Community Permission: Seeing the community as client

Communities are all too often bystanders in the regeneration and development process despite being profoundly affected by the changes that the process can bring. The planning process can also be a mystery, shrouded in tiny fonts, aggressive institutional-speak, over-the-top bureaucracy, the safety blanket of policy and a funfair of forms. Instead of being receivers of development, local people should be agents of change, helping to define and steer the shape their own neighbourhoods take?

The Localism agenda provides an unprecedented opportunity to place communities at the heart of the local decision-making process by creating important new roles and responsibilities for them. The community is now a client and needs to be satisfied that development is meeting their needs. But they also need to manage the responsibility and burden of being a permission-giver. Following from this, developers now need a mandate from a community to develop in their area. They need to obtain “community permission”.

If communities are expected to run services, take on assets and give permission for development then they need a new set of behaviours, skills and competencies that are currently not there in abundance and often have to be brought or bought in. This is all very well but communities often lack the confidence to articulate their needs effectively and play with the people that don’t normally play with them – i.e., developers. So, we need to gear up communities to become savvy clients and representative permission-givers and we need to do this fast.

Developers and communities often have uncomfortable experiences of going through the planning process and gaining permission can be painful for both sides. We need to change the relationship between developers and communities from the adversarial to being much more collaborative. Developers also need to be up-skilled in communicating better with local people. Obtaining community permission needs to be considered as important and startegic to the success of a development proposal as obtaining planning permission or getting environmental consents. The costs of gaining community permission therefore need to be built into the development model from the start just as gaining expert advice on planning, enviornmental matters and design is.

Community as Client is not a new thing – we have a long tradition of community regeneration in the UK, but it is about how the exception becomes the rule. The government is pushing for all of this but there is a worrying lack of clarity and funding for practical pathways for communities to have some control. The granularity of where things work well, and why, is being lost in the noise of the debate over what we should be doing at a national level – cue Big Society.

How can best practice on the ground punch through to inform government thinking and change behaviours in the development industry? This is important if communities are really going to see the benefits of Localism as the Bill implies and critically determine it away from being just an exercise in dismantling the planning system at the local level.

The Localism Bill demands a set of roles and responsibilities that communities do not have in abundance. Some key questions arise from all of this, namely:
– Who will these community permission-givers be?
– What roles, skills, and support do communities need in order to become clients?
– What structures do communities require to confer permission and participate in the process instead of just rubber stamping it at the end?
– What form will permission given by the community take?
– How will developers obtain community permission effectively?

Community as client starts with making best use of the resources that already exist at a local level. Valuing what is already there and reactivating it to suit new needs and realities. It is about seeing local people as the experts on their own places; they know what works, doesn’t work and what change they want. They are a wealth of untapped resource in terms of the places, knowledge, experience, skills and networks that are built up over time. Allowing people to stamp their identity on a place gives them more than the role of caretaker at the end of the process, but the role of designer, catalyst for change, community champion. This is something developers can benefit from to inform their development and ultimately make them more attractive and palatable to local people.

Facilitating the development of a mandate and galvanizing local people and developers to work together requires a type of glue that can help build the social bonds and positive behaviours to keep everyone working as a team. The outcomes will be better achieved if the community client is engaged as part of the project team from the very start. We work with the community client and the developer to create a shared charter setting out the key outcomes and outputs being sought from the development by the community and developer. It is our job to steer the project according to this charter.

We help developers understand the range of existing resources and capability in the community (including assets, unemployed and retired people, volunteers, arts and social enterprises, youth organizations and the third sector) and mobilise them to be part of the development project. This helps build the vital bridging capital between people and groups choosing to cooperate and support each other, which is needed to build community strength and confidence. The confidence, capacity and competency built in the community through the development process can be used to fuel other projects such as community asset transfer, social enterprises and volunteering.

Mend has developed a process and set of procedures to help communities take on the role of the client and to help developers gain community permission. We are pro-development in the sense of seeing the development process as an opportunity to improve a local area, not replace it. So the way we see community permission working is a bit like marriage guidance counseling; reconciling different and competing agendas or personalities and identifying common ground and affinity.

Fundamentally if we want better development we have got to be prepared to be a good client; and if we want community permission we have got to be prepared to respect the community as the client.

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