In this chapter, we look beyond governance structures to examine other crucial conditions that must be satisfied if community engagement is to be successful. Research suggests that factors other than governance can be more important in enabling meaningful input into town centres and high streets. Place managers understand well that one size does not fit all in thinking about place partnerships. Respecting the distinct makeup of each place means understanding that unique factors on the ground will result in each partnership looking slightly different.
Creating a mechanism for community influence is no different.
Each place will have its own unique dynamics, and imposing a model which doesn’t arise organically runs the risk of failure.
This is genuine localism, and a natural point of alignment between the place management and community sectors.
In addition, there has to be an end goal. This report has discussed the need for strategic and holistic renewal of high streets and town centres as they change into multifunctional spaces of community activity. Without a consensus among all the key stakeholders in a place that this is indeed the desired outcome, any mechanism may run into trouble. We argue that the process of achieving this shared vision is a necessary prerequisite for genuine community involvement, and just as important as deciding which mechanism to adopt.
Similarly, while there is an increasing focus on involving communities in high streets and town centres specifically, the practice of community engagement and community development is not new. Marrying the worlds of place management, local economic development and regeneration with community involvement means paying attention to the particular areas that successful and inclusive partnerships rely on. The following section discusses what some of these are.
The spectrum of participation
In the first instance, it is important to appreciate that the extent and degree of participation may vary. “Community engagement” is a broad phrase which most agree to be a good thing in principle – but how it is given effect can vary dramatically in practice. In the words of one experienced community practitioner that we spoke to:
“Turning the dial up on community voice means going from hearing better, to giving communities the right to do things.”
There are a number of frameworks which can help make sense of how community engagement varies. Table 3 is adapted from the International Association for Public Participation’s “Spectrum of Participation”, 47 and is a useful heuristic for understanding the different degrees of influence.
The framework is designed intentionally to be applicable to a broad range of scenarios and projects. When applied to a high street setting, the different levels of participation will have different practical implications. When embarking on a process of change as significant as reshaping our high streets, there will be opportunities for different levels of engagement at different points and across different processes. At a minimum, the aspiration should be to “Involve” and “Collaborate”.
For example, when establishing what the appropriate mix of functions and uses of a high street should be, “Consulting” would mean receiving feedback from communities on an already-decided vision and mix of uses. “Collaborating”, however, would mean working with the community to decide together what those uses should be.
Having established a target for participation that goes beyond providing information or consulting, there are certain principles which should be observed during the process. The following section discusses these.
Building on what’s already there
High street renewal happens in already-existing places, and reaching a broad cross-section of the community will require the support of those already engaged in this work. The type and extent of community activity in a place will vary. But it is crucial to understand what that is before embarking on a process of engagement.
Starting from scratch and not tapping into the community networks and organisations already active in a place means your engagement is likely to be shallower. Good existing work could be missed. Research has shown that community activity and engagement often become more embedded over time, where they strengthen and deepen existing local capacity and assets. 48 Start with what is already there. For example, where there exists a Neighbourhood Forum that has already worked on the functioning of their local high street, it is logical to involve them first. The same would apply to charities or other local groups that have a long-standing interest and investment in a place.
This is particularly important in communities where there may be either a mistrust of institutions or significant distance from them. However they are incorporated, already-active organisations are a vital channel for reaching all parts of communities. The term “hard-to-reach” is sometimes used by public bodies and the voluntary sector, but it is important to consider that sometimes institutional design and practices actually make these institutions “hard-to approach”. Meeting communities where they already are, and around the things they are already good at, is one way to respond to this.
Tapping into already-existing activity similarly avoids the risk of “engagement fatigue”. Having multiple overlapping engagement opportunities can be confusing and tiring for individuals and groups looking at a process from the outside.
In an interview, one local authority officer running a community engagement process for a high street strategy expressed frustration that they had not been able to use an already-existing local authority engagement mechanism in the same neighbourhood.
“Other processes were happening on some similar themes. It was confusing for the residents and overlapped with this other work. Some of them started to disengage after a while, as from their perspective, they had already spoken to the council, and
couldn’t understand why they were being asked to speak to someone else!”
Relationships, brokerage, and leadership
The connections that community groups bring to the wider community demonstrate that much work at the community level is relational. When people come together to organise around a common cause, they typically interact with each other in an informal, non-hierarchical way. This is a qualitatively different logic to the way that people in formal institutions relate to each other – through job titles and roles, contracts, memorandums of understanding, service level agreements and other such structures.
Integrating these different ways of working and thinking is a challenge, and the difficulty of this should be grasped and accepted. One common point of contention can be where community voices are deemed “unrepresentative”. An important distinction needs to be made here between community organisations and organisers who play a convening role, and those who claim they can decide on behalf of other people.
Being a point of contact with the wider community who can bring other people along is something to be supported. Research exploring a community-led masterplan in Newham demonstrated that one of the most important factors in achieving an extremely extensive level of engagement – far beyond the typical consultation process – was the role of the community organisers. 48 As local people with a direct stake in the neighbourhood and its institutions, they were able to convince neighbours to spend time and energy investing in a lengthy process, and were highly successful as a result. If those organisers had been dismissed as unrepresentative or unelected, it would have been a very different story.
An interview with one operator of a multifunctional events space and incubator for micro-businesses in Waltham Forest shed some light on the process:
“I’m a trained architect so I can speak the language of the council and investors. I know what they need to hear. But I have also been living in the area for a long time. I live above the shop. I know all of the traders on this parade well, and understand the real local dynamics of how they all relate to each other, and the tensions there. Being able to go between these worlds means I can broker relationships.”
Case study: Co-Place Nottingham: Community organising in tandem with the council
The benefits of adopting a community organising ethos as a way to bring community voices into strategic discussion are demonstrated by the example of Co-Place Nottingham – a partnership between Nottingham City Council, Community Organisers and Sneinton Alchemy, a local community interest company (CIC). Co-Place demonstrated what good community engagement can look like in its development of the “Design Quality Framework” – a series of guides to support the planning process by giving applicants and designers information and certainty at an early stage.
Building on community organising principles rather than formal “consultation” processes, the engagement was designed to be as neutral, open and convivial as possible. The project was initiated by the council, but realising that it needed a route into broader community networks, it brought in a local CIC with professional community organisers as an equal partner. The “base” for the engagement was provided through an “Urban Room”, a space funded by Historic England as part of the Heritage Action Zones funding programme for historic high street renewal.
However, having a physical space was not enough in itself. Mindful of the need to respond to the trust and power imbalances between the community and institutions, the space and process were designed to equalise as much as possible. All branding and imagery for the space was different from that of the council. Engagement sessions took the form of open-ended conversations around particular issues, using an image-led approach and steering away from professional jargon. A “social eating” approach was adopted whereby participants from all sectors would eat meals together – fostering an egalitarian and convivial atmosphere, developing personal relationships, and breaking down barriers.
The departure from traditional ways of working also extended to the governance of the board set up to manage the process. The board comprised members of each partner organisation: some were formal institutions while others were community groups or informal organisations. Each member of the board had one vote, and decisions were passed by majority vote. This meant that in practice, members of community organisations had as much power as members of much more powerful institutions.
As board members represented their respective institutions, some were not able to become official directors of a CIC due to legal barriers, meaning the Urban Room partnership could exist only as an informal collective. This created some challenges, as it meant partner organisations could not fund the board in larger amounts. However, the deeper and broader relationships that developed with other local community partners meant that the board was able to leverage more “in-kind” support to continue the engagement – as well as achieving more meaningful community input into the process.
The ability to mediate between the different interests and ways of working in a town centre is crucial for meaningful community involvement. Successful place managers understand the value and importance of local leadership in their professional domain. The Grimsey Review also specifically highlighted the value of local leadership in successful place partnerships. The point applies just as much to those coming from a community perspective: individuals, relationships and leadership are important, and should be supported.
Skills, responsibilities, and consensus building
The previous sections demonstrated the role of individuals as key connectors and brokers between communities and other stakeholders in town centres. However, the ability to successfully integrate community-based activity with the world of place management is not only dependent on individuals who can relate to stakeholders across two different registers. It also requires an ability to navigate the tensions that come with this.
While we have argued that there is an alignment of interests among communities and other stakeholders in the town centre, in practice not everyone will see it that way at the outset. A recurring theme during our research was of interviewees suggesting that other stakeholders “didn’t get it”. Different interests were seen as too partial and narrow. There were some quite different interpretations of what good place outcomes would look like.
“The biggest challenge is the difference in attitude between residents and businesses”.
One of the key tasks for truly holistic place management that involves communities is to get agreement in the first instance on what a holistic vision means. The process of engagement, bridging divides, understanding divergent perspectives and finding the points of alignment is all-important. A catalyst is needed for this work to begin, as well as a way for people to get around the table and an outcome in sight at the end of it. Without an active process of consensus building and envisioning, a governance vehicle which officially involves communities may not work. This is also crucial when we call to mind the end goal. Implementing high street renewal will require heavy lifting and deployment of capital at scale, whether through private or public sector partners. Giving communities the right to have a say does not mean they will have the necessary legislative or financial muscle to make it happen alone – so aligned partnership working is vital.
In some cases, this may not be easy. However, where there is a “coalition of the willing” in principle, creating tangible outcomes and a vision will require the right approach and skills to manage the process effectively. This means good interpersonal and conflict resolution skills; not taking offence; understanding people’s positions; and being able to communicate information appropriately to the circumstances and audience. It also means choosing someone to lead the work who has the influence and authority to make things happen across different professional realms. For example, a dedicated local authority Town Centre Manager without sufficient seniority or profile will likely struggle to effect strategic change, and may be limited to responding to operational issues only.
The function does not have to be filled specifically by a Town Centre Manager. It could also be a regeneration officer, an economic development professional, or someone from another discipline concerned with place. Whoever it is, it is also important that there is a single point of contact and reference. For communities attempting to understand and penetrate a complex layering of multiple responsibilities, it is important to have contact with a single person or team that is identifiably responsible.
Well-run community engagement costs money: however, it needn’t cost the earth. We heard many examples of community groups stitching together small pots of funding to carry out impressive engagement work. Activities funded included simple back-office admin tasks, information collecting, and hiring part-time staff as community organisers. Sometimes it even included paying people to attend engagement processes as a way to incentivise turnout for typically under represented groups. Making sure that there is sufficient revenue to fund these kinds of activities is important.