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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Building Design Engagement Capacity in Local Authorities

Posted on 15 June 2021

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

(11 June 2021)

This month’s chat, Building Design Engagement Capacity in Local Authorities, explored how to build confidence and capacity within local authorities to design and deliver effective community engagement strategies in design and placemaking, and in doing so, to work more collaboratively with communities to drive change. We were fortunate to be joined by council officers from different parts of the country, representing both design and engagement teams, and by a community activist and provider of locally based services with decades of experience of engaging with their local authority.  This gave us scope to explore the question from a number of perspectives and for different players in the process to share their reality. While there were clear frustrations voiced by all involved, it was a positive conversation that sought to share both lessons learned and ideas, and to explore practical approaches that could help improve design engagement led by local authorities.

Key themes

We asked our participants what they would like to explore through discussion on this topic, and very quickly we got past the obvious problem of diminished budgets and staff, to explore the topic of systems and processes at local government level. Some clear themes emerged. We spoke of the role of engagement teams within and across council services, and how they connect with both the various council departments and with the general public. We explored the timing of engagement activities linking to both individual projects and to more strategic place-based conversations. And finally, we spoke at length about how to better connect council-led design and placemaking initiatives with those led by other sectors and with smaller-scale local community-led activities.

Investing in early and sustained dialogue and in building relationships

Too often, engagement is seen only as a statutory requirement, a hurdle to overcome in order to move a project forward (and through planning applications). We talked about the challenges of project timelines and political cycles, and indeed of frequent turnover of staff, all of which can lead to engagement being designed to meet baseline requirements as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

Our chat participants involved in delivering design and placemaking projects spoke of the importance of engaging local people and organisations early on to set the vision and brief, and throughout the iterative process of design, and that this required their teams to have increased confidence, skills and budgets for meaningful engagement.

In the brief time we spent together, there was collective agreement on the importance of relationships that develop over time, of sustained dialogue, to achieve engagement that moves from a space to ratify decisions already made towards more meaningful civic participation, collaboration and leadership. This means thinking about engagement not only as a means of ratifying local policy and emerging development schemes, but as a sustained conversation about the area, identifying shared values and objectives, and working together over time to ensure that each project, whether council, developer or community-led, links into sustained dialogue and holistic evolution of a place. 

Building an infrastructure for design engagement

It was noted that local authority engagement is led by both dedicated engagement teams and by individual council departments focusing on planning, regeneration, housing, health and wellbeing, youth services and so on. This means that at any given moment, people in a specific area may find several different council-led engagement conversations reaching out to them at the same time. One chat participant, who had been mapping engagement activities across the council for which they work, found that in one local area there were 10 separate engagement programmes happening at once with no strategic connection across the projects. This can be hugely confusing, as well as inefficient. For communities in areas that straddle borough boundaries, having to work with differing strategies and approaches in neighbouring boroughs is also particularly challenging.

This, often divergent approach can also create a disconnect between the conversations and relationships built with local people and organisations by the individual council departments and by dedicated engagement teams working across councils.

The key message from our conversations here was that local authorities would benefit from a holistic, place-based approach to engagement that looks across departments and projects, joins up the big picture conversation, shares data gathered, and that builds capacity within the various departments. However, the cross departmental engagement team should also recognise the need for the various departments to build and nurture their own local relationships and ongoing dialogue on certain themes and projects.  A holistic place-based approach that crosses legislative lines and sees neighbouring boroughs working strategically together to achieve shared objectives would also feel more logical and productive.

Connecting people, objectives and assets around shared objectives

It is clear that local authorities cannot do it all on their own, and that engagement can offer a fantastic route into unearthing, connecting and mobilising local ideas, talent and initiatives with council led programmes and with each other.

We identified some key priorities for building capacity and impact, both within council teams and in engaging with communities. Firstly, it was agreed that it is essential to create accessible routes into dialogue within and across the council, as well as for local people and organisations wishing to connect with them. This is about making it easy to understand whom to speak to about what, and to join up different conversations and activities. This will require creating safe spaces for conversation and dialogue, with both informal and structured networking opportunities that bring people and initiatives together, and that create space to learn from each other and to connect assets and resources.

And finally, good design engagement is also about recognising that within any area, there are community-led projects and initiatives happening that share the council objectives of improving the quality of life and provision of activities and services. Engagement that creates pathways to working collaboratively and holistically together can shift engagement from a tick-box exercise to a meaningful investment in local placemaking.

You can book on for the July Glass-House Chats below.

July: Community design review panels: how could they work?