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Community Engagement

Blog gwreiddiol | Originally posted: Aug 20, 2014

Having attended RSAW's annual conference I was reminded of a number of matters including amongst others the rather prickly issue of community engagement – an issue discussed within the city masterclass convened as a participatory exercise during the day. I refer to this as a prickly issue because we need to consider what community engagement actually means and when should it be undertaken. Community engagement is not the same as design review but is more often than not treated as such with public authorities, architects and their developer clients attempting to manipulate community responses within a prescribed area of discussion decided by the commissioning body.

This was most clearly illustrated in the recent pretence of community engagement when discussing the issue of schools reorganisation. Local authorities under the direction of Welsh Government had virtually decided that schools of fewer than a set number of pupils would be closed or merged with others but set out on a false exercise of community engagement designed to shield their real motives – largely a cost reduction exercise. The communities affected, annoyed by the tactics employed by Authorities, were similarly entrenched in their beliefs that such measures were contrary to the interests of their local villages and were largely blind to the benefits of such reorganisation.

At the conference itself Jonathan Hines of Archetype a very talented architectural practice presented to us a proposal for a greenfield development in a village in Herefordshire – a site which he wished to develop as an experimental evolutionary residential design approach. Jonathan and his team embarked upon a community engagement exercise designed to elicit support for the proposal. The development however was being proposed for a relatively small fragmented village settlement and despite their desire to consult the community Jonathan had to acknowledge that as many as 120 objections from within the village were received by the Authority in response to the planning application. Should the community engagement really have started before the commitment to develop had been made – I would argue that simply trying to manipulate a community response is not really engagement and that the problems experienced by Archetype could have been avoided had the community engagement process been undertaken earlier in the process. Archetype might well have realised that the community did not want the village enlarged by almost 50% of the existing settlement and could have turned their attention to an alternative location where the development might have been welcomed.

The consultation process undertaken by local authorities when preparing their udp (unitary development plan) or ldp (local development plan) is another area which requires consideration of the community engagement process. We have recently seen Gwynedd and Ynys Mon authorities jointly requesting land owners and developers to submit parcels of land for development consideration. Each site submitted is considered in relation to various categories of development options and in relation to various technical criteria designed to elicit a possible shortlist for further consideration. Can a vested interest approach really be the most effective method of deciding where developments should be located – would community engagement be the most appropriate vehicle for such a process and if so what would be the implications of this? What indeed does community engagement mean and how can it be arranged to benefit communities. It seems to me that we already have a vehicle for delivering community engagement. Community and town councils are comprised of elected representatives – these bodies have been deprived of any meaningful powers within the participatory process but I would suggest that these bodies need to be empowered to deliver a responsible contributory role within a community engagement process.

Membership of the councils would be by direct election or alternatively by nomination as school governor or village hall spokesperson. The councils in discussion and under the guidance of Authority officers would propose locations for suitable developments within a town or village location before evaluation by the Authority in relation to their technical and planning requirements. Land once designated for development would need to be made available by the owner and would possibly require compulsory purchase powers if the owners were reluctant to dispose of same. Within the current economic model, land disposal is undertaken when the owner deems it to his monetary advantage to do so leading to increasing and inflated land values and development costs. I suggest that this needs to be modified with all land values within other than urban locations equated to a regularised agricultural value – the additional value elicited as development land value transferred to Welsh Government for spending on community resources. This would substantially increase spending on community resources and lead to more cohesive communities.

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