We talk a lot about the need to empower communities – to give people a stronger voice in the decisions that affect their lives. And yet, too few engagement processes really create space for people to share and grow their own ideas for how to create change – and that can be the most empowering, impactful experience of all.
Down on the Ideas Farm
Back in 2012 I ran my first ‘Ideas Farm’ in my hometown of Wellington in Shropshire. Arranged for a Saturday morning in November, it was an open invitation to local people to come along and ‘grow their own’ ideas for making the town the place they wanted it to be. If you’ve ever taken part in an open space event or an unconference, you’ll get the idea.
There were about 50 people the room, some familiar faces and – after a big push on social media – many not so familiar. We had photos around the room to spark conversations, including some ‘postcards from the future’ which imagined how good things could be. As the facilitator I proposed some broad discussion topics at the start of the session (based on some prior research on hot local topics) and invited people in the room to propose their own. We ended up with about six distinct themes and assigned a table to each. People then moved to the conversation that most interested them and, guided by some prompt questions, shared their ideas about that theme – for the most part with complete strangers – for just over an hour. Conversations were unfacilitated but some got a very long way in a short space of time. After just over an hour, we came together and decided some next steps for each idea.
The largest group that Saturday morning wanted to save The Clifton – an old art deco cinema which had recently been vacated by Dunelm and which was standing empty. From the energetic conversations held that day, a group emerged which aimed to buy the cinema and turn it into a new community arts venue. It was a mammoth ambition. I doubted it could ever come to anything, and almost seven years later, the former Clifton Cinema remains empty – the timing and the finances just didn’t align. But the Clifton Group born on that day lives on, and just one month ago screened its first film in The Orbit - its own brand-new cinema and arts centre just down the road in the town’s Market Square.
The idea that took root
For a community group to create and run its own professional cinema is a massive achievement. In the spirit of that first Ideas Farm, they have owned their own idea from day one and focused on real work to make it happen, rather than angry placard-waving. They have spent the last seven years raising money (around £40,000 from a community share offer); building support and – perhaps most importantly – building their case, their volunteer base and audience base by running mini-film festivals at an existing venue. When the old cinema site was taken off the market (bought by a developer who has since pulled out), they turned their attention elsewhere and began a project to lease and refurbish the old bank which is now their home.
They could not have done it alone. When Telford and Wrekin Council pledged to invest £150,000 into high street regeneration projects in each of its five towns, The Orbit was in a position to be Wellington’s flagship project. The local church has also invested money from a legacy. So now, with the cash injection they needed to get building work underway, they have turned an empty Edwardian bank into a 21st century 60-seat cinema, plus café and gallery space and with more to follow as finances allow.
The Orbit is only a few months old, but it is injecting a new sense of optimism into the town. Helpfully, this has coincided with a programme of small council grants to encourage new businesses and a scheme of shopfront improvements – also council-funded – so that the cinema has already been joined by a new restaurant, a new bakery and a new dessert shop, new stalls inside the market hall, plus more on the way. And how is all this being promoted to residents? Wellington’s town council, itself moving into a more proactive, place-shaping role, is funding professional support for a Love Wellington campaign. This campaign, powered by a team of local volunteer admins, is pumping social media with all these good news stories and working to counter the gravitational pull of negativity on the town’s main Facebook pages.
What can we learn?
- Don’t underestimate the power of ‘fun’ projects to inspire serious change: Wellington, like lots of small towns, has many economic and social challenges to address. A cinema will not directly solve many of them straight away. BUT – it is creating volunteering opportunities and building the capacity of residents. It is changing how people feel about their high street and their town and their community. And over the long term, these will be fundamental to tackling some of the more serious issues. In that sense, it has the potential to deliver much more than film screenings or art classes or studio space.
- Councils can make a big difference when they follow the energy: This project would never have been a council priority in a time of austerity, but once it was clear the momentum was there, the council came on board. They helped to enable without taking the lead. They have followed the energy – along with the church, the individual investors and sponsors who are still emerging – but this was an energy generated by residents who set out with an idea.
- Positive change needs momentum and critical mass: The Clifton Group kept momentum across seven years, with stalls at events and with film screenings and mini-film festivals. They kept the idea alive even when it seemed like it was going nowhere. And now the local authority and town council are also helping to maintain momentum so that the cinema isn’t an isolated good news story. With their shop front improvements scheme and small business start-up grants, the council are able to use other interventions to reinforce a sense of positive change. Encouraging people to feel different about where they live is not easy and takes a huge amount of coordinated fire power – little projects here are there, whether business-, community- or council-led, just weren’t cutting through in Wellington. And yet now there is something in the air. The town is even a finalist in the Great British High Street’s ‘Rising Star’ category – a sign that the collaborative effort between borough council, town council, local businesses and community groups like The Clifton Group is finally being recognised.
- It matters where ideas come from: For me, thinking back to that original Ideas Farm and its ground rules – ‘bring an idea that you can help to grow, don’t just expect someone else to grow it for you’ – there is also an important message about where ideas need to come from and where they need to be grown. One of the things that has empowered the Clifton Group is that it all started with their own idea – not something half-baked from the Civic Offices. This was not a consultation on an existing plan. And for all the support they have received from the local authority in recent months, it is an idea that has remained in their ownership and under their leadership. Surely it is much harder to empower communities if you don’t also invite them to grow and progress their own ideas?
As I wrote at the time, and have shared with many councils since, an Ideas Farm is just one approach to bringing citizens together to take collective action in a place. It is appropriate for some situations and is definitely is not appropriate for others. Sometimes it’s the blank canvas that a community needs to get moving on something brilliant but unexpected. Sometimes – when there’s a clear challenge to address and a range of perspectives to cut through – you might need something more targeted which provides evidence and options, and which builds-in deliberation (see my recent blog on citizens’ assemblies).
But the bottom line is that however you do it, engagement matters if you want to make places better alongside the people who live there – and that can’t just be a consultation exercise or a survey or a set of focus groups. Across our communities, we should be staging creative, thought-provoking engagement events and programmes that forge networks, unlock energy, encourage ownership and build capacity. If we really want to empower people, we need to start with their ideas.