Setting up structures for community-led governance on town extensions in Ashford
Dec 10, 2020
This case study describes how local communities retroactively shaped a vision for a new community in a housing-led urban extension in Ashford, Kent. It was written by Dan Daley following his 12-month placement at Ashford Borough Council between April 2019 and March 2020.
Dan was matched with a role as Masterplanning and Delivery Coordinator at Ashford Borough Council. He started his career in theatre, arts production, and marketing before moving on to community-focussed urban regeneration projects. Before becoming an Associate, he worked at a private architecture and planning practice developing collaborative planning processes to shape masterplans and design briefs. He entered the public sector through the Associate Programme, and has continued in his role at Ashford where he has since been promoted to Deputy Team Lead.
This case study outlines a key project he worked on during his placement and what he learned from it. Dan used his theatre and arts background to inform his creative collaboration with people, place, and stories. His previous education at UCL's Development Planning Unit was also a valuable source to draw on when reflecting on how individual actions can impact places.
The South of Ashford Garden Community
The South of Ashford Garden Community (SAGC) is Ashford Borough Council’s (ABC) largest housing allocation, crucial to meeting the borough’s five-year housing land supply. Situated on the edge of the town centre, three sites were identified for potential development as early as 2006.
Chilmington Green, the largest of the three sites and scheduled to deliver 5,750 homes, is under construction, with over 40 homes now occupied and another 50 planned completions by the end of 2020.
Adjacent to Chilmington, although under another Parish boundary, are two further sites, Court Lodge and Kingsnorth Green, with both yet to receive outline planning for 1,550 homes.
Although not a designated Garden Village in the Local Plan, it was when ABC secured funding from Homes England that the three sites together became the ‘South of Ashford Garden Community’. Although a retroactive approach, this remained a helpful step toward linking up transport, blue/green infrastructure and land management in the interests of quality placemaking.
A benchmark for design quality: The Charter sets out 36 commitments across all facets of the development, some high-level ambitions, others more detailed — such as ensuring that every home will receive a fruit tree in its back garden.
A non-profit stewardship model: The high-quality design principles at Chilmington translated into the establishment of a non-profit stewardship organisation, the Chilmington Management Organisation (CMO), which operates like a traditional land management company but is led by its membership — the residents of Chilmington.
A governance framework: Critical to the partnership working in support of Chilmington was the formation of a Delivery and Implementation Board (DIB). This Board includes each of the Developers, Ashford Borough Council (ABC), Kent County Council (KCC), Homes England, and the Local Economic Partnership (LEP) who meet on a bi-monthly basis to address issues that may be impeding the delivery of housing and/or key infrastructure.
A community stakeholder group: To keep this governance framework responding to the concerns of local people, a pre-existing Community Stakeholder Group with a strong understanding of planning matters was asked to meet bi-monthly with the Head of Planning and the lead developer.
A project team: Known as the Chilmington Project Team, a team of three at ABC is responsible for the programme management and governance at Chilmington, operating the CMO through a service agreement and coordinating the SAGC. Given the programme management function of the project team, there has been plenty of opportunity to work with officers in planning policy, development management, cultural services and environmental control.
A number of actions were taken to move the SAGC from a concept towards a comprehensive framework for delivering three very different housing developments as one high-quality garden community:
1. Working collaboratively internally and externally
Due to a lack of urban design resource available within the local authority (LA), an existing consultancy agreement was used to procure an independent urban design consultant for a period of five months. This consultant was brought in to bridge the conversation between the LA’s Planning team and the applicant for Court Lodge.
Two public workshops were held, the first focused on site-specific issues whilst the second took a strategic look at the whole of the garden village, its context and what a potential vision for it might look like.
2. Putting stewardship and governance first.
The Chilmington Project Team participated in ongoing Section 106 negotiations for the Court Lodge development. This meant leveraging a Local Plan policy in favour of schemes which adopt a stewardship body that directly involves community members.
Along with stewardship, several proposals were created to show how the Delivery & Implementation Board could evolve to encompass Court Lodge and Kingsnorth Green. While there was some hesitation to change the structure amongst developer partners at this juncture all were willing to explore the principles behind the SAGC and how this could strengthen the partnership.
3. Taking a programme management approach.
A development dashboard was created using Excel which presented strategic risks, housing trajectory figures, S106 triggers and various project streams. The tool was designed to help the team in their day-to-day management and to quickly produce accurate reports
4. Running interim/meanwhile projects.
An artist-in-residence was commissioned through an open call to lead a project about heritage with existing community members around Chilmington. The artist spent two months building relationships, running workshops in schools and developing a final output which was co-produced by members of the local Repair Café.
A ‘civic design space’ was proposed to the LA’s management team which could become an interactive planning and design exhibition, similar to the popularised urban rooms seen elsewhere across the country. Funding was granted for the exhibition to be housed within the CMO’s temporary operating premises on-site at Chilmington, however due to the Covid-19 pandemic the project was put on hold.
5. Prioritising community development.
Prior to the inception of the CMO, a community development strategy had been created to demonstrate the role that the CMO could play in shaping a healthy new community. The Masterplanning & Delivery Coordinator was tasked with formulating a plan based on the principles of the strategy and worked with community representatives to do so. Much of this work was put on hold due to Covid-19 however the team continued to engage residents virtually.
The SAGC vision and strategy began its development with input from local people and local groups. In order to ensure it continued to be something shaped by these members, an engagement plan was written to find ways for continued participation right through to the final drafting of the document. By providing different avenues, including in-person workshops, online focus groups, webinars and newsletters, a steady feedback loop was created in the process of finalising a vision and strategy for the whole of the Garden Village.
Within ABC, there is little experience of delivering large-scale housing sites and the lead developer is equally new to it, having been supported by Homes England’s mandate to fund SME builders. While the lead developer is innovating in its approach — supporting long-term stewardship as just one example — there are commercial realities and a political landscape up against them which have delayed key infrastructures and housing deliveries.
Housing trajectory dictates when S106 monies are paid and therefore market slow-down will have a direct impact on the CMO’s operations, including its community development programmes tied to endowments from the lead developer. This has put the CMO into care & maintenance mode whilst it waits for the market to find momentum.
Fewer houses will mean fewer residents to engage with, begging the question: when is the right time to engage? This creates a challenge when determining the amount and timing of outreach to existing and new community members.
Without the temporary operating premises open, there is little ‘face’ to the Chilmington Management Organisation, which has required greater effort to maintain communication with residents.
While the Local Plan contains a policy in support of community-led stewardship, it also allows private management companies to be established as long as they offer residents a governance role. Ensuring consistency of land management and the fees paid by residents becomes much harder without a unified approach.
The 142-hectare Discovery Park — a strategic park for the Borough — crosses from Chilmington into Court Lodge, but has yet to be masterplanned. This has created challenges for the park to come forward as a single cohesive design.
- Define stewardship: Make clear the difference between a Stewardship body and a land management company, to highlight the benefits of a socially-minded, community-led organisation over a more traditional model which tends to be transactional in its nature.
Attract broad stakeholder participation: Planning policy is vital to provide the hooks for a vision, but the delivery of the project needs an Authority-wide approach, involving Culture, Environment, Economy and Communications; as well as Enforcement when necessary.
Retain land ownership: In this case, the local authority has not had ownership of the land which has placed the project in the hands of the market. Retaining some stake can allow community assets to be brought forward earlier.
Deliver meanwhile projects: The Artist-in-Residence was able to forge strong personal ties and meaningful experiences with dozens of local people in a matter of two months.
Focus on resilience: Chilmington, with its AAP, was able to set the principles of community-led governance and stewardship early on. It was not, however, designed to adapt to a wider Garden Village without the support of a wider masterplanning process.
To learn more about the SAGC, visit their website.
This is an example of the type of work that an Associate in a Community Engagement and Masterplanning & Green Infrastructure role did during their placement. If you're interested in these role types, read more below.