Kate Stewart of placemaking and engagement specialist We Make Places explains why the organisation’s sometimes “subversive” approach helped secure planning for the regeneration of a Cheshire estate – by getting in and really listening to local people
I’VE been involved at the sharp end of urban regeneration, architecture and design for many years, and over that time I’ve seen changing trends in community consultation.
Community engagement has long become a planning industry sub-set, with specialist agents drafted in to manage the process. But unfortunately, in my experience, the process can be designed to purposefully bypass the people who already live in areas earmarked for regeneration, and subsequently leave them behind.
Of course, I get that regeneration and development has to mean change, and that investment has to quickly move undervalued and underdeveloped places into a more prosperous future, but where do existing communities fit into this?
Sutton Way In early 2018, [Liverpool-based] We Make Places won a competitive tender with Cheshire West & Chester Council (CWaC) and ForHousing, which were planning to renovate 372 homes in 10 low-rise blocks in Sutton Way, Ellesmere Port.
The client had recognised that a high proportion of residents in the neighbourhood were getting harder to reach via the usual, day-to-day correspondence and that this breakdown would make usual consultation tactics ineffective.
The brief was to facilitate meaningful engagement with as many residents as possible, not just as part of the planned regeneration programme, but to also deliver positive and lasting change.
The proposed plans called for partial demolition of three blocks (45 of the 372 flats on the estate), the renovation of the other seven blocks, plus the construction of 16 new two-bed homes.
We were very clear in our tender that our level of engagement goes way beyond what might be considered the norm.
This was a founding principle when we set up the social enterprise in 2014, and it’s a step in the right direction that the Government has finally recognised in last year’s Social Housing Green Paper, that existing communities have to be listened to, even if what they say is sometimes difficult to hear.
Everyone who works at We Make Places has a built environment background, so we approached this project both from a development and community perspective. We’re realistic, pragmatic and just a little bit subversive when necessary.
We’ve always said: you can build houses, but it’s the community that makes them homes; changing people’s lives takes more than just refurbishing the blocks, you have to find and nurture the existing pockets of community and friendship. That’s what makes neighbourhoods sustainable.
Seeking out people and voices
It was clear that Sutton Way would benefit from regeneration, with external and ancillary spaces in poor condition and many of the neighbourhood’s problems stemming from a high turnover of residents, resulting in isolation and antisocial behaviour. But the proposed development had to take the community with it.
We went to great lengths to ensure the residents understood we were completely independent of other agencies, making residents more willing to open up and talk to us.
So we got to work, establishing a presence on Sutton Way – visiting resident’s homes sometimes three or four times and distributing open invitations to visit our specially built on-site conversation space.
The proposed redevelopment was a lot for people to take in, particularly those set to potentially lose their homes. It quickly became clear there were significant social and mental health challenges in the area, and we worked with CWaC, ForHousing and other local partners to present opportunities for individuals and develop new community-based activities.
We made it clear to a willing client from the outset, once issues were identified action had to be taken or risk further alienating the community, and thankfully both clients bought into this with us.
I’m pleased to say that We Make Places gained meaningful feedback from more than 35% of residents targeted – the usual anticipated rate is 10%. This is achieved by going much further than the usual community centre style consultation and achieving in-depth engagement.
By the start of 2019, the development plans were submitted, and We Make Places continued to engage with its ‘Meet Up Mondays’ drop-in-sessions, arts and social history projects and an Urban Workbench programme, which tackles loneliness and isolation by teaching basic joinery and DIY skills.
Not just ‘another job’
The scheme achieved full planning permission under delegated powers in June, and both clients credit We Make Places’ methods as being key to this outcome.
Nicola Bott, strategic lead for development delivery at ForHousing told me that: “One of ForHousing’s priorities was to put tenant-led, meaningful engagement at the heart of the Sutton Way project, and ensure that design decisions truly reflected the change desired by the existing community.
“Coupled with that was the need to create a sense of community, and find new ways to solve the social issues that we found to be prevalent within the blocks.
“To achieve this, we understood that engagement couldn’t be a ‘tick-box’ exercise undertaken just to achieve planning, but an ongoing process to really get to the heart of what mattered to people.
“We Make Places interpreted the brief perfectly, and understood exactly what was required for this project to be a success. They ensured that this was not a usual pre-planning consultation exercise, and that meaningful engagement was central to underpinning the tenant journey.
“This project was far from just ‘another job’ – it had genuine heart. People’s stories were listened to, while complex issues were acknowledged and understood, allowing for new relationships and trust to be built.
“This was about more than bricks and mortar, it was about creating solutions to entrenched problems, through design and place making, and solving some of the underlying health and wellbeing issues.”
I fully accept that not every planning application requires such a ‘deep dive’ approach, but when developers are aware of issues or factors that could prohibit meaningful engagement and choose to ignore them, we must ask why.
Are they just kicking problems down the road and hoping for the best, or worse, purposely undermining existing communities?
CWaC and ForHousing’s approach not only fitted with our vison of how community engagement should be conducted, but will more likely lead to a more sustainable community.
We Make Places is a community interest company (CIC) based in Liverpool. Its ambition is to help redefine how developers engage with existing communities, and ensure that more local people are brought into the conversations that shape urban regeneration.
Kate Stewart is the CIC’s chief executive and describes herself as a subversive optimist.
This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine, #5 July 2019