Urban Pollinators has been going in its current form for a year. In that time we have begun to gain a reputation as a leader in contemporary thinking about place and society, grounded in an understanding of practice and the development and application of new ideas.
As a micro-business with limited resources, we have sought to balance fee-earning and pro bono work in a way that has enabled us to contribute strategically to key areas of policy. In particular, we are pleased to have influenced the House of Commons communities and local government select committee’s inquiry into regeneration, and the review of the high street commissioned by the prime minister.
Julian Dobson was called on to give evidence in the opening session of the select committee’s inquiry in May, and his written and verbal evidence are cited frequently in the final report, published in early November. In particular, MPs picked up on the need for a clear understanding of what regeneration is intended to achieve, the need to ensure we learn from the initiatives, successes and mistakes of the past, and the importance of an ethical dimension that recognises a moral obligation to disadvantaged communities. You can read our reaction to the report here.
Our contribution to the Portas review began when we coordinated a collaborative submission, bringing together eight other organisations to ensure the review was informed by the best new ideas about how to create a brighter future for our high streets. Our submission, The 21st Century Agora: a new and better vision for town centres, can be downloaded here.
The aim of our initiative was to ensure the review appreciated both the scale of the issues facing our town centres and the opportunities available even in hard economic times. Our submission encouraged a view of town centres as the heart of their communities, co-created and animated with activities that together offer something for everyone. We saw retail as a consequence of town centre activity, not as the be-all and end-all.
It was particularly pleasing that despite the overwhelming media concentration on shopping as the main function of the high street, Mary Portas echoed many of our views, arguing that economic capital is the result of social capital and not its foundation. Ms Portas described our contribution to the review as ‘both inspirational and invaluable’.
Following our submission, we were also invited to join the evidence-gathering team coordinated by Leeds-based consultants Genecon. A report, Understanding High Street Performance, was published alongside the Portas Review and complements it with an assessment of trends over the last decade and analysis of why change is happening in our town centres and what is being done about it.
Our interest in the future of town centres has led to close links with Hometown Plus, the organisation behind the WiganPlus initiative. We have worked with them to research the scope for a national forum or network of local loyalty schemes, and as a result have set up Revive Our Town Centres, an online forum that will be developed and populated with more material during 2012.
We also contributed to policy development and understanding through our work with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, acting as a rapporteur for a series of events on community assets that helped to reveal both the potential and the risks of community asset ownership. Our roundup of the learning from the events is available here or on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website.
Our work on community assets has fed into a project with the Bill Sargent Trust, a Portsmouth-based charity. This will update and refresh our 2010 report on the use of surplus military land and the potential to achieve public benefits through its disposal. A discussion document, to be circulated early in 2012, will propose a model to align defence and community interests in order to achieve lasting benefits from Ministry of Defence land sales.
The theme of community benefit was a central aspect of our work with The Mersey Forest, producing two publications in the spring and summer of 2011. A Future for Community Forests outlined a people-based approach to our woodlands in response to the government’s plans to sell off Forestry Commission land; after these were abandoned, we helped to inform the review process with our publication Seeing the Wood for the Trees.
Creating better places involves connecting up policy and practicalities. We were pleased to continue our work with the Regeneration Academy at Bradford Council, running a series of workshops and learning events on placemaking. We devised and delivered these sessions in partnership with Beam and Integreat Yorkshire (now Integreat Plus) before handing over to an in-house team to take the Academy forward.
We also spent much of the summer studying the achievements of the Deighton and Brackenhall Initiative in Huddersfield and the challenges facing the organisation as it seeks to build on the work of the last decade and a half. This work raised important questions about the long-term nature of regeneration and the difference it makes when an organisation invests in local people.
Our links with Incredible Edible Todmorden, originally developed via New Start magazine and subsequently through the Regeneration Academy, continue to grow (you can read our pamphlet about them here) and we hope to have a lot more to say about this during the course of 2012.
Julian has continued to be in demand as a speaker and commentator, talking about everything from the Big Society to the future of regeneration and the state of our town centres to audiences from local authorities, voluntary organisations, community activists and more.
During 2012 we intend to develop our position at the interface between policy and practice, exploring how to build community and create better places in hard times. We’ll continue to do this through writing, speaking, research, training and facilitation, and by forging links with others who share our vision. Keep an eye on our website for news of new projects – or get in touch to see how we might work with you.