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By Jake Barnes, ARTS Brighton Researcher
On Thursday 17th March approximately 40 people gathered for the first in a series of workshops to explore ways to progress common sustainability objectives in the city. The workshop sought to kick start a discussion about internal and external pressures on the city and how moves to more ‘collaborative approaches’ could be harnessed to support existing activity and ambitions for a more sustainable future.
Council pressures and response
Emma McDermott (Head of communities and Equalities, Brighton & Hove City Council) began by introducing the council’s ‘cooperative ambitions’. Driving this ambition is recognition that the Council can no longer provide the level of services it currently does. Funding from central government is being cut whilst the demand for services and there cost increases. So to create a ‘self-sustaining local government’, the Council is seeking to change the way it works.
Sitting at the heart of this change, Emma introduced nine cooperative council principles, as developed by the Cooperative Council’s Innovation network, as a potential foundation to future council working. They are:
- Social partnership
- Democratic engagement
- Enterprise and social economy
- Maximising social value
- Community leadership and new role for councillors
- New models for meeting priory to demands
In the following discussion important issues were raised. They included challenging the participatory and democratic basis of this shift to a new cooperative model, the potential for change and whether there was cross-party support. Participants wanted to know how the recent fairness commission would influence the process: yes, it will but there is little mention of sustainability within the submissions received. There was also concern about where sustainability issues fitted into these nine principles: ‘How do we embed sustainability because at the moment its not even one of the principles?’ In response Emma argued the principles were the starting point for discussion, they weren’t exhaustive and that sustainability should be embedded within all the overarching principles. Participants also wanted to know what had happened to the One Planet Living status adopted in 2014, what would happen if residents weren’t interested or had time to ‘co-produce’?
Through the discussion it became clear that many questions cannot be answered at this stage. Moreover, there needs to be significant changes to the way Councillors, council officers and the variety of actors within the city operate and engage with each other. The change won’t happen over night and requires significant willingness by all.
The second half of the workshop introduced two areas – green spaces and new infrastructure projects – that will be the focus of future workshop discussions. For each area short introductions about contemporary city examples were used to ground and open up discussion.
Duncan Blinkhorn of Community Works introduced activity at William Clarke Park, otherwise known as ‘the Patch’. Located in the Hanover / Elm Grove area of Brighton, the Patch has been run by a not-for-profit ‘Friends of’ group since 2005. It has a commitment to protect and promote the park. Duncan described the journey as not easy but potentially highly rewarding. Being positive about the space and the potential of the area had been key from the start. Particularly important had been a foundation of trust, in order to build collaboration.
Next Simon Bannister (City Council) took participants on a virtual tour of Brighton and Hove parks, including Kemptown, Tarner, Brighton Greenway and Regency square. Different approaches are being taken at all of these sites. Some are attempting to take over governance arrangements and become ‘mini- councils’ controlling resources. Others have more modest ambitions and focus on particular uses, such as dog walking, commuting routes or child play areas. Each has particular needs and aspirations, each is following a different approach and arrangement with the council and each has different opportunities or avenues to secure funding.
The following discussion explored the potential sustainability benefits of green spaces, the role of the Biosphere partnership and commercial opportunities, such as eco-tourism. More critical issues were also voiced. What about residents without immediate access to green spaces? How can they be involved? What about campaigns against certain uses of parks, e.g. the return of a festival in Stanmer Park? And what about people whose voices aren’t currently heard, why should they get involved?
Discussion also turned to the Council’s forthcoming ‘Big Conversation’. Here, Rich Howorth (Biosphere Partnership) was able to provide a little more insight. The Council is currently developing a new green spaces strategy, which will be consulted on in the autumn. In short it seeks to develop new collaborative arrangements to sustain and conserve the city’s green spaces against sharp reductions to the budget. This is one area where we could focus, in the next workshop: how can we better understand these changes? How can existing groups engage in the ‘big conversation’ and develop capacity to get involved?
New Infrastructure projects
In the final part of the workshop Nick Gant (Uni of Brighton) talked about the planned developments at Preston Barracks on Lewes road, the site’s current use as a hub for local enterprises and Community21, a collaborative effort to support participatory planning.
Preston Barracks is a partnership development between the Council, University of Brighton and developers U+I. The site will create new employment space, new academic buildings, student accommodation, new homes and new retail space. ‘The Field’ project was described as a “meanwhile development”, used to both support local enterprise and as a place for further public engagement in the future development of the site. Nick also introduced Communtiy21 as a means for communities to envision the future and collect stories of engagement.
The following discussion suggested there were tensions between being democratic/inclusive and the short timeframes to achieve sustainability goals. The need for leadership was highlighted, as was different types of participation: for example, asking about needs and not just consulting on the framework of others. Specifically, how would a community know what is going on and how to engage? New infrastructure was also suggested as a threat and opportunity because new infrastructure literally “sets in stone” future behaviour. Transport was suggested as one of the bigger issues, with one participant suggesting, “people without cars do not drive! So would you rather 50 new homes or parking for 200 cars?”
There appear to be a myriad of issues within new infrastructure projects. But striking across all conversations was the need to better understand engagement processes, for new infrastructure or green spaces. Given that this was a reoccurring theme it may well deserve increased attention in the second workshop as we explore how to accelerate progress to a more sustainable future in the city region.
The next in this series of workshops will take place on Thursday 14th April, at the Friends meeting house (6-8pm). At this workshop we will look more closely at the two focal areas, develop our understanding of the changes entailed and formulate possible ways forward.
To sign up to the workshop visit our eventbrite page here. More details about the second workshop will be shared closer to the time.