Beware the buzzword: how can community engagement actually improve housing?

GCHU Intern and BA Chinese Studies student Rebecca Gardner investigates how the UK’s housing crisis, extending beyond supply shortages to encompass monocultural estates and the pitfalls of community engagement, necessitates a nuanced approach, proposing Regional Building Hubs as a potential solution to empower communities, foster collaboration with small-medium sized builders, and address the multifaceted challenges inhibiting effective participation in housing planning.

Rebecca Gardner

GCHU Intern and BA Chinese Studies student, University of Oxford

Email: [email protected]

Taking a short walk through any of the UK’s new-build estates reveals that our housing crisis runs far deeper than just a shortage of supply. A liberalised housing market has created conditions where volume builders build 44% of new homes. Driven by speculative land pricing and short-term gains, this model of housebuilding has produced neighbourhoods that are often seen as one-dimensional, ‘monocultural’ housing estates, deprived of the social and public infrastructure required to form strong communities. Faced with this problem, politicians (and designers) have turned to the concept of ‘community engagement’ as a cure-all for a range of ills, from poor design to NIMBY-ism. However, the substantial obstacles faced when enrolling communities into the planning process mean community engagement projects may cause more problems than they solve. The urgency of the housing crisis makes it crucial that we enable effective models of community participation, that balance local knowledge with current and future community needs and well-being.

Where community engagement can help

The benefits of effective engagement of communities in house planning are felt throughout the development process. Beginning with the planning stage, several studies show that when communities are involved in the design of communities, policies, and models promoting socially sustainable and characterful communities are more likely to be incorporated. A study reviewing the outcomes of neighbourhood planning policy found beneficial housing policies such as green/renewable design, mixed-use development, and affordability to be well represented across neighbourhood plans. The planning and housing researcher Quintin Bradley has suggested that community voices act as a moderator against the market-led imperatives of volume builders, rebalancing development outcomes in favour of the quality of life of residents. Arguably the greatest success of neighbourhood planning for communities is how it has empowered local people to take make their mark on design policy, preserving place character through architectural codes and responsive site allocation.

On a community level, being part of an endeavour to create a neighbourhood or shape your local area can create long-lasting ties, strengthening social cohesion and generating community capital. Engaging residents on planning issues has also been shown to inspired communities beyond the remit of planning to pursue wider community wellbeing projects. Moreover, case studies such as the co-housing community in Vauben, Germany, are evidence that the establishment of well-organised forums for community discussion can act as catalysts for more engaged and effective community governance, as well as improvements in the relationships between citizens and local planning authorities.

The increased social capital seen in engaged communities can set up a positive feedback loop, bringing wider societal benefits. Two extensive review studies have emphasised the relationship between community-led housing (CLH) and better physical and social well-being. Being a member of these communities has been associated with healthier aging, and in turn reduced social care costs, which has largely been attributed to stronger social networks supporting healthier lifestyles and a greater willingness to help residents with support needs.

So, given the advantages of enrolling communities in the planning process are well known, why do so many residents continue to feel alienated by housing development? Moreover, why do community-led housing projects still make up the minority, instead of the majority, of new developments? The answer lies in the formidable barriers that exist to effective community engagement.  

Barriers to effective community engagement

The primary barrier to community engagement in housing planning is, ironically, that volunteer groups often lack the capacity to engage with development process. The logic of community engagement privileges grassroots, experiential, non-expert knowledge over expert knowledge. However, the complexity of regulatory frameworks is such that most communities lack the knowledge required to carry out the planning process themselves, with seven in every ten neighbourhood planning groups hiring private consultative support. The ability of communities to overcome barriers of capacity varies spatially, with low-income and deprived communities less likely to have the necessary experience, time, and investment necessary to spend time upskilling their populations for community engagement. This is highlighted by the disparity in neighbourhood planning applications in the wealthier Southeast and Southwest of England versus the low uptake in Northern and inner-city communities. Incidences of miscommunication between communities and local planning authorities can be costly in time and money, and lead to lasting antagonism between the two sides, threatening future cooperation.

Moreover, the grassroots action can be threatened by interaction with formal institutions. Exposed to competing bottom-up and top-down priorities, volunteer groups are vulnerable to co-option by formal governance structures, diluting their autonomy and ability to prioritise local concerns. Attempts by external bodies to ‘build capacity’ in communities by providing training and intermediary support has been shown to produce this sort of disciplining effect. Another side effect of this is suppression of innovation. Studies show that whilst neighbourhood plans may engage more with pro-social policies, they are actually less likely to pursue innovative policies such has self-build, and increasing tree cover. There are various reasons suggested for this, including fatigue from burdens on time and finances, fears of plans being rejection during the review stage, and a lack of awareness by community groups of the genuinely innovative opportunities that exist within design and planning. Consultants and planners act as a bottleneck here, limiting their suggestions to communities to conventional practices, constrained by their own lack of awareness of creative possibilities and their desire to get projects done.

Recent government initiatives to promote community engagement have often been criticised for their tokenistic nature, constituting a performance of engaging communities without giving local people tangible power over planning. There are reasons for people to think this – whilst neighbourhood planning was presented by the government as a way to ‘give back control’ to local communities, it is widely recognised that its primary objectives was not to create more sustainable communities, but temper citizen opposition to new house building. Under the guise of horizontal participation, hierarchical power structures are legitimised through the language of community participation.

Supporting communities to engage with planning: the potential of Regional Building Hubs

Despite the significant challenges that remain, most scholars, planners, and designers agree that community engagement is essential for developing sustainable communities. Regional Building Hubs (RBHs), multi-platform spaces for knowledge exchange and networking, have serious potential to bolster effective community engagement, overcoming some of the barriers discussed above.

  • Expanding awareness of innovative ideas – Citizen groups without a history in planning or design often lack awareness of the possibilities of sustainable design. Moreover, the literature demonstrates the sheer diversity of possible frameworks for community organisation, responding to the diverse needs of different populations. RBHs could act as information hubs, where community groups can access case studies of successful engagement in planning and community-led housing projects. This could lead to more robust structural support for community participation, and greater uptake of innovative sustainability policies. 
  • Access to funding and support – Limits to adequate funding and other resources was cited as a major challenge for groups hoping to participate in community-led building projects or mobilise their community to shape local policy. RBHs could facilitate networking between national organisations providing funding to community-led building projects and connect similar projects in the same reason to share advice and resources.
  • Connecting local small-medium sized builders (SMEs) to communities – Both neighbourhood plans and community-led building projects tend to show strong preferences for working with regional SMEs as opposed to volume builders, both due to ethical reasons and the willingness of SMEs to take on bespoke briefs. RBHs could facilitate networking between community groups and SMEs, supporting the regional builders, whilst also connecting communities with builders with the flexibility to allow them to pursue innovative sustainable designs and governance models.
  • Equipping communities to engage with planning‘Planning speak’, regulations, and lack of basic planning experience present major challenges to effective community engagement. Meanwhile, traditional capacity building programs, where intermediaries are provided by formal institutions to ‘bridge the gap’ between communities and planners, run the risk of institutionalising the voluntary organisations they interact with. More horizontal methods of learning, eg. learning by seeing and doing, may mitigate this risk. RBHs could serve as networking hubs, where communities engaged in planning can share their successes and failures whilst working with governance organisations, providing knowledge and support to other community groups.
  • Access to resources for self-build projects – for communities involved in hands-on self-build projects, RBHs could act as information hubs regarding regional supply chains, planning codes, building manuals, and skills training initiatives.