Shifting from consultation to co-production with communities, Nick Wright

IF there is broad consensus that it is fundamentally a good thing to include communities in delivering ‘good’ neighbourhoods (and that this is preferable to the state or the private sector doing it all itself), we need to give communities real agency.

And – in theory at least – we have in Scotland a commitment to include communities. We have lots of principles and tools – such as the Place Standard tool (which is a checklist devised by the Scottish Government, Public Health Scotland, Architecture & Design Scotland, the Improvement Service and Glasgow City Council). And we have the policies and legislation too, supporting the idea of community empowerment (not least the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015), identifying the likes of ‘community asset transfers’ and ‘community right to buy’.

But we need to ask the difficult question: to what extent have communities to date been ‘successful’ in delivering projects because of the system or despite it?

These ‘successful’ community efforts have usually triumphed through sheer bloody-mindedness, reliant on huge reserves of volunteer time and perhaps occasional pockets of expertise.

If communities are to be considered genuine partners with the state or the private sector in delivering ‘successful’ neighbourhoods, it should not be beyond the realms of possibility to properly resource them.

And it’s not just money, it is political commitment, brokerage and skills capacity.

Most communities also need a bit of hand-holding. It’s quite the ask of planners (trained to become professionals) to know their way around the planning system and project delivery, so imagine being a community group without the necessary training?

I would argue that many of us planners are conditioned during our careers to be administrative, regulatory, sometimes defensive and negative, focussing on our ‘statutory duties’.  

That is how I was moulded in my early career in local authorities. 

Once I was no longer employed in local authorities and worked on my own, I had to completely re-learn how to be a planner by training in mediation, facilitation and – more generally – how not to behave like a bureaucrat.

I’m still relearning that now, more than 30 years after qualifying as a planner, so ingrained are those learned behaviours of being the one who should have all the answers and make decisions – rather than enabling others to make decisions about their place.

I wonder how many planners see those arguably ‘softer’ Place Standard categories – such as influence and sense of control – not just as tricky, but as completely alien to our day-to day-work? 

Even closer to the bone, how many of us truly see local communities as equal and trusted delivery partners?   

We need to shift our mindsets from consultation to co-production. 

The funny thing is, when we do shift our mindset (from consultation to co-production), then suddenly planning becomes exciting, enjoyable and positive – for communities as well as for us.

The danger is that, if we don’t shift our mindset, then we can have all the policies, legal frameworks and principles we like, but they will not be enough to convince those communities already thinking it’s not worth the candle.

Nick Wright is a town planner, accredited mediator and trained facilitator. Visit his website: here. This is an approved summary of a presentation given to a conference held on Monday, about the National Planning Framework (fourth edition) – here. For which, grateful thanks. For the full presentation, read it here.

Pictured: The community spoke and changes were made to the proposed development of this stretch of Leith Walk, Edinburgh, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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