Traverse has been working with Southend-on-Sea Borough Council as they shape a vision for the borough in 2050. The process, led by the council over the summer months, involved 55 events and engaged 2,300 people face to face, with over 1000 completing an online 2050 survey and further data gathered as part of a resident perception survey of over 2000 residents.
Traverse’s project director Rob Francis spoke to Alison Griffin, the council’s chief executive, to ask what the process aimed to achieve and what impact she thinks it will have for the council and for local people.
2050 feels like a long way away, and councils have lots of challenges here and now – why do you think it’s worth a council’s time and money to undertake a piece of work like this?
As a council we would say it’s our leadership role to do this long term thinking and to look to that distant horizon –as well as to respond to what’s happening in our communities in the here and now. In any case, having a conversation about the future does help you to reflect on how we do things today, so a future-focused exercise like this can actually be a vehicle for driving change in the present. The point is that the change we want to see in the long term starts now.
Specifically for us in Southend, it was about aligning with work that’s going on in the wider region. Southend is within the Thames Estuary and the South Essex region. Both have been looking at timeframes which run to 2050, and it was important for us to feed into that long-term visioning process. It struck us that whilst we could have contributed a very nice officer or member response to those pieces of work, we wanted to take the opportunity to involve residents and businesses by asking them what sort of place they want to create in the next 30 years.
What underpinned the approach you took?
We wanted this process to be experienced as a conversation rather than a consultation – something that could help us reconnect the council to residents and businesses. One obvious element of the approach was to use a range of methods to involve people, some in depth and some light touch.
A crucial thing for us was thinking about the types of questions we should ask and testing these out. We wanted to pose questions which would help us to understand people’s ambition for the place, and that would allow us to build a vision out of what people valued in their own lives – not questions about how they wanted to get their bins collected. The idea was that anyone could answer these questions, whatever their age or background, so that it could be a wholly inclusive process. And yet, they were also questions – about describing a ‘perfect day’ or what they would miss if they left the area, for instance – that could generate very illuminating insights.
The council really led the majority of this work – what was the value of having external support from Traverse?
We were always very clear that we wanted to take the lead and involve council officers in designing and delivering the process, because they will be the ones who need to move this from engagement to ongoing participation. The value of the external advice and support has been to challenge our assumptions, to enable us to learn from elsewhere and to inject expertise and techniques that improved the process. I think we’ve worked so well with Traverse because although we were taking a very agile, flexible approach, they were prepared to do the same, responding to what we needed and supporting us on different fronts.
What do you want to get from this process?
Colleagues are telling me there is a real energy around the vision work and that people wish we had done it years ago.
We want it to generate an ambition and a set of outcomes that resonate not just in the council but across the town, with all sorts of stakeholders. That’s why we developed it in the way we did. This isn’t something we’ve put together in the Civic Centre and then asked ‘what do you think?’ – this vision is being built out of the involvement of literally thousands of local people. And it will genuinely inform how we prioritise activity going forward and how we involve our partners, businesses and residents in turning priorities into actions.
Aside from the content of the vision, the process itself should have a legacy as well. Some past engagement exercises would look different if we ran them again, because of what we’ve learnt and experienced through this process. We have definitely forged stronger connections locally through Southend 2050, and that will provide a platform for future engagement so that we can help more people be active in decision making.
Finally, I would say that this process has given the council more confidence. Firstly, confidence that we have engaged all these people and generated all this rich insight, and that this can open the door to a new way of working with communities. Secondly, confidence to get behind some specific, big infrastructure schemes or ideas in their early stages – extending Crossrail to Southend Airport, a fourth crossing across the Thames, a road to the east – because they will help us realise elements of the vision people have articulated to us. I don’t think we would have been as explicit in our support for those sorts of schemes before.
What will local people see now or in the future because of this process?
Residents are already seeing some direct impacts from our 2050 vision work. One example is the Community Safety Team now working in the town centre which is making inroads into some of the challenges we’ve had for some time around aggressive begging and rough sleeping. Hopefully this will help to give businesses confidence that partnership work can have real results.
Other tangible impacts will come from the work in the short term as we begin to translate the messages from the vision work into reality. Longer term, the whole way in which we enable resident participation should become evident. Residents should see that they have more opportunities to be involved, not only in their neighbourhoods but also in the design of council services, where that’s appropriate. I also hope that they’ll see a lot more communication from us, getting us beyond the transactional relationship we’ve tended to have in the past.
Southend will be publishing its 2050 vision statement in late December 2018