In October 2020, Helen Tilton (Director, Cratus Bristol & South West) took part in the Bristol Housing Festival’s Virtual Expo roundtable discussion on the topic of “Healthy Engagement & Consultation in Practice”. Central to the discussion was the belief that community engagement is an essential part of the conversation when building new homes, but how this should be done, when and who should be consulted, is often debated.
The session brought together a variety of perspectives from developers, Bristol City Council, community advocates and consultants, to discuss the purpose of consultation and re-imagine how it could be undertaken. The session itself demonstrated a key engagement tool; how properly facilitated conversations can bring together a mix of perspectives from individuals that might not ordinarily be in the same room together, to deliver a more creative set of ideas.
This was a roundtable that critiqued and challenged norms. There were some candid thoughts offered about what hasn’t been working well enough. There were also some very clear points of agreement. Engagement must start early. It must be honest and transparent. It must be accessible. It must evolve to look beyond individual projects and processes.
Reflecting on the roundtable, Helen said:
“From both a bottom-up and top-down perspective, Bristol has developed positive narratives around great placemaking and community-building. This has formed the basis for a collection of fantastic ideas, and indeed positive action. However, locally agreed engagement tools for the planning and delivery of development projects – the whole life cycle of plan-making and land allocation, planning applications, construction and operation – are yet to be crystallized cohesively in a practical sense.
Whatever may come to fruition in the future through the Government’s ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper won’t alter Bristol’s desire to express its strong cultural and economic identity. There isn’t going to be a point at which people will settle for development being ‘done to’ them, rather than with and for them.
We know that for a multitude of reasons, relying on land owners, developers and investors to individually choose how to prioritise engagement, produces variable outcomes. Developing local guidance could be part of the solution, if co-designed with the community and with mutual recognition of the barriers influencing the scope for change.
Creating a framework should not mean that engagement becomes inflexible, or a drain on time and resources. It is not about ‘more’. More is not the same as ‘better’. We need to be clear, collectively, about the tangible outcomes we want to achieve, otherwise all we end up with is a collection of marginally shinier tick-boxes”.
In reflecting further on the benefits of development, Helen said:
“Consultation for development projects is often focused on the buildings, rather than spaces and places. Communities are often not told what development will ‘give back’ and developers are often not made aware of how they can meaningfully contribute to an area in a way that has the greatest positive local impact.
Clearly expressing what ‘social value’ means for the city, and city region, is important – in its widest sense as well as from the public sector procurement perspective.”
The delivery of the roundtable has itself raised wider questions. Notwithstanding the presence of community project representatives and community advocates, how will the community groups and marginalised groups themselves be enabled so that their own conversations are brought into the discussion? Or on the flip side (and as the session’s participants explored): who is being brought to whose table? Who stands to benefit?
Engagement done well should aim to reach all corners of the community. Crucially, those seeking engagement should be prepared to offer engagement in return.
We look forward to seeing how the conversation develops.
What do our future communities look like, who lives there, and what do they need?
This document compiled by the Bristol Housing Festival summarises the key points of the roundtable discussion and draws together some of the high-level conclusions. For further details of the Virtual Expo, click here .