Planning for Real was appointed in July 2009 by Maidstone Borough Council to provide a full support programme for the delivery of a pilot Planning for Real® community engagement process for one of the Council’s priority areas, Park Wood, which led to the development of a neighbourhood action plan.
In April 2009 the new Sustainable Community Strategy ‘Maidstone 2020’ identified that: ‘Approximately 11 per cent of Maidstone’s population live within areas which are amongst the most disadvantaged 20 per cent in the country.’ It also identified that the issues faced by residents in these areas – including parts of: Park Wood, Shepway North, Shepway South and High Street Wards – would be exacerbated by the economic downturn. The Council and its partners set up a group to examine the best way to tackle the issues faced by these areas and chose to adopt an approach of neighbourhood planning in conjunction with local residents. In July 2009, the decision was made to use Planning for Real® (PFR) as it was seen to be the most effective way of involving and engaging with residents, and to pilot the approach in Park Wood.
Park Wood is predominantly a 1970’s built social housing estate on the southern edge of Maidstone containing, and providing, most of the one and two bedroom flatted accommodation in the borough. It benefits from large areas of green space within the estate and is surrounded by open countryside. Local facilities include a neighbourhood shopping centre, a community centre, a children’s centre, a healthy living centre, and two infant and junior schools. The challenge for Park Wood is the transient nature of the residents whose aspiration on moving in, is to move out as soon as possible. There is a lot of good will, some new housing, regeneration in the pipeline, and enthusiastic people on the ground.
September and October 2009 saw a period of concerted action to contact residents and stakeholders through attending community events, meeting local groups, going door-to-door in key locations and discussions with the local ward councillors and local agencies. This initial contact work resulted in 10 local residents expressing an interest in becoming volunteers and a first meeting of the group was held so that everyone could get to know each other and find out more about the project and the PFR process.
As PFR is a community-led process it was important to develop the skills of the local resident volunteers, and the local stakeholders with whom they would be working closely, so that all could take on an active role in delivering the process. The PFR team delivered two training sessions which enabled residents to learn how to make a 3D model, organise and run consultation events, record suggestions, identify priorities and develop an action plan with the involvement of voluntary and statutory agencies. A key role would be to engage those residents who wanted to take part but were anxious to because of their poor reading skills.
The Neighbourhood Planning team, in conjunction with the resident volunteers group, organised a programme of 20 PFR events which included taking the model to a wide range of different groups which met at different venues around Park Wood; ‘piggy backing’ onto events that were already being held including events in the local primary and secondary schools and by running a number of “coming to a cul-de-sac near you” events. The 20 consultation events generated 2,820 individual comments.
The analysis of the suggestions recorded as a result of all 20 consultation events identified the need for three separate resident and stakeholder workshops which were held at the local community centre, focusing on specific locations and suggestion themes.
The final step in developing the draft Park Wood neighbourhood action plan took the form of a number of follow up events. After the prioritisation and action planning workshops, the team put together an exhibition of the results of the neighbourhood planning work, and the model was displayed at two different Maidstone venues. Feedback from staff, councillors and residents was very positive.
A further two events were held on Park Wood (a consultation activity as part of the Easter Fair and a week long exhibition) at which residents were asked to vote for their top five actions and to complete a simple evaluation. As a means of encouraging participation a prize draw for those residents who took part was organised:
The model was again used this time with flags representing 14 high priority, short-term actions on the locations where their corresponding issues were most frequently raised. Flags identifying where facilities or services requested are already provided were also placed on the model. The model once again proved extremely effective in engaging residents. Residents were then each given five stickers to ‘vote’ on their top five high priority actions.
Both events were extremely successful and generated high levels of participation. More than 120 residents took part. The process and the outcomes have now been written up as The Park Wood Neighbourhood Action Plan and will be used to monitor progress.
Three years on, in April 2012, we contacted Jim Boot, former Community Planning Co-ordinator at Maidstone Borough Council for an update on progress with the Park Wood Neighbourhood Action Plan.
At the time of the PFR process, unemployment was very high in the Parkwood area. One of the first developments which tied in with the end of PFR process was the setting up of a job shop in Park Wood and the launch of a new support service for families with inter-generational unemployment. A national charity came to the area to set these up and was able to piggy back on the final PFR events in order to raise awareness and launch these services.
Three key themes were identified by residents through the PFR process, and for each of them there were ‘quick wins’ which helped continue the momentum of the engagement process. The PFR process enabled residents to have their say on what the priorities should be, and in the process it increased partnership working and strengthened the relationships between local residents and stakeholders.
Firstly, through the PFR process residents highlighted services which they would like to see in the area. It turned out that there were many more services operating locally than many of the residents realised. This realisation prompted the development of a ‘What’s on’ guide for residents, and local agencies began to focus much more on raising their profile and improving the marketing of their services in the area.
The second key theme which came out of the community PFR events was young people and youth facilities in the area. The tendency for groups of local youngsters to gather and hang around at the parade of shops was recorded. The PFR process was valuable in highlighting the importance of the existing youth facilities, such as the youth café and the estate football programme, and in making the case for them to be retained or enhanced, despite wider cuts which the local authorities had to make.
The third key issue was street cleansing and the state of the parks and public spaces in Park Wood. Residents and officers wanted to tackle the spiral of decline on the estate. The council environmental teams were able to respond by stepping up the regularity of street cleansing. This was partially done in a cost neutral and smart way – not by introducing new rounds, but by taking advantage of Park Wood’s location near to the depot so that extra street cleansing visits to Park Wood could take place at the start or end of other rounds.
Since the PFR engagement process new CCTV cameras have been installed on the parade of shops, and further environmental improvements on the estate which were included in the action plan are set to go ahead.
The PFR process brought together the Park Wood community, and other active groups in the area emerged through the process. A local parents and community group called Parents is the Word has gained momentum over the last few years, attending governance workshops and becoming formally constituted. They aim to ‘make our community of Park Wood Maidstone a brighter better place to live, to provide activities and trips for the whole family.’
An evaluation took place one year after the end of the consultation programme. Residents recognised that improvements had taken place – resident satisfaction with street cleansing, parks and open spaces and visible police presence in particular had improved – but also that it had brought people together and enabled residents to gain new skills and develop more confidence.