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Colin Lavety's planning blog

Colin Lavety is Planning Director at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore. He manages the Scottish Planning Team, based in offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow

‘No’ seems to be the hardest word

September 29th, 2020

Why effective community engagement is key to delivering better outcomes for local authorities

Local authorities are stretched thin.  Budgets that looked tight before Covid-19 have become strangling, and using these limited resources to deliver the best value for communities is more important than ever before.  For me as a planning consultant, but also for anyone involved in constructing a new home, bridge, road or power plant, the relationship with the local community is paramount.  With the current pandemic serving to shine a light on the stark social inequalities across the country, and development hailed as a critical cornerstone of the economic recovery, councils must now shore up the foundations of their engagement strategies to deliver the projects of maximum benefit to their communities.

New rules of engagement

This comes at a time when, despite funding constraints, local authorities all over Scotland and the UK are grasping the ‘build, build, build’ bull by the horns and aiming to deliver record numbers of new, more beautiful, more energy efficient and more affordable homes.  Effective and meaningful engagement with local residents is vital if we are to build stronger communities at the same time.   

After all, local authorities are in it for the long haul.  Arguably more so than private developers, as Councils have a long term obligation to sustain the best possible relationship with local residents – or else fear losing their confidence.  They will be bringing forward projects for decades to come, and are regularly held to account in local elections – particularly when it comes to spending from the ‘public purse’.  While they endure tightening budgets and other political pressures, a good relationship with the community is one currency they have greater control over, and it is imperative they do not squander it.

Honesty is the best policy

In recent months, Barton Willmore has worked with several local authorities, including the City of Edinburgh Council, Fife Council and East Dunbartonshire Council, to guide major projects through the consenting process, onto construction and then crucially - to completion.  In discussions with the local communities, we routinely face questions or requests for additional facilities, design alterations, or even changes of use.

But residents also understand the current constraints that local authorities are under, as well as the need for new housing at affordable prices.  The key is to be clear and transparent about the viability of schemes, and having frank and honest discussions, without ever being afraid of saying ‘no’.  That word is the single most powerful phrase in engagement.

Communities respect this honesty, and it is beneficial that we as independent consultants have often been able to de-politicise the conversation, especially in these politically fraught times.  For councillors, sometimes ‘no’ can seem to be the hardest word when they know re-election is just around the corner.  But people want, need, and respect the truth, and only then can you have a proper and meaningful dialogue on any proposed development project.

As the schemes have been brought forward, including 750 new affordable homes that we have helped to realise across Edinburgh and Fife in the last two years, residents can see the clear and positive results that the local authority brings, and this further strengthens that trust. 

At the very least, when Councils bring forward new developments, their constituents need to know what they are getting:  not just a new building on their doorstep, but a team of people who will listen and acknowledge their concerns while working to produce the best viable scheme they can in the face of available funding.  They know they won’t get an answer full of spin, but will have the curtain drawn back to a transparent process that shows how their local council is doing the best it can with what it has to deliver better housing, infrastructure and amenities to the community it serves.

Making brownfield work for the community

May 10th, 2020
Making brownfield work for the community

The problem with brownfield
Spango Valley in Greenock became the home of IBM manufacturing in Scotland in the 1950s, when computers were the size of a small room. Termed the ‘Silicon Glen’, at its height the plant housed thousands of workers, establishing its position as a key element of Greenock’s employment and social fabric for over 50 years, while providing a focus for the local community and an inherent civic pride.

The closure of the facility in 2016, robbed this area of more than just jobs. The factory site has lain derelict for the last four years, with development potential constrained by a need to retain this brownfield site as employment land, as well as the considerable remediation required and the flooding challenges posed by the Spango Burn, which runs through the site. The site is also located away from the town’s nearby ports, and as such doesn’t present a natural employment opportunity.

This is not an unfamiliar story across Scotland or the wider UK. At Glenrothes’ Tullis Russell Paper Mill, for example, a similarly major local manufacturer’s departure left behind a contaminated, largely derelict but nonetheless significant employment site, caught between a town centre and housing estates.

The challenge is to deliver acceptable change for these sites, so steeped in local pride and historical economic opportunity, and so important to the health – economic and social - of a community. My practice, Barton Willmore, and its designers and planners have faced these challenges across several projects, with IBM at Greenock being our most recent experience.

Restoring the heart of a community
When set the task of making brownfield sites such as these work once again for the community, understanding the constraints is always the starting point. Both examples were protected for employment use in a Local Development Plan, but no prospective plan had been able to replace the previous employment provision – often due to changes in the local market and commercial viability. The crucial stage in working through these problems and finding a new lease of life for the sites and their communities is to engage with everyone who will be impacted by the project.
At Tullis Russell in Glenrothes, this meant not just shaping the options for the landowner, but opening discussions with the local council about changing the land uses across the site. We were also engaging with the local Community Council and its aspirations for the project. What resulted was a locally-informed, commercially realistic, yet ambitious response, which reflected the community’s needs and would deliver tangible benefits.

Our proposals for IBM are at an earlier stage and we recognise the need to consider what scale of employment is now suitable and deliverable in this location. We have taken forward the lessons from our experience at Glenrothes, and our submission for a mixed-use regeneration in Greenock includes up to 450 new homes, alongside areas of new employment, leisure, community and retail, as well as a new Park and Ride facility adjacent to the existing IBM Rail Halt and station, which will re-open to the public. These proposals represent a £100m investment in the local area, and an opportunity to drive economic growth in Greenock.

Getting all the pieces in place to redevelop large brownfield sites like these may well pose a significant challenge, but it is essential to the lives and livelihoods of people across Scotland that these sites are not abandoned or neglected – that councils, communities, and developers can come together to present plans for these sites that are realistic yet ambitious, and that will deliver genuine benefits once again to the areas of which they are a part.