team to organise a mini charette event open to all in their community.

family viewing exhibition_small

The design charette was held in response to a proposed development which would have radically altered the landscape of their unique town and was borne out the frustration which many felt of not being listened to. The event enabled local residents to learn more about development in an unbiased environment and gave everyone the chance to feedback and feel listened to. The event attracted a diverse crowd, from young families to commuters to elderly residents and lead to an impressive boost in membership for the civic society. Southgate District Civic Voice inspired us all by how willing they were to work with us and try out new ideas.

  • Petersfield Civic Society

Another group which have done fantastic work in bringing communities together is the Petersfield Civic Society. Situated in rural Hampshire, Petersfield Civic Society realised the potential of bringing neighbouring societies together to learn from one another. The society is particularly dedicated to campaigning on environmental issues and they have affected real change in their town. Their hard work culminated in an event which bought around ten regional societies together, pooling their resources to address common issues which societies face and learning how best civic societies can work to combat climate change.

  • Spen Valley Civic Society

Continuing the theme of bringing communities together through the environment and placemaking, Spen Valley Civic Society must be commended for their Jo Cox Community Wood project. In response to the tragic murder of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox in 2016, the civic society decided to honour her memory by creating a woodland space for the whole community to enjoy. Spen Valley Civic Society were inspired by Jo’s belief that people have more in common than that which divides them and have used the wood as a way of bringing different groups together. Since 2019 they have planted over 1000 trees and have more exciting projects planned for 2020.

  • Birmingham Civic Society

Birmingham Civic Society have used their platform as a way of engaging with an underrepresented group in the civic movement; young people. The society have worked with local schools and universities to create a free citizenship module for the Key Stage 3 pupils which encourages them to become active citizens that contribute positively to Birmingham’s future. The programme culminates in the Next Generation Awards, which sees teens work together to research issues in their communities and develop schemes to address them. Previous winners have gone on to work with the civic society on key issues such as elderly isolation within the community and creating sensory spaces for local residents with additional needs.

  • Addingham celebrateAddingham Civic Society

Addingham Civic Society have also been pioneers in their response to how civic societies can work to combat the threat on climate change in their town. The society recognised the importance of community activity and raising awareness within the civic movement. Chair Jim Robinson gave a brilliant talk on the subject at the Larger Societies Meeting in Chester last year which inspired many other groups to coordinate their own green agenda. The civic society has also established their own environmental subgroup with its own website, social media and regular programme of activities.

  • Peckham Vision

New members Peckham Vision must also be commended on the way in which they have successfully engaged with young people in their local community. The society joined Civic Voice in 2019 after engaging with us on Twitter and we have been very impressed by their use of social media and digital press. Peckham Vision have curated a great Instagram page which showcases a variety of upcoming local events and vibrant photos of previous events. Currently only seventeen societies out of almost 225 Civic Voice members use Instagram, yet it is arguably the most popular and social media site for young people. Peckham Vision have one of the highest number of Instagram followers for a civic society. Having an appealing Instagram with diverse and welcoming photos is one of the best ways which societies can appeal to young people and attract a more diverse audience to their events.

  • Hunstanton and District Civic Society

In the past year, it has been incredibly inspiring to see a number of civic societies running and operating their own premises and local heritage attractions. The newest addition being Hunstanton and District Civic Society’s Hunstanton Heritage Centre. Hunstanton is a remote yet beautiful seaside town on the North Norfolk coast with a wealth of history and culture that the local society is helping to showcase. The Heritage Centre is staffed entirely by civic society volunteers and provides educational tours for schoolchildren and groups throughout the year, as well as opening for public admission. As the town of Hunstanton does not have a museum, the civic society have directly addressed this cultural deficit and provided a vital service for residents to discover more about the past and the fascinating town in which they live.

  • Weymouth Civic Society

Weymouth Civic Society must also be commended on their outstanding commitment to furthering the cultural and heritage attractions of their town. The civic society manages and operates not one, but two amazing heritage attractions: Tudor House and Northe Fort. Both premises are run entirely by volunteers and society members who provide guided tours, costumed interpretation and specialised educational visits for schoolchildren and groups, as well as general admission. Thanks to the hard work of the Civic Society, Weymouth Tudor House remains one of England’s best-preserved Tudor buildings. Northe Fort is one of the most remarkable historic military structures along the Jurassic Coast and Weymouth Civic Society have saved it from falling into disrepair and disuse.

  • Bewdley Civic Society

Conservation areas are an issue on which Civic VoMYNW3382ice is passionate about campaigning. Unfortunately, due to government cuts over the past decade and subsequent staffing shortages, many local authorities are unable maintain all the conservation areas within their borough to an acceptable standard and they often fall into disrepair. Civic societies therefore have a vital role to play is assessing and recording key information on local conservation areas and ensuring that they do not lose their status. Several proactive civic societies have established projects to combat this issue and Bewdley Civic Society have impressed us all with their dedication to conservation heritage within their town. The civic society worked together using the Civic Voice conservation area audit guide to assess their 105-acre local conservation area. It was wonderful to see the civic society making the most of their membership and utilising our resources! The audit was such a success that the committee are planning event to share their experiences with other civic societies looking to enhance their conservation areas.

  • City of Winchester Trust

The City of Winchester Trust have also been pioneering in their work on conservation areas and choose to work alongside Winchester City Council to address this issue facing their townscape. Council conservation officers helped to train a body of civic society volunteers to carry out onsite conservation area appraisals and collect key data from each of the towns many conservation areas at risk.  Too often civic societies are accused of being uncooperative and combative towards their local councils and this belief is not always unfounded. Societies such as The City of Winchester Trust who work together successfully with their local authority and maintain a cordial working relationship are actively challenging this stereotype and projecting a welcoming, modern image of the civic movement.


Next week, Sarah James will share her thoughts on 10 civic societies that are championing good design in the built environment….

10 outstanding civic societies….. according to Civic Voice’s Sophie Mason

A local authority perspective… Do we need a new CABE? No, but a new national Design Delivery Unit would be useful

Following the call for a Design Quality Unit, Sarah James considers whether this is what is needed to drive up good quality urban design across England. You can learn more about the campaign for a Design Quality Unit here.

Do we need a new CABE?

in truth, I don’t know! I certainly don’t know the history of CABE and how well it worked or didn’t, the ins and outs of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) just wasn’t at the forefront of my mind as a local authority Development Control planner, as I was then. What I can reflect upon is my experience of trying to improve design quality as a planner working in local authorities in the West Midlands, both during and after CABE’s time.

I started my career in Development Control (as it was called then), a great place to start a planning career, to learn the basics, and believe me, you have to, very quickly. This was 2005, about halfway through CABE’s life. At this time, my local authority had resources. They sponsored me and two others to study a MSc in Spatial Planning part-time alongside our full-time jobs, as part of a drive to grow the planning team in-house. I loved studying the theory of planning, exploring the huge potential we have to shape our built environment and finding solutions to tackle complex problems. The reality of working in the ‘DC machine’ however, was perhaps not so appealing.

It was a grinding, clunking, stuttering machine. One of continuous, never-ending planning applications… of people, developers, and consultants ‘trying it on’, seeing what they can get away with, ‘is it bad enough to refuse?’, ‘has that shoddy development down the road already set a precedent?’, ‘what’s the permitted development fallback position?’ daily game. One that you never quite got on top of and at times, felt like you were drowning. Then got penalised for not meeting targets.

But what has this got to do with CABE?

Well, not a huge amount. To be honest I don’t recall being aware of CABE at that time. Improving design quality wasn’t really something we spent much time on or had experience of. We reacted to the proposal in front of us. Looking at a proposed housing layout for the first time, where do you start?

I worked with some very talented planners at that time, but design expertise was not often within their skill set. We consulted our in-house urban designer or landscape architect on applications and if they had no comments or objections, we were satisfied. There was no time to interrogate every proposed design or layout with a forensic eye, or come up with innovative solutions and negotiate with the agent. ‘Is it bad enough to refuse?’ was the key consideration.

Fast forward to 2009, and I got a job as senior officer in a Planning Policy Team within an affluent Borough. In this role I was responsible for developing Local Plan policy for a variety of topic areas, one being, design. It was in this role that I came across CABE and a vast amount of urban design guidance. From Manual for Streets, the Urban Design Compendium 1 and 2, By Design, Secured by Design, Building for Life, and more, no doubt! CABE had a hand in many of these publications.

At this local authority we also had a very proactive Director regarding encouraging high quality design and this filtered down to the planners and, some, transport planners. Through this leadership I was also made aware of CABE’s housing design quality audit for the West Midlands, and that we were one of the worst performing regions.

My job, therefore, as a policy planner was to think creatively and practically as to how we could develop planning policy to encourage better quality design across the Borough. I looked at good practice as highlighted by CABE, I undertook Building for Life training, as developed and promoted by CABE, and carried out assessments of local schemes together with our in-house urban designer. I worked collaboratively with our in-house expertise (urban designers, landscape architects, conservation officers, sustainability officers and Development Management planners) and together, we developed a Design policy that we thought could work – balancing being ambitious and raising the standard of urban design quality but also being realistic, and viable, creating a policy that complied with national policy and guidance and could pass independent examination.

My view at that time was, if we couldn’t implement a robust urban design policy in this wealthy Borough, where would this be possible?

We introduced Building for Life into policy and required residential development proposals to demonstrate how they met BfL. We also introduced BfL as a monitoring indicator so we could keep an eye on the place quality coming forward and to monitor the effectiveness of the policy. Despite a vociferous local housebuilding community, mainly objecting to the inclusion of BfL, the policy was adopted in Dec 2013. It wasn’t perfect and looking back, some parts haven’t aged that well, but it was of its time and reflected the direction of travel particularly with regard to Code for Sustainable Homes and Lifetime Homes.

But bringing it back to CABE, how did it help me at the time?

The organisation was a national design champion and brought attention to the vast amount of poor quality residential environments being built at that time. This filtered down to local authorities and gave us evidence to act upon. Or to try to. No planner comes into the job to create poor quality places.

There was a huge amount of urban design guidance available at the time. Perhaps too much in hindsight? It was difficult to navigate, no-one has time to read all of that, particularly not a Development Management planner assessing a complex application. They need timely, expert advice to draw upon, from a range of disciplines.  But the urban design guidance was good and CABE produced or had a hand in most of it.

I understand CABE undertook design reviews, although I had no experience of this. However, I did have direct experience of participating in in-house design reviews in this local authority. We, of course, had the benefit of in-house expertise, not all local authorities have this now, but I saw the benefit of having key experts feeding into the discussion and working collaboratively and how it made a difference to design outcomes. The benefits of in-house design review were that we could respond to proposals quickly and we could, over time, build a team that worked well together, from highways engineers to landscape architects to policy planners. We learned from each other’s perspectives and we had the benefit of local knowledge to assess schemes.

So, on reflection, do we need a new CABE? No. 

CABE was no doubt, successful throughout its time but it was of its time. We are in a new political and economic landscape now and solutions need to be found that work in this era.

However, with the Government’s welcome focus on raising the quality of new residential development or ‘building beautifully’ and the publication of the Place Alliance’s national Housing Design Audit, now is the time to act.

Clearly, there is a need for a national design championing body to lead, to campaign, to inspire, to monitor and to persuade the sector to build back better.

Sarah James, Civic Voice

Local authority policy planner 2009 – 2014.

DM planner 2005 – 2008


A local authority perspective… Do we need a new CABE? No, but a new national Design Delivery Unit would be useful

Oxford Civic Society looking for help with a member survey – can you help?

Oxford Civic Society last asked members what they thought of the Society some years ago and think it is about time to do it again, but what should they be asking?

Has your society or community group undertaken a survey of members to find out what they like, dislike and what to see improve? Do you have a set of questions that you would be prepared to share with Oxford? Would you be interested in comparing data if you are from a similar type of town?

If you are happy to share your experiences with Oxford Civic Society, please email to help Oxford get a greater understanding of what members want.

If you have a problem/challenge that you think other civic societies may be able to help with, get in touch with Civic Voice at


Oxford Civic Society looking for help with a member survey – can you help?