A collaborative approach to planning that involves the local community is a key digital civics interest. A road scheme so controversial it had to be scrapped presented the opportunity to try this out in Newcastle.
Proposals for a new Blue House roundabout received so much opposition that the Council went back the drawing board, enlisting the help of residents to find a solution to one of the city’s most dangerous junctions.
A Blue House working group was set up, supported by Open Lab researchers, to look into alternative proposals and bring the community into the planning process. Representatives from residents’ associations, transport providers and other stakeholders were invited to take part, including Tony Waterston, chair of the Jesmond Residents’ Association.
In his three years in charge of the JRA Tony has tried to encourage a more positive attitude towards planning, and his participation in the Blue House working group exemplifies this.
Tony has generally been impressed by the process and sees it as a step in the right direction from the Council. Compared to previous schemes such as the redevelopment of Acorn Road, which attracted considerable opposition in Jesmond, Tony feels the Council has been more committed to consultation this time round.
“There is a lot of scepticism about Council consultations,” Tony said, describing the attitudes of many Jesmond residents. “Because of a feeling that they don’t mean anything, that they’ve already decided. And I think this Blue House one is different because they haven’t decided.”
“I think there is definitely a learning process going on in the Council,” he added.
This learning process also applies to the working group itself.
Tony identified three key problems the working group faced. “How do you select the people who are on the group?” he asked, adding, “it’s bound to have a bias in some direction or other.”
Secondly, the technical knowledge required: “It’s been a sharp learning curve to start to understand, as a member of the group, what the principles are that one would apply to a major junction. The people are being expected to take on board years of traffic planning expertise.”
Tony also pointed out the difficulty in engaging the wider public with the working group. Despite his efforts to circulate questionnaires around Jesmond residents, he has received little response, and other residents’ groups have faced similar problems.
“I think that’s partly because people get more interested at the grassroots level when there’s things they want to oppose,” Tony suggested. “When they’re being asked for positive ideas, they don’t actually tend to come up with anything.”
Indeed, the most significant public involvement with the Blue House roundabout discussions has been at a town hall meeting organised by Chi Onwurah MP in August. The meeting was organised before the Council dropped their plans, but took place just hours after the announcement.
While the meeting was useful in engaging people and increasing awareness of the proposals, Tony believes that smaller meetings, like the Blue House working group, are the best way to get actual change.
“I don’t think it really helps to just call a meeting,” he said. “You just get opposition then. I think smaller meetings with representative groups who go back is a better way of doing it.”
Instead of the opposition that arose from the town hall meeting, the working group has looked at alternative plans and discussed the core issues. Tony pointed out that traffic growth is not inevitable and that the Blue House roundabout may not need to be made bigger, as the Council had originally proposed. He suggested that people could be encouraged, “with inducements and pressure to make it harder to drive”, to use alternative modes of transport, including cycling.
Balancing the needs of different users of the roundabout is no easy task. Tony is aware that there is no guarantee the working group will find an acceptable solution, but sees this as best way to keep the most people happy.
Once the working group have finalised their suggestions these will be fed back to the Council, who will put their latest plan for the roundabout out to consultation with the wider public.
Tony hopes the working group method will be applied to other planning issues, even if it is a long-winded system. He also suggested, “the next stage, if we’re really going to be serious about that, is to give the group funding.” This kind of participatory budgeting, already used successfully in many cities across the globe, could really empower local communities to shape the environments in which they live.