Community Engagement Plan
Response to Oxford City Council's Draft Community Engagement Plan 2014-2017
1 February 2014
Thank you for inviting the Oxford Civic Society to comment on the Draft Community Engagement Plan 2014-2017.
The overall message that we glean from this report is ‘more of the same’. We presume, therefore, that there is no ambition to change or develop engagement processes, and it is considered there is limited need to improve them. Is this the unstated intent? We recognise that local authorities are under severe financial constraints, but nevertheless we would expect to see statements about the ‘direction of travel’.
The draft plan is structured around the widely accepted ‘ladder of participation’ model; inform, research, consult, collaborate, empower. Picking up key points on some of these ‘rungs’:
- We are pleased to note that some weaknesses in consultation processes are recognised – specifically inclusiveness and accessibility to the consultation process and a need to improve consultation feedback. It is not stated how this will be done (although the document states in Section 1 that this is a how rather than a what plan).
- Collaboration, in our opinion, is the ‘rung’ where greatest returns can be made. Indeed we suspect this is also the view of the authors of this plan, as most ‘column inches’ are devoted to the topic. We are very surprised not to see more information on the future of Neighbourhood Partnerships and Neighbourhood Planning. We develop this point below.
- We do suspect there are more opportunities for empowerment if there is the will. We recognise this is not easy, and often not appropriate for democratic and accountability reasons. But, there is clearly no (political) intent to devolve decision making below the City level. We agree that decisions must be made by properly representative bodies, but surely there is scope for some devolution to areas / wards. The old ‘area committees’ had certain strengths in this respect although we are not advocating a return to them as previously constituted because there were clearly weaknesses, especially in the way they handled planning applications.
There is no evidence in the document about how good or poor community engagement currently is. Have any measures been made? With respect to consultation, for example, we suspect many residents would say this is poor – there is cynicism that consultations are window dressings.
We note and applaud the City’s ambitions for strong active communities (Corporate Plan 2013-2017: communities that are socially cohesive and safe, and citizens who are actively engaged in pursuing their own well-being and that of their communities). We recognise that the Draft Engagement Plan is about engagement with decision making. It does not cover the important topics of community building and mutual support between citizens. But we think a linkage between decision making and community building should be recognised. Stronger communities will engage more with the City’s decision making processes. Building stronger communities and supporting community engagement in decision making are mutually supportive.
We also note that planning consultations are not included in this paper, as the subject is covered elsewhere. We suggest the process for planning consultations should at the very least be recognised in the engagement plan as we suspect the public’s poor regard to planning consultations reflects badly on all attempts by the City Council to consult, however well they are carried out.
Section 1 (Executive summary)
We note it is the intent of the Community Engagement Plan to set out how engagement will be done. We consider that the document will be strengthened if it incorporates more ‘how’ actions.
Section 4 (Understanding our communities)
We note that in areas of deprivation the capacity for community involvement is lower than in more affluent areas. This is clearly true.
The document states that it contains a plan for how Oxford City Council will address this imbalance. We are not convinced this is adequately covered.
Section 5 (Principles of community engagement)
We note the nine ‘principles underpinning community engagement’. Points 5 and 6 (accountability and responsiveness) are particularly important. We suspect residents have a poor view about the Council’s performance here. We urge that the plan includes some actions to improve these processes.
Section 7 (Inform)
We are puzzled about the statement ‘informing residents is also achieved through Neighbourhood Forums’. We have seen no evidence of the City engaging with Neighbourhood Forums to do this (assuming this is referring to Neighbourhood Forums as set up under the Localism Act).
Section 9 (Consult)
We are pleased to note that the City recognises the need to improve inclusiveness and accessibility (paragraph 6), and accountability and responsiveness (paragraph 7). There are no statements about how this will be achieved.
Section 10.1 (Collaborate – Area Forums)
Area Forums are not successful. There seems to be recognition that this is the case, but no stated intent to improve them. We understand a review of Area Forums was carried out about two years ago. Was a report published?
Section 10.2 and 10.6 (Collaborate – Community Partnerships and Neighbourhood Plans)
We applaud the City’s work in developing Community Partnerships. They seem to be showing some successes.
In comparison, the section on Neighbourhood Planning is very bland. It gives no indication of how they might be embraced, or indeed any willingness to embrace them. And we are puzzled by the statement the ‘Council’s preference is to start with Community Planning’. What is meant by that? The phrase ‘Community Planning’ is not defined.
There is no mention of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). We suggest the document should contain statements about how CIL will support community engagement and community empowerment. Indeed, the relationship of CIL policy to both Community Partnerships and Neighbourhood Forums could helpfully be developed.
The impact of the Localism Act on community engagement structures and processes is omitted from the plan, although surely it is of relevance (and is likely to continue to be of relevance after the next general election, whichever colour of government is in power). An LGiU policy briefing (January 2014) is timely in this respect. See extract below.
Section 10.7 (Collaborate – Oxford Strategic Partnership)
We note there is recognition that there are weaknesses in the OSP process. But the document contains highly generalised statements about what will be done to address the weaknesses.
Section 11 (Empower)
As previously stated, we agree that empowering people at community level is not easy and is often not appropriate, but we would like to see an intent to devolve some powers to Councillor-led bodies at a local area level and a consideration of how more powers might be devolved to community groups and other agencies.
We note there is no mention of Parishes. We assume the Council does not support the concept of creating more city parishes, although they do provide an element of local area empowerment. We think this is a subject worth exploring.
We also note (and this surely is not contentious) that there is no mention of helping communities help themselves. Perhaps this is not seen as being of relevance to decision making.
Section 12 (Next Steps)
This section of the plan could usefully be strengthened and clarified. For example, we are unclear what is meant by a ‘system for evaluating community engagement activities’.
The following provides some ideas about how, in our view, the document might be developed. This is largely a distillation of the comments made above.
- More detail would be helpful about how community engagement will be done.
- There should be some recognition of the importance of planning consultations and the development of active communities.
- Something should be said on how accountability and responsiveness (5.5 and 5.6) will be improved.
- There should be recognition of the value of communities helping themselves, and how this will be encouraged.
- Devolution of powers to area / ward level should be considered.
- There should be a recognition of the relevance of CIL to community engagement.
- There is scope for developing area structures across the city, building on the Community Partnerships and Neighbourhood Forums already in place. This might enable a greater degree of local collaboration and even empowerment. It would have implications on the workings of the area forums, perhaps replacing them, and the role of councillors as decision makers. (See LGiU paper)
- The statement on ‘next steps’ should be clearer and measurable.
(on behalf of the Oxford Civic Society)