June 28, 2014 12:02 am

How The Prince’s Foundation has given communities a say on design

A distinctly bottom-up approach shifts the system from being adversarial to collaborative
An illustration by Clare Mallison depicting The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community©Clare Mallison

The Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Building Community has helped push ideas of community empowerment into the mainstream that, two decades ago or so, were considered by many to be subversive. The Foundation has developed ideas about how to shift the system from being adversarial to collaborative and how to give local people a voice and influence – a distinctly bottom-up approach. The end result, called Enquiry By Design, is a process that has been used by more than 100 local communities to create visions for their local area.

Stuart Robinson, director of planning at independent property advisers CBRE, said Prince Charles pioneered “community architecture”, in which local people help to shape the designs. “This was at a time when there wasn’t even community information, let alone consultation,” he says. “But these days everyone does it.”

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While the foundation has promoted the community’s role in development since The Prince’s flagship project, Poundbury, was first being built 20 years ago, it took off as an idea when Britain’s coalition government came to power in 2010. Politicians, using a concept they called “localism”, created a number of new planning system “rights” in an attempt to give local people more power in the planning process.

It would be daft to pretend The Prince’s status has not contributed to this success. One property industry insider describes his role as being able to “spread some very purposeful bonhomie”, getting things done that would not otherwise happen.

His name also helps to bang heads together, says Robinson. “I’ve been involved in schemes where clients have been miles apart and he has come along and got them shaking hands.” “If it’s the difference between something getting done or not getting done, then you can’t fault the guy.”

“They [the foundation] tend to go for a more picturesque and traditional take on things and steer towards traditional street patterns, low building heights and styles that would have suited the Victorian period; that can be a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Steve McAdam, director of community engagement experts Soundings. “But often you are trying to remedy the awful mistakes of the 1960s and 70s, and rebalancing that may be what’s necessary; that is what most people want.”

The foundation has begun to roll out this community-empowerment work abroad. Projects in Jamaica and Sierra Leone involved training young people in building skills and then helping them to create new community facilities.

In Britain, having won the initial argument about community involvement, the foundation is changing direction. In the coming years it will take just a handful of projects through the entire development process, “from community consultation to the cutting of the ribbon” at the scheme’s completion, says Dominic Richards, the foundation’s executive director.

This is about holding developers to account, he adds. “The authenticity and power of the community consultation process rests on what is agreed getting built – not getting watered down, not going off track.”

This will be labour-intensive for what he characterises as “a small charity punching way above our weight”. But he would rather see two or three really good developments built than 100 community consultation exercises that produce unsatisfactory end results.

“We have more work than we can possibly do,” says Richards.

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Ascot High Street transformed – by building on the greenbelt

When local people in the well-heeled Berkshire town of Ascot decided to try to rejuvenate their high street, they had a choice of five government-funded organisations to work with. They ended up choosing The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, which helped them to reach a conclusion – to build on greenbelt land. The majority of local people who participated agreed that some vacant land on one side of the high street should be built on, creating shops, homes and community facilities. They felt this would give the town greater economic momentum.

They made their views known despite the fact the land was designated as greenbelt. This outcome, say property industry professionals, is surprising. “It’s extremely rare for a community to do that,” says Steve McAdam, founder and director of community engagement company Soundings.

Dominic Richards, the Prince's Foundation’s executive director©Hal Shinnie

Dominic Richards, the Prince's Foundation’s executive director

Dominic Richards, executive director at The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, calls the plans “an interesting test case” for how to win community support for greenbelt building. “Everyone assumes the greenbelt is a sacred cow,” he says.

“But when the community was consulted and it trusted The Prince’s Foundation, it was able to talk about things like the greenbelt.” The Prince’s involvement in the charity was a factor, says Margaret Morgan, of the Ascot and Sunnings Neighbourhood Plan’s steering group – but not necessarily a positive one. “He does put his foot in it and we did ask ourselves whether it was a good idea,” Morgan says. But the community group has been pleased with the result, she says: “They understand what we are trying to do and were approachable, enthusiastic, listened to what we said, and were very collaborative.”

The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community ran workshops for local people, brought businesses and landowners into the discussion, and drew up a report.

Morgan says the hard work is now about to start: the foundation and local campaigners must convince landowners of Richards’ assertion that they would make more money by delivering the community’s vision.

Morgan is worried that landowners will seek to push their own ideas through if local people give the go-ahead for greenbelt construction.

“There are many challenges ahead and that’s what we’re hoping The Prince’s Foundation will help us with,” she says. “It worries quite a lot of people, the prospect of a free-for-all [on greenbelt land].”

Kate Allen is the FT’s property correspondent

Illustration by Clare Mallison; Photograph by: Hal Shinnie

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