Asking residents to give their views on the future of where they live is nothing new – but asking the most useful and illuminating questions isn’t easy.
In Southend on Sea, we have been working with the council to help them co-create a vision for Southend 2050. Whilst this seems a long way off, the work is an acknowledgement that strategic decisions about ‘the place we want to be’ need a long lead in time. The work also starts from the belief that this is a conversation everyone should be part of, and that everyone can contribute to. With that in mind, this engagement work needed to give everyone an easy route into thinking about the future – an approach which invited people to think beyond the here and now, but which didn’t confront them with an abstract, distant reality either. By the end of Summer 2018, 55 events had been hosted with (2,300 people engaged face to face) hundreds of participants and around 2,500 people responded through surveys and online forums, including the residents’ perception survey which included some 2050-specific questions.
At the heart of the engagement process was a simple set of questions that could be deployed across different platforms, from the survey to in-depth deliberative workshops, and with everyone from school children to older people to local businesses. We knew from initial conversations either that people couldn’t picture how their lives would be so far in the future, or they became preoccupied with predicting how different the world will be. We rolled people back from thinking about 2050 specifically, therefore, and talked in more general terms about ‘the future’ and allowed people to focus on a timeframe that suited them. After much discussion and testing, the council used four core questions as the basis of their conversations with colleagues, partners, residents and visitors:
- What would make you want to live (or work, or spend time) in Southend in the future? Given the choice, people will usually want more of something if it’s offered and they will feel that many things are important when presented with a list. You can ask people ‘What matters MOST to you?’ to force some prioritisation, but that has its own complications – provide a list and you lead people’s thinking, provide no list and you might get lots of high level responses that don’t shed much light (being healthy, good schools, having a job etc.). Important as these things are, they risk resulting in a vision which reads like a shopping list of the obvious. The question was therefore framed in a way that could help us understand what would actually make the difference in whether people wanted to stay in the area in future or whether they wanted to move elsewhere.
- What would a good day / week / year look like for you in the future? Again, we realised that different people would find it easier to think about different time periods. Asking about a good day or week suited most people, inviting them to imagine what they would be doing and what would make them happy as they go about their daily lives. For businesses, on the other hand, it made more sense to think about a good year and what a positive trading period would look like across several months.
- What would you miss most if you left Southend? Having asked people what would make them want to stay in the borough, this question took them a stage further, inviting them to imagine they had left and to identify what they would have lost. This gave us another way into understanding people’s emotional connection to place and the characteristics that most shape people’s feelings about their area.
- Who might need to be involved to help create your ideal Southend-on-Sea of the future? This invited reflection about personal ownership, roles and involvement to bring about the future that people wanted to see.
People’s responses to these questions generated some fascinating insights into how people think about where they live. Some themes came out again and again, such as the importance of the seafront and coastline (open space, peace and quiet, fun and recreation), as well as open spaces more generally. The quality and safety of the high street and the presence of places to meet and socialise also came up a lot in different guises, as did the value of good neighbours and of being close to friends and family. All these characteristics have the potential to underpin thinking about urban planning, the local economy, addressing social isolation and many more issues besides.
So where are public services in all this? The way we posed the questions reminds us that they are often the vehicle but not the destination. Had we asked directly about the importance of particular services, people would surely have told us that they are very important and that they want them to be the best they can be – but we can pretty much take that for granted. Through the questions that were asked in Southend, we instead get to understand what is top of people’s minds when asked what really defines the place they live, what makes it worth living in and what it gives them that other places might not. As a result, we’re encouraged to reflect not about services in isolation, but about the way the council can support and enable certain circumstances. For the council, coming at the discussion from this angle is helping support a step-change from a more traditional, service-centric focus to one which is about collaborating and being outcomes-led – or, to strip out the jargon, starting with people instead of starting with the system.
As councillors and officers use the engagement findings to help shape a vision which translates into real actions, they will need to take communities with them – and that will mean moving from gathering views to building momentum and enabling participation. This, in turn, will demand more careful thought about how to ask the best questions.