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Keeping sight of the vision

As the coalition government struggles to define localism and Big Society, is there a danger the merit of creating sustainable communities will be sidelined? Robert Rogerson argues there’s a need for a renewed vision

The vision of sustainable communities which has dominated has been generated largely through UK government policy. To date it has been constructed as a hybrid of sustainable development principles and pro-growth approaches to economic competitiveness. It has emerged and evolved through a series of specific policy initiatives relating to housing, economic and regional development. It has sought to connect planning reform and with skills policies and has been portrayed as part of the modernising agenda.

The stated intention has been to generate mixed, diverse and balanced communities supporting a strong labour market independent from state welfare benefits. Associated with this have been expectations of how people within such communities should behave as social and economic actors, venerating self-reliant, active citizens. And using planning legislation, there has been a desire to shape how communities should be ordered in space, and to balance processes of mobility and fixity through which places are made and remade.

The desire by government to lead the envisioning of sustainable communities is of course understandable and arguably necessary. However, as recent research has revealed, the question still asked by many of those involved is ‘what is a sustainable community?’ with the assumption being either that others will define it for them or that ‘we’ll know it when we see it!’.

The government’s approach has been that the notion of sustainable communities must accommodate a diversity of expressions, reflecting local interpretations and engagement as to what such a community should be like, and that further articulation should be the outcome of local discussion and community involvement.

In this respect, there can be no single blueprint; rather there is a need for a more clearly articulated guiding ‘vision’ showing the direction of travel rather than a predicted outcome.

Providing such a guiding vision matters, not least in answering key questions that are difficult to answer or address within communities, including:

  1. How do those involved in working towards creating sustainable communities know they are making ‘progress’?
  2. Does every community have an inherent right to be sustainable on its own terms, even if this involves its deliberate segregation from other communities?
  3. ‘Sustainable’ has connotations of conservation and consensual stability, so how can communities work with the inherent churn and fluidity that is characteristic of some ‘communities’?

BROADENING THE VISION
The current vision of sustainable communities may assist government – local and national – but it limits open dialogue with local communities and organisations over targets and fails to show leadership in relation to the interconnectedness of communities. Instead, while recognising the importance of migration and the changing composition of communities, this vision remains cast in terms of local influence over decision-making and priorities.

First, there has been a tendency to meet skills ‘deficits’ rather than focusing on those skills existing within communities and those which contribute towards collectively defined outcomes. In practice this has tended to focus on skills that have more immediacy and utility rather than assisting future and longer-term community and ‘Debates to date have focused primarily on the “building” and production of such communities, with emphasis on skills to achieve this. In contrast, considerably less attention has been given to community development skills which allow communities to
manage the processes of mobility and change.’
partnership working. Often it has meant an emphasis on professional skills and competencies, thus tending to reinforce professional silos rather than creating new working relationships, and on developing leadership within professions rather than widening skills to encourage engagement of communities. In contrast there is limited time given to more explorative approaches. For example, learning skills in creative writing developed alongside community representatives which has allowed river catchment management professionals to gain new perspectives on the value of rivers in placemaking.

Second, acknowledging the timescales involved in generating trust and collaborative working practices, there has to be more recognition given to the sustained development of communities. Debates to date have focused primarily on the ‘building’ and production of such communities, with emphasis on skills to achieve this. In contrast, considerably less attention has been given to community development skills which allow communities to manage the processes of mobility and change. More awareness needs to be given to those competencies and attributes which enable a community to continue to function, evolve and live together as a cohesive group, even where such cohesion has been absent historically. Having the time and space to experiment, to appreciate different perspectives, and in some circumstances to work with irresolvable issues requires different types of skills and qualities from those deployed by professionals and community organisations in the routine and structured encounters traditionally learned and practised.

Third, to date research suggests that despite laudable attempts to enhance the opportunity – and in some cases the statutory requirement – for community and stakeholder engagement, there has been limited successful involvement. As well as procedural issues associated with the rather limited imaginative ways being deployed by planning bodies to seek involvement and the fatigue arising from the sheer volume of consultation taking place, there are also structural barriers. Stakeholders perceived that they lacked the knowledge and understanding of the processes involved, and this was at times complicated by the use of obscure technical terminology and complex documentation. Insufficient resources, both financial and time, were allocated by planning authorities to support such involvement. Further, and arguably most significant, research highlights that consultation was ‘front loaded’ and reactive. As a consequence, involvement was most likely to occur among semi-professional organisations which had previous experience of engagement and had the resources to devote to such activity.

GENERATING LOCAL SOLUTIONS
Breaking out of this process of top-down envisioning – a key point which lies at the heart of the coalition government’s desire for restructuring the role of local government and society more generally – requires the adoption of different approaches to involving people in developing local visions of sustainable communities.

A key challenge remains in bringing other groups – younger and older people, the most challenged communities as well as the most advantaged – into the process by instituting novel approaches. Traditional mechanisms for community involvement are failing to offer such inclusiveness and don’t inspire and enable communities to take more ownership in setting the very parameters by which a sustainable community can be judged.

There are, however, examples of places where professionals and communities are learning to work together to generate such visions, as research by academic teams across the UK under an Economic and Social Research Council and Homes and Communities Agency initiative has shown. Even in difficult environments (such as conflict communities in Belfast), dealing with complex environmental issues (such as a river basin management), or in cross-professional working, imaginative ways have been found to learn the skills and how to work effectively towards generating guiding visions.

Through supportive learning environments, time to experiment, gain trust and understanding and by appreciating that consensus cannot always be achieved, governments can realistically ask local communities and professionals to generate their own vision of sustainable communities.

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