Let the People Decide! (Says planning minister...)
People Power! Suddenly, it seems, it's all the rage. 'Let the People Decide!' declares a press release from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), which lauds the democratic credentials of the recent Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act.
And here's the ODPM again: “Community involvement in planning should not be a reactive, tick-box, process - it should enable the local community to say what sort of place they want to live in at a stage when this can make a difference.” (1)
Not only that, but the Home Office seems bent on turning us all into 'Active Citizens' who will “define the problems they face, and tackle them in partnership with public bodies.” This vision is, we're told, “at the heart of the Home Office's vision of life in our 21st century communities.” (2)
At the heart of it, huh?
Enter the Burngreave and Fir Vale 'Masterplan': a radical plan to renew Burngreave's housing.
Proposed building and the existing pub
It is to be mostly funded through the 'Transform South Yorkshire' Housing Renewal Pathfinder scheme, and will entail extensive demolition, rebuild and renovation.
The goal is a revived housing market, but the Pathfinder schemes require a Masterplan that encompass every level of the local economy to achieve this.
So what of 'People Power' in the masterplanning process? Well - Chris Weldon (Council Cabinet member for neighbourhoods, and Transform South Yorkshire board member) seems as much of a zealot for it as the ODPM. He has said, "it's vitally important that we listen to what local people have to say about their neighbourhoods." Burngreave has had not one, or two, but three whole consultation rounds! The community must feel very listened to indeed.
Apparently not. Some seem very unhappy about the whole thing. For example, the proposed demolition and re-build of large sections of Spital Hill. ‘New Roots’ (volunteer-run organic café and meeting space) is marked on the master plan as a supermarket. Many other local shops are at risk of demolition.
A local group calling themselves ‘Spital Hill Local Voice’ has collected 900 signatures, which was handed in to the council. At this meeting, Chris Weldon was heard again to say positive things about People Power – he has promised to set up a task force to address the grievances of Spital Hill residents.
The first meeting to begin this process is Thursday, 24th February. Spital Hill Local Voice will be asking for this to become a regular ‘participation taskforce’.
Now, no-one thinks that the area doesn’t need work. There are some traders who would be happy for new premises, there are people who want a supermarket, and there are houses unfit for human habitation. Nothing is wrong with any of this in principle.
But how come, last September in the Lancashire town of Nelson (also a Pathfinder area), an alliance of local people and conservation groups, including English Heritage, won a reprieve for 146 Victorian terraces marked for demolition, following a public inquiry? The inquiry said: "Renovation (rather than demolition) would be more likely to promote continuing community cohesion."
And why is it that Professor Anne Power, a prominent member of the government's urban task force, wrote a book counseling against demolition just two weeks after the government announced the Housing Renewal Pathfinder scheme?
While we’re at it, how come housing charity Shelter think the Pathfinder scheme is making the North’s homelessness problem worse? We are told that developers have been rabidly buying up property and land, in anticipation of the Renewal money - pricing people out of their own communities.
None of us may be qualified to say which of these 'expert opinions' on housing and regeneration is correct. The problem is, those who are qualified seem very divided about the wisdom of the Pathfinder scheme.
So when Spital Hill Local Voice ask for “a participative, co-operative, locally-led, planning process produced by the planners and local organizations and local people,” its because there's fear of undoing all the good work already happening, in pursuit of a rush for new regeneration money . Participation – really ‘letting the people decide’ - can act as a safeguard against such grand schemes stomping over communities.
What’s the difference between consultation and participation?
With consultation, the council says ‘thank you very much – we’ll take your views into account.’ This is like one side in a football team kicking the ball into the other half, only for the other side to pick the ball up and stroll toward the goal saying, ‘thanks for the ball. We’ll let you know if we scored.’
Consultation is often ineffective: even after three rounds of consultation in Burngreave, some traders on Spital Hill only heard about the plans when Local Voice invited them to one of their meetings! Council letters sent through doors said only that ‘your home / business could be affected by these proposals’ – omitting to mention that they could have a compulsory purchase order served on them and be knocked down!
Councils sometimes treat consultation as a community rubber-stamp. “We’ve ticked the consulation box now. On with the plan.”
In Conisbrough, locals nearly found themselves with a school ‘Academy’, run by Christian evangelists wanting to teach their kids that the world was made 5000 years ago. Doncaster Council gave locals this choice: “I support the proposal to establish an academy (‘Agree strongly’, ‘Agree’, ‘Disagree’, ‘Disagree Strongly.’)” No mention that it would be run by creationists… or how much money the council would get, of course.
Seventy questionnaires were returned – and on this basis, Donnie Council declared that 87% of respondents supported the plan! Statistically true – but basically a lie.
In Northumberland, locals also received a questionnaire about re-organising schooling – with statements to tick, like “we have excellent teachers and support staff” and “making sure our children fulfill their potential is the most important consideration.”
This is hardly ‘letting the people decide.’
So consultation can be dreadful – yes. But what of Burngreave's Masterplan?
Let the people decide! Between three bland statements! The key question locals were asked was, do you want -
- Relatively little change in the form of environmental improvements;
- Medium levels of change with environmental improvements and some new developments;
- Radical change with a large amount of new developments that could help transform the area and bring about comprehensive regeneration.
Well now - who in their right mind could possibly be against comprehensive regeneration? It would be like voting against Christmas.
But does answering this question, or others like ‘do you want a supermarket – yes / no’ mean that people have decided? No – no, it does not. Especially where we have no way of knowing whether the consultation process has been just as thorough as Donnie’s.
Such consultation has three results: one - reinforcing the community's impression that their opinion doesn't matter. Two - making it appear that the council consults only to achieve consent for plans already decided. Three – cynicism, which the government then mistakes for apathy.
This is why real participation means getting some guarantee that the community’s input will be plugged in to decision-making. So perhaps the Housing Renewal Pathfinder developments offer a chance for the council and the Government to show just how much they mean it when they say ‘let the people decide!’
But - what’s this now? An academic analysis of the Pathfinder programme, written in policy-wonkese, tells us some interesting things about the whole shebang. It’s all a bit turgid, but if at first it reads like ‘beeeeep’, then read and read again – because it may well get to the heart of the matter. It may also explain why 'letting the people decide' isn't a top priority in the Pathfinder scheme.
Are you ready? Here goes…
"... many of the pre-existing programmes for neighbourhood renewal have been designed to facilitate community ownership and control of the regeneration process, and a fundamental premise of this approach is that the existing community is salvageable and sustainable. In contrast, Market Renewal strategies may need to be supported by a vision for the sub-region that assumes that not all neighbourhoods can be preserved and sustained." (3)
New Deal is mentioned as one such ‘pre-existing programme.’ New Deal is relatively community-owned and controlled – and fairly comprehensively rail-roaded by the Housing Renewal Pathfinder scheme.
And further in, we get some clue as to why. We are told that there are ‘inward-looking’ and ‘outward-facing’ approaches to regeneration. Inward-looking is about ‘priorities within the neighbourhood concerned’ – the kind of stuff New Deal does. Outward-facing ‘concentrates on how such neighbourhoods might be better connected to nearby areas of growth and economic vitality.’
And to achieve this ‘outward facing’ regeneration? We need ‘a future-oriented conception of the neighbourhood, so that the views and priorities of members of the existing community need to be balanced against those of households who need to be attracted into the area in the future.’
Take a look at the design for Spital Hill or Woodside on the Masterplan, and you’ll see just how true this is. ‘We want Mr Growth and Ms Economic Vitality’, say the shiny towers proposed for the Spital Hill gateway. ‘Mr Growth and Ms Economic Vitality’ can also look forward to ‘panoramic views within walking distance of the city centre’ when they move to Woodside – unlike the people who used to live in the 370 units that have already been demolished.
So – do Sheffield Council agree with this particular academic analysis? Do they think that not all bits of Burngreave’s community are salvageable?
Because there are still plenty of people who think that the old-fashioned ‘inward-looking’, community-led approach can work! No-one would be against new people moving in to Burngreave, and no-one is against regeneration – but redesigning the whole place to appeal to some mythical ‘future household?’ Hmm.
The most bizarre thing about all this is the hubris involved. We‘re being asked to rely on all the squillions of agencies managing to achieve that Holy Grail of New Labour. Everybody keeps on saying it - ‘if it's going to work, we need joined up thinking!'
One: if you ask anyone who knows just how joined up things really are, they tend to laugh heartily.
Two: the ODPM is funding New Deal. The ODPM is also funding the Housing Renewal Scheme. The two are about as joined up as Brown and Blair. One spends money renovating a street, the other plans to demolish it. People in Burngreave will have to live in the epicentre of the outcome.
Three: the Home Office is funding active citizenship, asking people to ‘define the problems they face, and tackle them in partnership with public bodies’ – at the same time as the government is pushing through what amounts to local structural adjustment.
Four: the Home Office’s Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, as far back as 2000, have produced reams of work on how to address food access and shopping in deprived areas. The country is full of successful case studies. Is any of this finding its way into the Pathfinder?
Does this fill you with confidence in joined up thinking? Does it make you think they’re finding the path? All this is a very round-about way of saying: if anyone ever tells you, ‘leave it to us, dear – we’re the experts’, then kick that person in the shin. (Metaphorically, of course!)
In a way, you have to feel sorry for our local council. How the hell would you keep up with the colossal spaghetti-tangle of measures, organisations, initiatives and diktats from central government? And then the poor souls have to deal with the community fall-out as well! Really, the council is just the front line of central government’s policy drive – the ones who have to fight the government’s battles, and take the resulting flak.
This is where local participation comes into its own. It is not just a warm, fuzzy idea, to be broken on the anvil of hard economic reality. Genuine participation leads to local, grassroots solutions: what some people call ‘asset-based community development.’ This starts from the principle that not only are all parts of the community salvageable, but if you take the right approach, everyone has something to offer.
(Not only this but it also acts as the best guarantee against local officials accidentally finding themselves in the middle of a Donnygate situation. (4))
Participation also isn’t just warm n fuzzy, because its the only way not to find yourself in a Burngreave that looks just like every other McRegenerated area in the land. When it comes to local planning, The ODPM is dead set against ‘bland statements of policy that could apply to almost anywhere.’ (It’s in their consultation doc on preparing the new Local Development Frameworks.) Which is a shame, because the Masterplan says it’s aiming…
‘… to bring radical improvements to the housing market in selected areas and to bring transformational changes to towns and neighbourhoods to create successful, vibrant places where people will choose to live.’
But that -
‘The masterplan cannot deal with every individual site in detail but rather attempts to focus on strategic sites which could bring about a significant change in the character and perception of the areaszzzzzzzzz...’
A cynical person might think, 'crikey - you could cut n' paste that from a regeneration report anywhere in the country, couldn't you? It'd save weeks of work!'
It all sounds like the kind of McRegeneration that John Prescott’s office is dead against, doesn’t it? If we had genuine participation - something the Great and the Good seem to want - we could never end up with anything so generic.
What do we mean by participation? Well, there are about a million different ways to participate, but here’s a taster:
- Funding community research and questionnaires (the LSE do a lot of this, apparently… maybe we could ask them? Oh, and the Home Office ‘Active Learning’ programme have offered to fund local residents to do supported research.)
- Working on local food and retail ideas (did you know that according to the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, neighbourhood stores have increased their turnover by up to 40%, simply by re-arranging products and giving the right amount of selling space? Or that people come from all over Sheffield to eat in Spital Hill restaurants?)
- Setting up participatory forums for specific issues – a supermarket day, for example, or an open project for a specific community building.
- Having a public inquiry (Like the one in Nelson - can we have one too!?)
- Doing local economy studies with traders, to show how much cash stays locally – in comparison to, oo, say, a supermarket?
- Training people to renovate or even build their own homes – ending up with ‘sweat equity’ in their property as a result.
- Working with English Heritage to get people thinking about the history of where they live.
These are only suggestions: Spital Hill Local Voice aims to start a 'participation taskforce', which - in a very small way to begin with - will work to find new ways of involving people in the development of their communities. There’s a huge list of other participatory examples to look at around the country.
It would also be very good to compare the results of all this with the Council’s own cost-benefit analysis. How much it will cost to serve CPOs, demolish and re-build, and how much local trade will be affected during the process? This has presumably been done…? (Also, is it true that the ODPM requires a regeneration policy evaluation, which should calculate 'net additivity'? Has this been done?)
Ticking boxes on consultation forms is so 2004. Now the government is, in words at least, on the side of people power, can we not manage something better?
Think of it as a litmus test for our council’s – and the government’s – commitment to genuine participation. We’ve read the words. Now let’s see the action.
This does not mean ‘let the people decide – to rubber-stamp our lovely plans’. Neither does it mean ‘let the people decide. Our people, that is – the ones with the development companies and the money.’
Keith Hill, the planning minister responsible for that radical statement, was surely talking about the people who will actually be affected by these drastic plans.
It all adds up to a golden opportunity for showing just how committed we all are to the kind of participatory, community-led process that everyone seems to want. A veritable sitting duck of participatory potential, in fact, which could show once and for all what jolly decent people our Civil Servants are.
We should all look forward to seeing the outcome of Thursday’s meeting. Watch this space.
- From ‘Community Involvement in Planning: The Government’s Objectives’' (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Feb 2004) (back)
- From www.active-citizen.org.uk, a home office funded project (back)
- From ‘The road to renewal: The early development of the Housing Market Renewal programme in England’, Ian Cole and Brendan Nevin of Sheffield’s Centre for Regional Economic & Social Research – or CRESR. (back)
- Here’s a link to an excerpt of an analysis of Italian local government by Robert Putnam, that showed how ‘civic engagement’ correlated to lack of corruption and efficient councils. (back)