Mark Allison

By Mark Allison, Associate Director and former leader of Merton Borough Council

After the initial period of the Covid-19 pandemic, many council leaders sensed a new attitude to their neighbourhoods among many residents – an attitude I expect to have a long-lasting effect for the built environment professionals.

Councils had excelled themselves, with communities coming together to ensure their neighbours – especially the vulnerable or isolating – had someone to look after them, get their shopping or medicines, or just talk to.

In my borough of Merton, for example, library staff were re-deployed to call older people, and bailiffs began delivering essential goods to those who were struggling instead of collecting fines.

Community spirit reached new heights, at a time when we were spending more time than ever before in that community.

Recognising this increased sense of “place” within my own community, I ordered the broadest engagement exercise in my council’s history.

I wanted to find out how attitudes had changed, and how this resurgence of civic pride could help my community rebuild once the pandemic was over.

The finding will have resonance for many working in the built environment.

Furlough, and working or studying from home, had meant people had spent more time locally than ever before, exercising in local parks or shopping in local stores.

And on the whole, they loved it.

But lockdown had also made them more acutely aware of things that needed to improve: tired shopping parades, poorly maintained housing estates, congestion and pollution, even the rubbish bags dumped on street corners under cover of night.

Listening to my community, it was clear people loved the place where they lived, but this had made them determined to protect it.

Of course, they understand we need more and better homes – too many children spent too many months locked down in overcrowded dilapidated homes.

But they want any new homes to enhance – not damage – existing neighbourhoods, resulting in improved shopping areas, where new residents generate extra trade for local businesses.

Merton’s research showed our constituents were even more place-oriented as a result of the pandemic.

Supporters of new homes and new employment spaces will therefore need to demonstrate that they understand the kind of place each local community wants to be if plans are to become a reality.

High quality and genuine community engagement (not just listening to the loudest voices) will be more important than ever.

So too will the need to communicate effectively, reassuring those who are resistant to change that GP surgeries won’t be over-run, classrooms won’t be over-crowded and roads won’t be clogged.

We will need to understand each neighbourhood’s feelings and balance residents’ sometimes contradictory desires: to improve the place they live without changing what they love about it.

Good council leaders already know this, and will respond in their own different ways, based on what they believe is best for their community. The best council leaders and decision makers are place-makers already.

“Place” is more precious to communities than ever before, and to be successful, built environment professionals should also listen to the communities in which they operate.

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