Following a tour of the City led by Peggy Grimshaw of the Chester Civic Trust, delegates arriving on Wednesday, enjoyed the hospitality of the Sherriff of Chester, Cllr Patricia Lott, at the Town Hall.
The generous sponsorship from Donald Insall Associates, architects of the new Pavilion at the Chester Racecourse offered a great venue for the conference which was opened on Thursday by the Lord Mayor of Chester, Cllr Neil Ritchie, who welcomed delegates to Chester and praised the ‘will, effort and imagination’ of the voluntary contributions which were the ‘bedrock’ of the City’s future.
Debbie Dance, Chair of HTF, thanked the Lord Mayor and the Sherriff, Donald Insall Associates and the Chester Civic Trust for their support for the conference – a welcome return to a City which had hosted a number of Forum events over the years.
She introduced Professor Phil Redmond CBE who suggested that volunteers had been engaged in community activities long before it was suggested by Government! He considered that the past should inform and shape the future and, from his experiences in Liverpool, suggested that the media should be engaged as a ‘friend’ to raise awareness of issues and gain support. He talked about his work as chair of the National Museum in Liverpool and the legacy of the Capital of Culture 2008.
In response to a question from the floor, he said that it was important to find the key assets and sell them to the media and others will follow, and strengthen the ‘offer’. Taking ownership of the culture and history of a place makes connection which people can identify with.
Tony Burton, of Civic Voice, explained that the Civic movement had its roots in the 1840s with networks of community groups and were the champions of the place. There is a desire, he said, across a wide spectrum of issues to “make it better” – from very large to small and local. He compared some efforts at consultation to a “conversation between the deaf” and suggested various answers to the question “What is engagement?”. There are challenges for both sides, not least the giving up of ‘control’ but as expectations have grown, and there are now opportunities within the Coalition Government’s Big Society agenda, it is possible to tap into the reserves of skills and knowledge held locally and to develop “not a methodology but a state of mind” to solve problems.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
Deborah Lamb, of English Heritage, talked about the policy of broadening engagement and how to get across the popular support for heritage (as demonstrated by the support for the recent Heritage Open Doors events) to Government. She considered that the benefits o greater involvement were clear but bearing the financial reality of the next few years it was important to plan carefully to make best use of resources. Heritage organisations like EH need to be clear what they need to do and what is best left to other. There is also a debate to be had about the relationship between local and national interests.
Oldham Housing Market Renewal project
Tony Barton, Donald Insall Associates, considered that as “just an architect” it was important that he engaged with people’s passions for the layers of history which makes a place interesting. This should also be at the earliest opportunity – people like to know what’s going on - “it’s that simple” he said. It can enhance and smooth the design and planning processes. Good graphic representation is essential and there are examples in Europe where the use of consistent software is an imperative. Establishing good working relationships with community groups is helpful, as public and media communication can be difficult. He illustrated with case studies the lessons which can be learned and concluded that there must be efforts made by both sides and as there are currently no ‘ground rules’ the Charter proposed by HTF would be very welcome.
“People like to know what is going on.”
Cllr Mike Jones, Leader of Cheshire West & Chester Council, explained that it was the aim of the newly formed Council to promote better community relations. He said that with this came responsibilities for the consultees as well as the Council. These include willingness to learn and to invest time; understanding the big picture – avoiding NIMBYism; and sharing information and communicating effectively. The Council should: respect communities; support the development of skills and capability and assist communities in taking on responsibilities. He used the Commercial Business District as an example which had run workshops, informed through press releases, had a permanent exhibition, public meetings and forums, sent letters to all residents in the development area and made information available online. Lessons can be learned and built on to improve future engagement, he concluded.
Questions to the panel of speakers covered a range of issues including:
- Representation: – groups do not have a mandate to represent the community – only their particular interest.
- Consultation time frames are important; it can be impossible for groups to respond within the given time frames.
- Local and national criteria can be very different; this can affect funding decisions.
- Definitions of ‘communities’ can vary greatly and there is no one solution to fit all situations.
- Professionals also have a valid opinion.
- Communities can take the initiative and develop their own skills and motivate others.
After lunch with an opportunity to visits the exhibitions and enjoy the venue, delegates had a choice of study tours. These included the City Walls and Portico project, Chester Racecourse and the Old Port and Water Tower Gardens, which enabled delegates to see projects in and around the City which had benefitted from community engagement.
On their return parallel workshops explored a range of approaches to the topic.
Involvement or Public Inconvenience? – the role of civic societies was lead by Stephen Langtree, Vice president of the Chester Civic Trust, who said that whilst aware of the fact that the Trust represents only the view of its members, by working with the Council, both parties are aware of each other’s needs.
Enquiry by design was lead by James Hulme of The Prince’s Foundation, who explained that the key was that people did the work themselves and developed an understanding of each other’s point of view.
A case study – All Soul’s, Bolton, lead by Peter Aiers of the Churches Conservation Trust and Mohammed Mangera of Urban Solutions, who agreed that falcons in a church always brought people in! An innovative approach was needed to generate interest – to get them through the door, but the consultation should be appropriate to the situation.
In order to collate the views of delegates and ideas from the workshops, delegates were asked to consider contributing to a Charter for Community Engagement. A proforma to capture these views was included in the delegates’ packs and is available here. Responses will be drawn together to promote and supportgood practice.
The Forum is grateful to sponsors and speakers for their contributions to a successful event.
Chris Winter, Director, HTF