Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



  1.  I am Daniel Dobson-Mouawad, Director of the London Thames Gateway Forum[1], an apolitical community and voluntary organisation serving a community catchment area of approximately two million. The Forum currently services a membership of over 550 community organisations through Thames Gateway stretching from the City eastwards to beyond the M25 encompassing boroughs north and south of the River Thames.

  2.  The Thames Gateway London Forum is a strategic organisation that works in tandem with the Thames Gateway London Partnership[2], to support the development of inclusive and effective local partnerships and of local people's capacity to participate in the regeneration process both on area-based and sub-regional levels.

  3.  The Thames Gateway's Community Forum vision for regenerating London over the coming years is to tackle spatial, social and economic inequalities and get those excluded into the mainstream. The Thames Gateway is one of London's major zones of economic change and opportunity. The London Thames Gateway Forum provides a valuable community framework for East London's continuing regeneration.

  4.  The Forum is currently involved in a host of wide ranging national and European regeneration programmes including SRB, Assisted Areas, Objective 2, RECITE LOTUS +, LIFE, Fourth/Fifth Framework etc. Although by no means exhaustive, the following provides a brief resume of the parameters of Community Consultation—as experienced—within the general context of our strategic community regeneration activity. [Appendix 1 provides a short briefing on the community dimension within the Single Regeneration Budget process].

Community Participation in the Regeneration Process

  5.  The importance of involving local communities in regeneration has been recognised by government for some time[3]. Over recent years bidding guidance for regeneration initiatives has increasingly emphasised the importance of ensuring that local communities are fully involved in the preparation of the bids and the delivery of the programme.

  6.  The commitment by the established public and private sector to develop a strong local community and realise the community's potential to contribute to the overall success of the regeneration programme is one of the preconditions of effective community partnership. Nevertheless, a number of other obstacles need to be overcome if community participation is to be a reality, rather than a mere aspiration. The following strategic obstacles are commonly experienced by communities trying to engage in the regeneration process:

    —  Much of current practice in regeneration and bidding regimes reflects a political and administrative culture which is alien to the community.

    —  Planning and implementation of regeneration requires substantial resources in time, skill and money. While established organisations are usually able to set aside such resources, local communities tend to have a much weaker, often fully committed resource base (more so the needier a community is).

    —  Regeneration is a strategic goal, and local communities have traditionally been marginalised in long-term decision making on their environmental and economic future.

    —  Bidding for regeneration funding involves meeting tight and demanding deadlines which tends to exclude those not linked into the formal and informal information networks.

Principles for Successful Community Participation

  7.  The prerequisites for successful community participation are many and various. Amongst the more important are:

    —  Time and money to implement a community participation strategy and programme that contributes to a sustainable produce and value for money.

    —  Regeneration is as much about people as place; as much about process as product.

    —  Where appropriate, social regeneration should be community-led, generally in partnership with public and or private sector partners.

    —  Wherever possible, participation rather than consultation.

  8.  Any genuine commitment on the part of the public or private sectors to public participation in any process presupposes that there is a partnership with the local community.

Participation Partnerships

  9.  Recently the term "partnership" has become widely used and in some cases abused. Any initiative which involves more than one sector (and most inner-city regeneration initiatives have done so for a very long time) is being termed a partnership, even if one sector is purely being consulted but not participating. The Forum advocates that the use of the term should suggest that all different sectors are engaged and that they should hold an equitable stake from the community perspective, successful participation partnerships require:

    —  Motivation (often a response to an opportunity or a threat)

    —  Real tangible stake

    —  Sharing of information and responsibility

    —  No hidden agendas

    —  Knowlege and competence

    —  Trust and credibility

    —  Accountability and democracy

    —  Resources

    —  Learn to walk before you try to run.

Barriers to Consultation/Participation

  10.  Over its 25 year existence, the Forum has witnessed a number of tangible participation barriers, some still remain and are generically highlighted:

    —  Asking the right questions remains easier than listening to the answer. It's remarkable how many organisations still require to learn both skills.

    —  Communities are not interested in participating in fruitless exercises—consultation must be "genuine" ie it should influence the decision or planning making process.

    —  If it's possible to plan ahead then it's possible to provide realistic timescales for consultation backed with adequate funding.

    —  Not all agendas can be pigeon-holed, the consultation process must provide scope for community-led agendas.

    —  Inappropriate language prevents and, at best, deters communities from participating.

    —  Results of public consultation should remain in the public domain. All too often results are "buried" stimulating adverse suspicion.

    —  Public participation is still too often viewed as a threat to the decision-making process and to the electoral mandate.

    —  Participation is often stifled by lack of objectivity. Clarity of process is paramount.

    —  An unrealistic expectation of the community capacity to participate. Statutory agencies significantly under-utilise the strengths of community and voluntary organisations in building the capacity for communities to participate. (Ironically, many community and voluntary groups are actually funded by the very same agencies.)

    —  The advancement in IT is rapid and should be utilised. However, it is not a panacea and it often excludes those very communities who need consulting most.

    —  There is a lack of understanding that participation can secure best value by guiding the targeting of investment to meet areas of community need.

    —  Participation is at the heart of democracy. The need to be in-touch with the community remains critical. The electoral turnout however poor should not be viewed as a disenfranchisement with local communities' willingness to engage in the local or neighbourhood regeneration process.

    —  Too many consultation/participation processes are purely chasing the next press-release/publication headline. Quality of the engagement is not central and is often not assessed.

    —  Communities, particularly those most excluded, often have conflicting and more pressing demands and never get consulted.

    —  Lack of a strategic coordination between departments and agencies resulting in similar targeted consultation exercises.

    —  The over reliance on non-local/national organisations to deliver community capacity in areas that they are unfamiliar with and their only understanding is purely in terms of the areas statistical profile.

    —  Acting on a perception (albeit professionally well founded) rather than from reality. Some professionals do not accept that communities have a legitimate role in participating in issues that are their "technical" preserve.

    —  Not understanding that consultation purely provides a snap-shot of current views at any given moment. It should not be used as a mandate for infinitum.

    —  A reluctance to accept the principal of subsidiarity which would engage more communities at the neighbourhood or ward level.

  11.  We do not accept that these barriers are insurmountable. The need for greater government guidance and assessment mechanisms would be welcome.

Participation—Practical Application

  12.  The Forum's community empowerment activities over the years have encompassed many forms. It is not always possible, nor practicable to adhere to traditional methods. Recent Forum initiatives have included:

Strategic Example

  13.  The mobilisation of the Community Sector to a point of critical mass in terms of participation in a major £0.5 billion regeneration process. The new structured community approach chosen was the creation of a Community Consortium, to be inclusive, open and democratic which could support the full participation of the community at every level of the Regeneration Partnership including the Board. The structure geographically encompasses a population of approximately 35,000 people and is serviced by a dedicated team of professional community-based and community-employed officers. The Consortium is being developed to become self-sustaining within the first 18 month period of the seven year regeneration initiative.

Neighbourhood Example

  14.  Requiring to undertake an environmental consultation exercise recently with communities shown to have a very poor capacity to be engaged in any traditional regeneration process (as yet), the Forum chose to provide cameras to local people to photograph "likes and dislikes in their neighbourhood". Participants were asked to fill in a simple table highlighting the location of the shot and the reason for taking it. The resulting photographs and captions have portrayed the area in a unique fashion. No traditional survey would have captured local understanding to such a degree.

Planning For Real

  15.  The most exciting and engaging public consultation is where local community interests and individuals can put forward their own proposals for specific sites, buildings, estates, pedestrian and cycle routes, traffic management etc. There are many Community Planning techniques available for this, from Planning for Real (where the emphasis is "for real") to design exercises where cost factors can also be considered. Some exercises of this nature can take as long as nine months, while others can be completed in a matter of weeks.

Concluding Remarks

  16.  Public Consultation is normally exercised as part of an agency's statutory function. It can range from genuine incorporation of feedback into revised proposals, strategies, plans, designs etc to little more than tokenistic "rearranging of the flowerpots". Although the Forum advocates, wherever possible, participation rather than consultation, both processes should be genuine rather than presenting communities with a "fait accompli". There are many ways in which public consultation and participation can be made both informative and engaging. This includes the principle of taking consultation to people rather than requiring people to come to consultation.

  17.  It is critical for regeneration programmes to have strong partnerships and involve interests in the public, private and voluntary/community sectors. The London Thames Gateway Forum and the Thames Gateway London Partnership are in a unique position to provide assistance, support and experience in the promotion of community involvement in such programmes. Both organisations are committed to encourage further participation of communities in the regeneration of Thames Gateway.

15 February 2000

1  The Forum has evolved from the 25 year-old Docklands Forum when it was assimilated with the London Thames Gateway Community Network in 1999. Back
2  The Thames Gateway London Partnership is an unincorporated organisation which includes the Local Authorities of Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest, Barking & Dagenham, Havering, Redbridge, Greenwich, Lewisham, Bexley, Dartford and Thurrock. Back
3  DETR Involving Communities in Urban and Rural Regeneration-A Guide for Practitioners 1997. Back

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