Its late January and Celtic Connections the annual winter festival is in full swing in Glasgow (300 events & 20 venues) and for the last five years this has also been charrette season in Scotland. More on the seasonal nature of things later. It’s now two and half years since my last blog on charrettes and the Scottish Government’s (SG) Mainstreaming Programme is now in its fifth year. The scheme was piloted in 2011-12 and has expanded over the years with support given to over 30 charrettes in total since then, with around 17 programmed in 2015/16. So 47 places and more than 200 events to use the Celtic Connections comparison. In additional there have been charrettes organised by Angus, Highland, Fife and Dumfries and Galloway Councils and others.

So with that depth and spread of charrette experience I thought it was a good time to reflect on how things have changed both from the perspective of who are commissioning charrettes (demand side) and who are providing the services (supply side) together with some emerging lessons that occur to me from my experience. The June 2013 blog outlines the background, origins, experience in Scotland with some initial observations, if you are interested in the wider context.

Who has been commissioning Charrettes and what focus?

For the first four years it has been local authorities who have taken the lead however for 2015-16, the SG budget has increased to £300,000 and in addition to local authorities, community groups and third sector organisations were encouraged to apply for a grant and take the lead in setting up a charrette for their community. Among the successful community/third sector organisations are groups in East Pollokshields, Castlebay/Barra and Rothesay with Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum (SURF) involved.

As in previous years, SG provides 50% of the funding with the balance to be provided by the sponsor. In the early years the Charrettes sponsored by planning authorities were in support of Local Development Plans and the SG Town Centre Action Plan. The focus of the 2015-16 charrette programme is on three areas:

  • Projects that link community planning and spatial planning processes;
  • Charrette projects commissioned directly by communities;
  • Linkages between town centre action plans and community plans.

Teams undertaking work and services provided

Charrettes require focus and stamina because it is an immersive experience, so using the whole team’s facilitation skills and keeping a positive momentum are crucial. The intensive interest in commissioning charrettes has led to a number of ‘innovations’ in the market to provide charrette services including:

  • Alliances between more established planning/urbanist/architect practices and young emerging ‘creative studios’;
  • Requirement to provide accessible specialist skills (e.g. urban design, regeneration, architecture, property market, transport, ground conditions, hydrology, funding etc.);
  • PAS (Planning Aid Scotland) promoting events through a network of PAS volunteers, associates and staff;
  • Involving arts organisations like Waveparticle  who treat ‘engagement as an art form’ to develop and deliver effective community engagement;
  • Ever increasing using of social media not just Twitter and Facebook but Instagram, Storify and Padlet for example.

Interestingly the RTPI Scotland’s written evidence on the independent review of the Scottish planning system highlights the need for ‘frontloaded community and stakeholder engagement in the preparation of the development plan’ and a call for ‘Call for Ideas, Assets and Sites’

Fundamental issues

The annual public sector funding round and public sector procurement mean the charrettes tend to be bunched and organised for late January/February/March. Are short days and variable weather conditions the best time to organise collaborative events that bring together local people of all ages to find solutions that will benefit the area over the short and long term?

A clear communications plan that includes having a database of contacts and the ability to use mainstream local and social media is essential. The essential skills to listen and learn when local people are the experts are crucial. There are also some very fundamental issues for the agencies commissioning charrettes and the teams who are facilitating. To be brief, here I tend to return to Arnstein’s ladder of participation (1969!)  that describes eight different stages of engagement, from manipulation to citizen control. The argument is that higher rungs/levels of participation deliver greater learning which builds more self-belief and capacity.

Four criticisms of engagement processes include:

  • tendency to involve the usual suspects who are organised/articulate and can get their views across;
  • raising expectations that cannot be easily met which is damaging and leads to mistrust;
  • they support localism but this may not always be good thing when a more ‘strategic approach’ on particular issues may be required;
  • decision making power is often held by commissioning/facilitation organisations.

The last point is neatly summarised in the French student poster translated into English, “I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, you participate…they profit.”

Ten Emerging Lessons

Based on experience over the five years and in discussion with colleagues including Graham Ross at Austin-Smith:Lord  we have identified the following lessons for charrette practitioners:

• Be prepared and cover all the logistics: venue, key people, IT kit, back up, materials;
• Work with what you have: learn from history, policy, survey / analysis of the place;
• Intuition: trust your judgement;
• Pre Charrette Community Animation: essential to raise awareness, get a sense of issues;
• Power to Convene: means a privileged position, scope to ‘bang heads together’;
• Structured Approach: means a varied programme is essential, multiple venues, walk + talk
• Iterative Process: needed to build up the story, very responsive, you said/we did;
• Collaboration: is key with multi-disciplinary team, local agencies, community, 3rd sector;
• Local Ambassadors / Champions: pre and post charrette; vital for delivery;
• Delivery: essential keep it real, link opportunities to funding.

What next?

Maybe after the 2015/16 charrette programme will be the time to look back over the programmes and 47+ case studies to undertake a comprehensive evidence based evaluation to focus on:

  • the activities side: locations, numbers of events, numbers/types of people involved;
  • experience of communities that have been involved: what worked well & lessons learned;
  • experience of the commissioning agencies: were the objectives set out in the individual charrette briefs met? What worked well and what should be done differently?
  • impact of charrette in terms of Local Development Plans, Community Plans and short/medium term projects that have been delivered;
  • practical experience compared to the theoretical ‘Arnstein’s ladder of participation’ or other framework approach.

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