How can a feeling of ownership allow people to feel invested in their communities for the long term? That was the topic of discussion for The Quality of Life Foundation’s first panel event.

Chaired by Jonny Anstead, Director at TOWN, panelists shared their views on issues such as the impact of Covid-19 in our communities, how to encourage diversity and equality in the way we control our neighbourhoods, and how to create meaningful public participation in planning processes.

Building control on a local level

The panel all agreed that the inequalities exposed by Covid-19 and the disproportionate impact on BAME communities demonstrates a need for a “community first” approach to development after the pandemic. Jo Negrini, Chief Executive at Croydon Council, argued that we need to create an environment where “your voice is heard and acted upon” and do something for those living without balconies, access to outdoor space and parks. She added that what has worked well during the pandemic are the collaborative relationships between the NHS, councils, community organisations and mutual aid groups- this approach should be applied to local planning, working with a local population to find out what services they need and what they want their environment to look like from the start.

Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive of Power to Change, supported this view and highlighted the link between control and individual and community health and wellbeing, “When local people define what is important themselves or keep a service locally, you find much more willingness to get involved and much greater participation”, Vidhya added, and “loss of control exacerbates poverty and poor health.”

Public engagement and power

Public engagement does have the potential to change developer behaviour too, particularly when supported by local authorities. Matt Bell Director Of Corporate Affairs at Grosvenor Group recalled that public involvement in a Grosvenor development in Bermondsey “made us up our game”, and having Southwark council resources to empower local residents was key to this engagement.

Vidhya Alakeson argued that community led activity is often presented “as in conflict with local authorities” when sharing power and working in a partnership way can be powerful.

But Matt Bell also argued that when we talk about a sense of control in the built environment “there’s a big difference between making places and managing places.” He believes that people don’t necessarily want to be empowered to become involved in landscape maintenance and service charges but instead “want to feel connected in quite emotional ways” to their homes and communities.

Empowering those who need it most

But control can often fall short of those who are most in need of it. Jo Negrini argued that some of the best ways of connecting to more marginalised communities are via food banks and voluntary and community organisations etc. Focusing the conversation around people’s day to day existence rather than what’s going to be built in five years is a much more effective way of getting people involved in their local area.

Vidhya Alakeson also agreed that community organisations have an important role to play in connecting people. Place leadership isn’t held by the council. Obviously the council has a huge role to play, but you can be a leader by being in a community organisation. It’s about broadening out the context of who leads in a place.”

Building Trust with Developers

Public trust of developers also plays into how much control we feel we have over our communities.

Matt Bell conceded that, “Most developers are pretty hopeless at engaging with communities,” and argued for less outsourcing of community consultation to agencies and more to be done in house. There’s a distinct discipline about good community engagement. Ultimately Matt believes that developers need to “just shut up and listen.”

Green Shoots

But there is hope for a different future after the pandemic, Jo Negrini added that, “if there’s a silver lining out of Covid-19, it’s that community organisations that have a real depth of understanding can now be part of strategic planning about how places are run on a long-term basis.”