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Engaging forgotten places

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  • People & place
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There are places, like Wigan, Preston and Thurrock, that are becoming recognised for their transformational locally-led change programmes. Elsewhere, many have seen the break from the norm that the pandemic has caused as an impetus for change, with Camden 2025 being a strong example.

All these places have had bold leadership that has seen the value of working closely with and trusting residents in their neighbourhoods to decide what they want the place they live to be like. But what about the rest?

Group of people in conversation

The Levelling Up Fund sets out opportunities for places to address challenges that have been ongoing for years. But how many will be bold and really engage with the people who live there to make them places that are led by resident priorities and prepare them for the challenges the future may present? It reminds me of a blog my former colleague wrote in 2019 about “left behind” communities; this language, just like that of “levelling up,” implies something accidental has happened. Yet often it’s been a slow and steady disregard for the people that live in these places, and their love, commitment and hopes for their communities and their voice in decision making.

I went home this weekend (I don’t mean I just moved rooms in my house) and returned to the town I was born, grew up and lived in until I was nearly 20. Selby, my hometown, is an interesting place. Traditionally a market town, it developed more traditional industries: shipbuilding (where my Dad worked, he’s under the ship in this short ship launch film), chemical plant (locally called “the dye works” which turned the river rainbow colours when I was a child), flour mill and animal feed plant. This combination of industries made Selby a vibrant and successful town for many years. Add to this the opening of the (once) largest coal field in Europe and three coal-fired power stations, its population diversified, grew and developed.

However, one by one these traditional industries closed and, like many towns in the UK, Selby has started to struggle. The past year has been a challenge, with a town centre deserted and waves of lockdown, tiers and reopening being felt acutely each time. The town’s planning decisions have done little to meet the needs of residents with more and more supermarkets opening on the edges of town whilst the high street fades and residents’ despair. As lockdown eased, Selby would have been well-placed to use the break from the status quo to reinvigorate its high street. My mum and fellow residents bemoaned the lack of outdoor spaces to meet friends for a cuppa or a bite to eat; this fell on deaf ears as the council brought in charges for cafes to put chairs and tables outside.

This piece isn’t me having a pop at my old hometown, but an exploration about how do we enable residents in these places to have their voices heard? At the RSA, we have been exploring how deliberative democracy can enable change to be driven by the voices of local people and underpinned by their hopes and needs through a more dynamic process than the traditional ‘consultation and engagement’ exercises many places still utilise. Could the development of these processes in local places help drive change and enable places to develop and thrive in ways they hadn’t before?

There’s also another fundamental question here: if people feel able to participate, to be heard, to help shape where they live, to contribute to it meeting their needs as well as those of the other people that live there, what would it mean for people’s wellbeing?

We’re exploring some of these questions at the moment in our work, asking local communities about their priorities and working with public bodies to explore how they can be more participatory as an organisation before they even explore being participatory with their communities.

Could this be the answer to enabling places and people to thrive? Could truly engaging with local people about their lives, communities and future enable those places to meet the needs of their population while also helping local people’s wellbeing thrive as well? We’re not sure of the answer but we’re keen to test it out.

If you’re interested in talking to us about shifting conversations and developing participation whether as an organisation, local community or group of residents, then get in touch.

You can contact Ruth Hannan who is Co-Lead of the People and Place team: ruth.hannan@rsa.org.uk.

Find out more about the RSA’s deliberative democracy work in neighbourhoods.  

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