Monday, 02 July 2012

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Are you connected to your neighbours? Here’s a little bit of data from Burlington, Vermont, in a recent city wide community engagement survey. As far as I can discover, the results have not been analysed into a report. Respondents were asked how connected they feel to their neighbours. Unfortunately a numbered scale was used, so it’s hard to turn it into a meaningful statement. But we can interpret the scale as: Not at all connected Not very connected Neither connected nor disconnected Fairly connected Very connected The survey’s authors can’t really claim this, but it suggests that 47 per cent of respondents feel connected to their neighbours, while 27 per cent don’t. If we take the ‘indifferent’ 26 per cent in the middle, plus the 98 out of 588 overall respondents who skipped the question, then the proportion of people who responded to the questionnaire as a whole, who feel connected to their neighbours, is less than 40 per cent. Which seems a little underwhelming for a survey of this nature, in which the more civically and socially minded are more likely to respond. Maybe it’s not surprising though. I can’t recall seeing the phrase ‘connected to your neighbours’ in a survey before, but it’s likely to be interpreted (certainly in the UK) as implying a closer degree of relationship to co-residents than most people are bothered about. It suggests a form of direct access that is different to just recognising who they are and which door you’d have to approach to find them. Via Front Porch Forum.
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Neighbourhood planning is already being ‘re-thought’ Today saw the publication of a paper from ResPublica in association with the RIBA on Re-thinking neighbourhood planning: from consultation to collaboration. Start with the document title and allow yourself a wee smile. Neighbourhood planning was introduced not much more than a year ago, but apparently this is long enough for it to need ‘re-thinking’ – by an organisation whose director is an acknowledged influence on contemporary Tory policy. Then consider this: the paper argues that ‘involving communities in planning on a collaborative, rather than purely consultative basis will not only lead to more successful developments, it can also generate social capital and value…’ It’s really a bit scary if, as implied, neighbourhood planning policy hitherto had not absorbed this basic community development principle. I guess I haven’t been paying attention. It’s not clear how this cultural shift in understanding will be brought about. But it gets better, and there’s a welcome emphasis on developing some SROI indicators. Among other recommendations it suggests that the government should: ‘appoint an independent panel of experts to define the metrics and structures required to capture the social value created through the neighbourhood planning process.’ And should accumulate evidence to: ‘create future economic indicators that can be used to monitor the social impact of neighbourhood planning as part of a ‘total neighbourhood’ approach.’ Bring on the total neighbourhood approach. Government, it is suggested, should also put in place ‘the legal framework to introduce a ‘Neighbourhood Consultation Deposit’ paid up-front on committing to a Neighbourhood Partnership Agreement, as a prerequisite for the planning application process. This should be used to fund the collaboration process and independent support for Neighbourhood Forums.’ One last thought. The words ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’ are used quite a lot in the paper, reminding me that there’s an overlooked skirmish going on in some of the dirty impasses of contemporary public policy: a fierce tussle between (often entrenched) professional defence of ‘standards,’ and political determination to break them down. (I have some sympathy with the politicians here, strongly favouring as I do an anti-professional ethos in community development and being distrustful of the way some professions become preoccupied with their own status). Oh that reminds me, by way of example, elsewhere today, the battle lines have been more firmly drawn on the question of volunteers replacing the specialised roles of staff who work in libraries. Planning is complex (unavoidably?) and the paper acknowledges that neighbourhood planning cannot move forward without an appropriate revision – but certainly not an abandonment - of the relation between resident and expert. This is not new but its restatement from this kind of source is very welcome.

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