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The Art of Public Participation Through Consultation

Those who object to planning proposals are often described negatively. The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is a classic example, while other acronyms include NOTEs (Not Over There Either) and NIMNs (Not In My Neighbourhood). The terms are bandied around by those who desire development at any cost, but if the pivotal 1947 Town and Country Planning Act said anything, it was that land use should be democratised, rather than continuing the feudal system supposedly consigned to the history books.

Therefore, such objections are more an issue of how and when the public is notified and addressed about proposed development through the planning system. If the public, whether immediate neighbours or wider stakeholders, only find out about proposals after the plans have been submitted, they are being forced to make a stark and reactive ‘yes or no’ choice to top-down planning methods, which in the case of those motivated enough to respond often means a negative response.

However, when given the opportunity to shape development in its early stages through listening to public feedback, the bottom-up planning of public involvement and vision has been proven to help with the improvement of plans prior to submission, as well as ensuring greater consensus and success of the development. After all, the public will often be the end user of new development, one way or another, so catering for stated needs and wants is surely a win-win.

The downside – or, often, the excuse for merely paying lip service – is that extensive public consultation takes time. The forthcoming consultations for the former industrial Mayfield district of Manchester are an example of this. The latest Strategic Regeneration Framework for the site, published this February, is the third for the area in the past decade, superseding those published in 2010 and 2014. A key aspect of the design evolution between 2010 and 2018 is retention of existing character in the form of heritage buildings, including the listed Star and Garter pub and the Mayfield Depot, recently used to stage Manchester International Festival events.

Ideas and intentions like preserving, repurposing and adapting heritage landmarks were among the favoured outcomes garnered from a series of proactive public workshops hosted by the Imaginarium Collective team in 2016. Their subsequent report, published in February 2017, identified strategic goals to pass onto the selected developer for the site, U+I.

Next, U+I’s own series of workshops are due to take place during March as a means to harness public participation prior to submitting proposals into the planning system. The consultations offer an opportunity to learn about the Framework proposals by engaging with interactive activities to dissect its rhetoric, such as the aim “to deliver a world class, transformational, distinctive and imaginative commercially led neighbourhood, anchored by Mayfield Park, which will become a powerhouse of socio-economic productivity.” Cutting through that, the prospect of extensive public realm alone makes it a potentially positive addition to the city’s landscape, providing it avoids the G4S-patrolled public-private realm akin to Spinningfields, as critiqued by Anna Minton.

The Imaginarium co-founder, Adam Prince sees their proactive, grassroots organisation as a key part of the positive evolution of the plans for Mayfield’s future. He describes a general “lack of imagination” from built environment professionals when left to their own devices. “The freshest ideas come from talking to people […] who wouldn’t usually be expected to attend.”

Prince also links the concept of proactive participatory planning to the success of the London Road Fire Station campaign, which helped to prise the iconic building from Britannia Hotels’ grasp. Another local heritage spot whose pre-application process has recently seen more proactive engagement is for the Hotspur House site, bounded by the River Medlock, Cambridge Street and the Whitworth Street railway arches. Consultations staged during February sought to gather feedback based on an exhibition documenting the former Medlock Mill’s historical context, community interest and future potential.

In shaping the future of the city and region, these preliminary and transitional stages are key to ensuring development rises above the identikit and mundane.

Consultation events will take place on 1 March at Medlock Primary School, 3 March at Piccadilly Gardens, and 8-11 March at Archway 9.
Consultation comments are welcomed via the Manchester City Council website, below, until 22 March.

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