The challenge of responding to the changes being wrought by the coalition government and the prospect of serious budget reductions in the forthcoming spending review, together with the inevitable shifts in the policy lexicon, means that we have heard little on the subject of place shaping in recent weeks. However it would be a pity if the idea, if not the term, were to fade from view because it is central to the purpose of localism and local government.
That purpose, I believe, is to help local people to determine what their life is like and their aspirations for where they live. Done well it fulfils the requirements of ‘Big Society’ and/or community development, in which there is a key role for elected members in fostering community engagement, developing the community’s vision for the area and determining the right things to do at the right spatial level.
This requires a certain understanding of the role and links to the need to refresh the public sector ethos as hinted at elsewhere in this blog. For example, some politicians I have spoken to are concerned about the term ‘community leader’, because they see themselves as servants or facilitators. Good for them. Similarly many officers see themselves as being enablers of communities, not constrainers or herders of activity.
There are some very real challenges in this work, aside from the usual questions of value for money. It is a labour of love to develop good community planning and neighbourhood development. Some administrative areas are effectively a bureaucratic fiction and a means must be found to build on the strengths of self identifying communities within them. This can equally well apply to London Boroughs, Counties or large Districts, where the strength of local feeling of neighbourhoods or parishes is ignored at one’s peril.
There are some limitations in the current community planning framework which has seen thought by policy makers of both the left and the right, relating in particular to the development of thought on community capital planning as well as activities funded by revenue. What are the particular community assets and are they being used effectively, is there sufficient return on investment and what are the opportunity costs and levels of redundancy involved?
In this context of change and community engagement, it will be interesting to see what the impact is of looser economic development arrangements, particularly as the Local Economic Partnerships come into being. For many of the infrastructure and cultural underpinnings of place will be driven by these.
At the moment I am trying to think about the distinctions between personal, universal and environmental service provision as it impacts on this vision for a place. It’s relatively easy to see how public realm policy has a bearing on how a particular place discovers itself, but what is the impact of the provision and leadership of personal services for the elderly, or the methods adopted for child protection? What constitutes a coherent approach and does it matter? These are questions for further thought and consideration at the moment, but I am certain that the answer will based on the underlying principle of establishing the right thing to do for the people and places we serve.