UK: Changing Attitudes To Community Engagement

Last Updated: 16 July 2018
Article by Susan Freeman

LREF 2018: In the week marking the one-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster, leading figures from developers, non-profits and architecture firms sat down at LREF with EG to discuss the lessons learned from the tragedy as well as broader approaches to community engagement.

Since the Grenfell Tower blaze, which broke out on 14 June 2017, the importance of strengthening collaboration between local communities, the property industry and the government has become paramount.

Participants: Building bridges with the community: the benefits of collaboration

  • Cany Ash, partner at Ash Sakula Architects
  • Killian Hurley, chief executive of Mount Anvil
  • Paul Morrish, chief executive of LandAid
  • Priya Prakash, founder at Design 4 Social Change
  • Susan Freeman, partner at Mishcon de Reya
  • Penny Humphrey, head of marketing at U+I
  • Virginia Blackman, director at GVA

The tragedy, which claimed 72 lives, brought tensions between resident groups, authorities and real estate businesses to the fore as the blame for the rapid spread of fire was placed on the tower block's exterior cladding, which had a flammable core.

Residents had also previously raised concerns about the building, including the absence of a building-wide fire alarm and that there was only one set of stairs for an escape route from the 24-storey block.

Listen to the podcast of the full discussion below:

In the wake of the disaster, Killian Hurley, chief executive of Mount Anvil, notes there is "certainly increased awareness" of the sector's shortcomings. "As an industry we have lots of lessons to learn from the tragedy," he says.

Susan Freeman, a partner at law firm Mishcon de Reya, agrees there has been greater self reflection: "I think as a developer you have to be aware of the importance of engaging the community. Everything that has happened over the past year has made that huge.

"It has raised additional questions and people are more sensitive to what they have to do to engage communities."

For Paul Morrish, chief executive of property industry charity Landaid, developers should step up to the plate to galvanise collaboration across the board. "Of the many lessons we learned from Grenfell, one is surely the sense of betrayal that community felt before the disaster happened, and the extent to which they were disenfranchised," he says.

London needs industry collaboration to become a smart city

"The challenge the industry can take leadership on – in terms of the triangulation between local authorities, stakeholders, communities and developers – is how developers can help drive forward engagement between diverse communities, and how [they] can continue relationships beyond the point at which buildings have been established."

However, he acknowledges that while there is a role for the industry to play in taking the movement forward, it is difficult to determine who could lead the charge and show the industry how to do it.

He adds: "Learning from it is not simply at the door of the developers and the property industry, but what you realise when you sit down with diverse communities is [that] there is a gap [in] people's ability to articulate what it is they hope for, in an environment and process they often feel disempowered from.

"That education from it is one the industry has the opportunity to offer and undertake with communities, to help them level the playing field. This triangulation is about power. Communities feel they don't have power, so [it's about how developers can] take the lead in sharing the power and ability to understand and control the process for the area they will build for."

Being smarter about data

Advancements in tech should allow for better engagement and allow for a more harmonious relationship between developers and the communities they serve.

Cany Ash, partner at Ash Sakula Architects, says: "Sharing the money, time and sq m [involved] with people in a transparent way gives them the tools to participate in a proactive way.

"There should be a digital place from the outset where people's voices can be heard first hand. Rather than gathering, listening and making a mountain of comments that then have to be synthesised into something [that states] community involvement, there could be a much richer process where people can be participating in the discussion in real time."

When it comes to providing these "digital places", London industry could should also learn from other global cities.

How to control and harness the flood of property data

Priya Prakash, founder at smart city non-profit Design 4 Social Change, remarks: "I think there is a lot to be learned from other cities actively taking that first step and engaging people before [something] becomes a huge issue. Unfortunately from what I have seen, the UK is still quite reactive."

She points to San Francisco in California, which has adopted a government-led accelerator programme for start-ups to devise solutions to urban challenges through data, as an example of best practice.

"What I think [works well] is giving access to data – not just open data, but data from the building industry and civic agencies. Data becomes more and more important when you try to tackle large-scale problems," she said.

Singapore is also referenced as a city-state that enables conversations between authorities, businesses and communities through increased access to data.

One of its anchor initiatives is a national smart sensor platform, which aims to track and analyse data concerning housing, amenities and public infrastructure.

"Smart money (to fund London as a smart city) should be [spent] on how you use that data and what you can do proactively to prevent another disaster," says Prakash.

"[With] two-way feedback, which is what cities like Singapore do really well, we would be in a much better place than trying to avoid incidents such as Grenfell. A lot of cities are using this."

Rethinking the consultation process

Developers need to start listening more and talking less during consultation processes in order to be successful in making communities embrace the areas they are creating.

The traditional consultation process on development proposals drew criticism for its limitations in giving residents the opportunity to voice their opinions.

"As an industry we need to look at the whole consultation process," says Penny Humphrey, head of marketing at U+I. "It's not a great process – people don't understand it and I don't think it empowers people at all.

"We need to look at how we communicate and engage with people, so [they] can take civic pride in the way they live and in their city. I think we can do better and the industry can definitely do a lot better."

However, Humphrey drew the line at the notion of introducing formal measures to structure how this could be achieved. "I think it's more of an attitude," she says.

"We want to be inclusive and for as many people to come to our exhibitions, consultations and interactive sessions and tell us what they think. From that, you can make a better development."

Hurley agrees: "It's about our ability to listen. Property developers love talking, but we just don't do enough listening.

"That engagement piece is absolutely fundamental. I wouldn't be for legislating it, but for differentiating the developers that do it well."

'Good growth' still needs funding

Virginia Blackman, director at GVA, says : "On a number of our projects we have got proactive community groups that can sometimes turn into proactive protest groups. They have clearly created a forum for people to express their opinions, and we need to think about what we can learn from that.

"Firstly, how to engage with people before they get to the point of real upset, and secondly we need to be braver about putting forward our case to whatever we want to develop or build and create. Let's be positive about things that will work for people, rather than dealing with things in a negative way."

The practicalities of engaging and measuring a vast range of diverse opinions remain unclear. Ash cautions that overdoing engagement could conversely result in more harm than good, particularly if it is early on in the process.

She says: "Our experience is that talking to people and listening to them sounds great [on paper], but it's on the risk register as people are complex and it can cause huge amounts of delay and actually stop projects.

"We're finding local authorities are keen not to consult until the last possible moment. So it's not just private developers – everyone wants to do the right thing and seen to be pukka, but let's not take it too far. You're managing your matrix of who to listen to, who to respond to, who to ignore – this has become industry of project management tools to deal with it."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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