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How do you get people involved in shaping the look and feel of the places where they live? Tom Bolton follows up on Ben Rogers’s recent piece on beauty in the RSA Journal

The Government’s concept of a Big Society opens doors, but also begs questions about what it means for the way that places are planned, maintained, improved and changed.  Buildings and spaces have a profound effect on your life, but most people are not short of other things to worry about, and the decision-making process is complex and opaque. How do you get them to feel that being involved is worth the effort?

There’s no doubt that a new approach is needed. Recent Ipsos MORI research shows that around a third of us think that we can make a difference. The Citizenship Survey 2010 shows that only 37 per cent of people agree that they can influence decisions affecting their local area. What’s more, this figure is shrinking, from 44 per cent in 2001. This pessimism about the influence you can have locally is reflected in the numbers who actually do get involved.  Only 18 per cent had participated in ‘civic consultation’ during 2009/10, down from 20 per cent in 2005.  The proportion who regularly participate has remained at a tiny 3 per cent since 2001.

So it looks as though self-confidence is heading in the wrong direction, quite fast, and that the minority able or willing to communicate its views to civic representatives isn’t growing. Perhaps the rest don’t think their views will make any difference. Or they don’t speak the language of policy or planning. Or it could be that there’s another kind of mass resignation out there: the people running consultations have low expectations and civic leaders have come to accept that they will only ever hear from the same few people.

This is why CABE decided to start by thinking about what matters to most people about their places. We asked questions about beauty, and the answers we got were revealing. We discovered that the overwhelming majority of people – four out of five – say that everyone should be able to experience beauty on a regular basis. Hardly anyone thinks that beauty matters less if you are poor. Only 12 per cent are too busy to notice beauty in their area and 65 per cent experience beauty in the natural environment. Most people think that local authorities carry the main responsibility for ensuring that places are beautiful.

We used filmed interviews to ask questions about beauty, and we discovered that people have a lot to say. At first, they’re usually surprised to be asked. There was even a sense that we were breaking a taboo, talking about something that’s uncomfortable to discuss. But once we passed that initial barrier, people had a lot to say. They talked about beauty in relation to the image of their place; to redevelopment and housing policy; to the historic environment and new architecture; to green space and environmental quality; to maintenance and functionality; to personal ambition and everyday life. Their views were passionate, informed and impossible to ignore.

So CABE’s research has shown that beauty is something people value as a public good.  They expect local authorities to take a lead. Beauty starts to seem a lot less like an abstract, intangible concept and rather more like a concrete, current policy issue. And when you start to think about beauty in a Big Society light, it looks like an opportunity. If the driving factor for local decision-making in future is to be based on what local people want for their neighbourhood, then consultation has to be on their terms. It’s no good expecting people to fit a template any more, and respond within strict parameters. The time has come to start by talking about issues that can bring everyone into the debate.

Beauty is just such an issue. Everyone has a view on what they think is beautiful and what they don’t. Not everyone would turn up to a land use seminar, but everyone has a view on the building round the corner. There will be disagreements, but that doesn’t matter. The point of getting people thinking about beauty is to encourage discussion about what places mean to them, and how they affect individual lives. It can show why being involved in the future of the built environment could be worthwhile.  It may seem an unexpected route into civic involvement, even surprising - but we think it could work.

Tom Bolton is Senior Research Advisor, CABE


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