Are you concerned about empty shops in Shaftesbury or unhappy at proposals to build more housing estates? Expert, Ian Harvey, believes locals have the power to do something positive.
On Tuesday, the Director of Civic Voice, the national body for civic societies, will share examples of what other communities have achieved.
All over England residents are worried about the ‘death of the high street’ or mass development. People can feel powerless, believing that politicians don’t care or that developers’ money talks.
But Ian Harvey believes that Shaftesbury can shape its own future. “If you have challenges or issues in your local area, you can’t rely on the local council having the answers any more,” said Ian. “We have to get involved. I’ll be talking about examples in Wimbledon, where the local community came together to put forward an alternative vision for their high street. I will talk about Altrincham, where the community started a major campaign about their high street that led to millions of pounds worth of investment from government to help regenerate it. I’ll bring in examples of how communities have said that they want something better and an alternative future. They didn’t necessarily think that the local council had all of the answers.”
Sometimes it seems that the local authority is in control of this process. Around Shaftesbury, developers have more opportunities to build on land that would not have been available before, because the local authority has not met its housing land supply – a government imposed quota of building land that must be made available for the next five years.
It has meant that established rules have been disregarded and that’s why some locals are fearful of a development ‘free for all’. Ian believes that the community still has clout if people stand together.
“I would say join your local Civic Society. The more members that they have, the more voice they have within the planning system. Change is happening. A lot of local authorities have had challenges with developers who are putting forward large-scale housing and it may not be the best sort of housing. Communities, by getting themselves organised, meeting like-minded individuals and connecting in with national networks like Civic Choice and the neighbourhood planning network are making change happen,” Ian said.
He believes that the recent changes to the National Planning Policy Framework reflect new thinking. “It says that earlier and more meaningful community engagement is now required, so if developers ignore the community, the policy is now saying they will be looked on in a harsher manner than a developer who engages with the community at an early stage,” said Ian. “We were in Parliament on Wednesday and we had a debate with the Shadow Planning Minister and she echoed our call, saying communities had to have more power. We have to get away from this adversarial planning system where it’s all about conflict and challenge. We need a system that is more collaborative. If you tell communities what the issues are and what the challenges are, nine times out of ten the community will have the answers. But they need to feel that they are listened to.”
There is an assumption that the developers will get what they want because of their deep pockets. Ian says that’s no longer necessarily so. “It has been the case but the tide is turning, thanks to organisations like Civic Choice and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, who have been lobbying for a number of years. The good developers are leading the way and realise this. They know that it’s better for their business model if they are engaging.”
Ian says the process starts with trying to recruit as many members for organisations like the Civic Society as is possible. “Get yourself organised. Whether it’s a Civic Society or a residents association, it is no use if everybody is doing their own thing,” he said. “We need to learn how to campaign and highlight these issues and get good connections with the local media. Get to know your local MP and councillors.”
Even if you don’t have the same view as your elected member, Ian believes you still have a say. “Planning is politics with a ‘small p’. Get 500, 600 or 700 members in your group. The majority of local councillors are elected on mandates much smaller than that and I have got experience of being in events that we have held in Parliament where Members of Parliament have come to the meetings and have asked for their names to be recorded in our meetings so they can go back and say to locals that they were there,” said Ian. “The City of Winchester Trust has around 1,000 members. If their local politicians are not doing what they want, they can make their own decisions when it comes to the ballot box.”
Like any town in England at the moment, there are fears in Shaftesbury about empty shops and the number of charity stores. Ian will talk about Altrincham in Cheshire. The turnaround of that Cheshire town was recently highlighted in reports on Sky News but it is a bigger place and part of their success has been to create more food and drink opportunities.
Many people believe that Shaftesbury has enough options for drinking and dining during the day. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach but there are some takeaway messages that Ian will offer during his presentation to help Shaftesbury residents protect their high street.
“People talk about the death of the high street. When not seeing the death of the high street, we’re seeing the death of ‘clone towns’. People have turned against every high street looking exactly the same and full of the same. We’re starting to see a revolution everywhere,” Ian said. “Look at the DNA of Shaftesbury and find out what makes it special. What could this be in ten or fifteen years time? I give examples from across the country – Barnes in London and Nantwich. I will give more examples in detail of the communities who have done just that.”
Ian says he doesn’t have any answers for tackling landlords who charge high rents or offer inflexibly long leases. So what does Ian hope people who attend the meeting will go home with? “I would like people to walk away and think ‘we’ve heard a talk tonight and examples where communities have come together and organised themselves on various issues’. I would like people to wake up the next morning and think ‘if it can happen there why can’t it happen in Shaftesbury?’”
Ian will share his ideas and examples of what other communities have achieved during his presentation at the Shaftesbury Civic Society’s Open Meeting. It takes place at 7.30pm on 2nd April, upstairs in the Grosvenor Arms Hotel’s Assembly Room.