Making Participation Happen

The case for a dedicated community engagement officer

At the beginning of March, the Centre for London launched its manifesto on public participation in planning, directed at whoever is elected mayor on 6 May. The premise is that better planmaking, richer neighbourhoods and increased wellbeing, come from greater community involvement.

The manifesto quite rightly calls for skills and training for planning officers and community groups, but I'd like to go further and propose a greater degree of creative thinking around who carries out the engagement, and how. In particular, recruiting dedicated engagement officers from a variety of professional backgrounds. Putting communities at the heart of urban change demands engagement expertise in the heart of planning departments.

Building and strengthening the range of skills available within local authority planning teams is already the ethos of Public Practice, which has placed ten dedicated community engagement officers into local authorities such as Redbridge, Waltham Forest, Enfield, Newham, Richmond and Wandsworth, and East Herts, as well as over 40 Associates in hybrid roles which include improving and strengthening participation in their remit.

I myself am just coming to the end of my year-long Public Practice placement in Waltham Forest's Place and Design team, a new role created to offer support to planning policy officers who are currently preparing the Borough's Local Plan. Where previously the team had carried out their own engagement and statutory consultations, with support from the communications team, having a dedicated engagement officer leading the Local Plan engagement strategy has freed planning officers to concentrate on untangling knotty planning conundrums and writing the policy documents. It also means engagement doesn't have to be something that's tagged on to the end of the planmaking process, it can be something continuous that encompasses it.

Creative thinking around who Councils employ can also enrich the professional experience at their disposal. The transferable skills needed to translate the mysteries of the planning process into something accessible and engaging can be found in many quarters: journalists, editors, teachers, graphic artists, actors, directors, communications and marketing experts, barristers, and parents are just some that spring to mind.

My own background is not as a planner but as a journalist and magazine editor turned urban studies student and community group member. In my placement at Waltham Forest, I have been able to draw on the curatorial approach of an editor, project management experience of a print production chief, jargon-busting skills of a sub-editor, interview techniques of a journalist, and the mindset of a lay person who wants to play a part in shaping their neighbourhood.

Other Associates with less traditional CVs who are, or have been, carrying out innovative and successful local authority engagement include print magazine publishers and editors, anthropologists, researchers, business entrepreneurs, an information experience design expert and several creative practitioners. All have brought fresh thinking to planning engagement, strengthening their Council's toolbox.

Fundamentally, having a dedicated engagement officer, part- or full-time, is a way to treat engagement as something holistic and continuous, and moves away from discrete consultation exercises. Several Public Practice Associates have been working on a range of exciting measures to achieve this: an urban room in Enfield; establishing town teams in Barnet; non-profit community stewardship of a new garden town in Ashford; co-designing estate renewal with residents in Newham; community-led design review panels in Dacorum and Old Oak & Park Royal, shaping spatial visions with young people in the Royal Docks, and producing design codes in partnership with parish councils in South Cambridgeshire.

The elephant in the room (or on the Zoom call) is resources – another aspect of public participation recognised in the Centre for London manifesto. More investment is needed in community engagement, both on the side of officers and participants, yet many local authorities have increasingly tight budgets. However, an additional member of the planning team is not necessarily an additional expense; a dedicated engagement officer can engender more community-focussed planmaking, leading to more successful neighbourhoods, with time efficiencies for other officers and fewer delays at the later stages of projects that ultimately pay for themselves.

USEFUL PUBLIC PRACTICE RESOURCES

  • To learn more about how Authorities can develop and deliver effective community engagement strategies, read Making Participation Happen Practice Note, which includes a set of resources to assist officers in laying the foundations for a successful strategy.
  • The particular challenges of engaging with young people are discussed in Planning with Young People, including a set of template exercises that officers can use in different contexts with a range of ages.
  • To understand how meanwhile use can bring about long-term community benefits, read the Pop Down Practice Note, which presents findings and recommendations to help guide authorities developing this type of use.
  • If you are in an Authority looking to set-up and run community-led governance structures, the case study Sustainable Stewardship describes the process of establishing a non-profit stewardship model for a new community in Ashford.

FURTHER READING

  • Centre for London recently published their Public Planning Manifesto, describing a vision involving communities in the planning process.
  • Collective Community Action has launched A Network Campaigning for Change, a call to arms and an open invitation to join a group campaigning for better community involvement in urban change.
  • The Glass-House, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the design of their places, has a regularly updated set of resources and tools.

By Jessica Cargill Thompson, Public Practice Associate &
Community Engagement Officer at London Borough of Waltham Forest, March 2021.

Tags: #CapacityBuilding, #CommunityEngagement