Blue House roundabout: planning at the crossroads

For a month in the summer of 2016 suburban Newcastle went to war. The Council’s proposals for major changes to Blue House roundabout in South Gosforth outraged many local residents, and after a month of petitions, feedback and rallies, the Council decided to redesign its plans.

The debate about Blue House roundabout demonstrates how digital technology is changing the planning process. Much of the consultation, both formal and informal, happened online, and as a result of the public reaction to the plans the Council are looking at new ways of engaging with the public.

Within days of the Council announcing the plans, which involved enlarging and moving the roundabout, residents had taken to Twitter to express their views. This use of social media in planning processes forms the basis of work by Open Lab researchers, including Zander Wilson.

“I’m a PhD researcher interested in citizen participation in town planning, undertaking a study looking at how Twitter was used in a campaign against the proposals,” he explained.

“Through looking at the proposals, my study will document the process of citizens using a combination of platforms to rally against the proposals.

“The work will look at how Twitter was used, in conjunction with the council’s consultation platform, and protests to campaign against the proposals, which eventually led to the reconsidering of the plans for the roundabout. The study considers how Twitter might be used to involve citizens in how their neighbourhoods change in the future.”

Online and on the ground

The council’s own website to collect feedback on the plans attracted 2,642 comments, “mostly negative”, and nearly 4,000 people signed a petition opposing the proposals. A similar petition hosted by the Newcastle Liberal Democrats attracted 621 online signatures, and over 1,000 once signatures from a paper version were included. The local Conservative and Green parties also opposed the plans, as did Labour MP Chi Onwurah.

Local community groups, such as Jesmond Residents Association and Space for Gosforth, also got involved in the opposition, and helped to organise the March for the Moor, a physical rally with over 2,000 attendees. A lot of this organisation, as well as the feedback and petitioning, happened online, from Council-run websites to social media, showing the importance of digital technology to a 2016 planning process.

The March took place on 21 August, the same day that the Council’s public consultation ended. Chi Onwurah organised a Town Hall meeting for 24 August to discuss the proposals, but on 23 August the Council announced that they would redesign their plans. “This initial stage of engagement enabled us to take on board the public’s comments before plans are finalised,” the Council explained.

Meaningful public discussions

The Town Hall meeting went ahead, with Chi changing the focus to be a general discussion on the future of West Gosforth. Technology was largely absent from the meeting, but six members of the Digital Civics team went along, including Clara Crivellaro.

“In the meeting we facilitated passionate discussions, centred around the premises for the proposed changes at the Blue House roundabout, alternative possible solutions as well as around ways in which public consultations could be done differently in the future,” Clara explained.

She continued: “This is part of a larger agenda within Digital Civics, looking into the potential role of digital technologies and design to support meaningful public discussions and processes of public consultations around the future of the places that matter to us in the city.”

Over 300 residents attended the meeting. Many complained that they could not hear all the speakers, and others were frustrated that there was no time for questions from the floor. However, everybody at the meeting was encouraged to write down any concerns and suggestions they had, which the Open Lab team digitised and analysed. This combination of traditional meetings and digital technology allowed for more public engagement in the planning process.

The Council used the meeting to announce the creation of a working group, with representatives of various stakeholders, including the community groups that were so involved in campaigning against the proposals. Open Lab are helping this working group to share ideas with each other and with the public. The team have created a website for the group and produced video roundups of meetings.

For more information please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Author: Mark Sleightholm

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