Friday, 16 May 2014

Community planning in action - Leith Community Conference

So, I took this afternoon off as annual leave and went to our local neighbourhood partnership community conference as it was in the church hall across the road and there are quite a lot of issues in Leith, that are basic service-level issues, that need attention and can be solved fairly easily. These are the sort of things a good neighbourhood plan (NB. COMPLETELY different from an English neighbourhood plan – this has nothing to do with land-use planning). I went to the event very sceptical given the my experiences of community planning during my doctoral research – I always use my mum’s aphorism to describe these: “councillor, where do you stand on dog shit”, “I don’t stand on it, I slide in it”. Also because I generally think community planning has a long way to go before it is effective in doing what it says on the tin – see here and here.

Actually the event was quite good. So here’s why:

It was organised well and wide range of people attended – with crèche facilities for parents and a free lunch (if I’d known the “refreshments” were going to be that good I’d have been keen to attend!). The only things they could have done better would have been microphones and an induction loop. What’s even better was the extra information and consultation they are going to bring in, including attending the “soup kitchen” at the church on a Sunday morning to hear the views of the people who attend that.

Poverty – obviously this is not a good thing. We were broken up into discussion groups of around eight and we first of all had to see whether we agreed with the list of priorities established from a previous self-selection questionnaire (which I had already completed). From two of these groups, one being the group I was in, came a focus on poverty in the neighbourhood. This continued with the discussion of another group during the next phase where we had to discuss what actions we should do. Now, arguably, at a neighbourhood level there’s little we can do to tackle poverty, and problems such as the Bedroom Tax and benefits sanctions. However, it really impressed me that we were talking about it openly and there was no question that it was a horrendous thing that the foodbank at the church has 1,000 clients and that people have been seen scavenging in bins in desperation for food.

Health services – twice it was pointed out that GPs services are massively overstretched in the neighbourhood with people having to wait three weeks for an appointment. I also added my experience of how overstretched local pharmacy services are, even though we have three within 25 yards of each other at the Foot of the Walk. This is an issue that’s been raised by our regional MSP Sarah Boyack, yet given it’s nearly 35 years since The Inverse Care Law was published I was shocked to hear how overstretched services are, and evidence of inequality compared to less deprived neighbourhoods. However, given how poorly the NHS has engaged with neighbourhood-level community planning structures across Scotland, I do really wonder whether this is something that the neighbourhood partnership can do anything about.

We won! – at the end we had to put sticky dots onto the actions we liked most and two of our group’s suggestions won. This is good because….

Cleaner air – one of the suggestions that got 17 dots was to make the air cleaner in Leith by planting trees and encourage walking by improving the built environment. This was prompted by someone from Greener Leith who have been leading a campaign on the issue. Even they admitted it was a niche issue, but as soon as it was explained people agreed with it. Which was fantastic to see.

Better environmental services – we weren’t the only group to suggest this, but the way we framed it got it the most votes. I drew on the Clean Sweep work the JRF funded to highlight that in a neighbourhood: with the highest population density in Scotland (as per the 2011 census), with a high rate of income poverty (so people can’t afford £20 for a pick-up of rubbish), with massive problems of trade waste, and footfall for an extremely busy town centre; we need very high density good environmental services across the board – bin emptying and barrow beats – to keep the neighbourhood clean and tidy. This also got nods from one of the local councillors. Frustratingly, chatting to council officers they still slipped into negative stigmatising views of residents that completely ignore these massive structural reasons behind the problems of neighbourhood cleanliness.

Community empowerment – another surprising theme that kept coming up in discussion was moving away from community planning as it is, towards community empowerment. Leith neighbourhood partnership does it’s £eith Decides community budgeting event which is very good. However, I suggested, if we’re going to do the sort of fancy coproduced, partnership policy making that cuts through complexity (the sort the Christie Commission dreamed of) we’re going to need more community power over local budgets and local priorities. We’re going to need something that aims to be like what Our Place aims to be. The good news is, it seems in Edinburgh, we need to watch this space. However, depressingly, an idea along these lines from our group got dismissed out of hand. This was the suggestion that the £20 cost for a waste uplift should be removed in deprived neighbourhoods, as it does seem to cause fly-tipping as people cannot afford it. The council then spend more money doing reactive lifts in response to resident complaints. It got dismissed because of the view people would then think they can just throw things out for free. I pointed out that’s what they do at the moment anyway…

My only minor disappointment with the day was the broader way it was organised. The independent facilitator was very good; however it was limited to two hours and was very structured – we had to obey what we were told to do. I think I would have preferred it if it was a longer event with more deliberation allowed. In particular, I have a thing about sticky-dot voting. It’s easy, but it closes down debate and ignores that most people probably agree with all the points. What was telling for me was that as people stuck their dots on and stood back from the flipcharts, they then began to chat in small groups. I could help but think that the officers should have been ear-wigging these conversations to find out even more.

I ended the event chatting to the neighbourhood partnership convener, Councillor Deirdre Brock*and brought to her an idea I’d had at the end. A student at Heriot-Watt did their dissertation on the charetteplus process done by Planning Aid for Scotland. One thing this highlighted was the process mopped up a lot of information of the sort collected here – concerns about local services and problems – which then went nowhere as they were not planning concerns. I suggested that running a charette focused on Leith central and the Foot of the Walk could bring in some really valuable information on making the area better in a place-making way, turning the Foot of the Walk in particular into a place, not a road junction, and also place-keeping, maintaining the neighbourhood as a nice place to live in future. It looked like my idea fell on fertile ground.

Finally, we were asked to write anonymously on flipchart paper what we would do after the event. I wrote that I would keep an eye on how clean the neighbourhood was to see whether we had been listened to. And that is the key thing here – there were very good ideas, and many practical things that the Council and other service providers (the NHS and Police Scotland mainly) can do, with very little expense, to make Leith better. Now we just have to see them do it.

If you want to see a bit more about the event, see the tweets here.

* you might recognise her from her life as an actor.

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