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Meaningful community engagement

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How we should be engaging, who we should be engaging with, and what the long-term impacts of working with communities are were all questions tackled at RTPI South East’s event in Oxford.

A city steeped in history, creativity and innovation, it was a fitting location for RTPI’s. Despite rail disruptions and rainy weather, a cohort gathered at Savills’ Botley offices for four workshops exploring community engagement through local politics, social impact, digital engagement and the silent majority.

Meeting Place’s South East Regional Director Joseph Baum and Social Impact Lead Ruth Skidmore led three round table discussions to highlight practical and achievable solutions when it comes to delivering social impact within Oxfordshire.

The session began with a presentation of some hard-hitting headline facts and figures specific to Oxford, including the average first-time buyer deposit in the region being £72,000, while rent rates have increased 5.9% since 2021.

After setting the scene, each group discussed the role the procurement process could play in reducing social pressures for local people.

Ideas spanned the public and private sectors – as well as supply chain commitments – and included the suggestion that those in the private sector could do more to identify their partners earlier in the project life, setting a delivery plan and being held accountable against delivery.

The concept of “negative social value” was also discussed, with bidders being penalised for not delivering on their responsibilities. From those in the public sector, it was raised that the social impact of students as a result of developments on campus – their productivity and wellbeing – was becoming a real area of focus when working with Universities.

Moving on to planning and engagement, the room discussed how we can engage in a way that promotes advocacy, relatability and accessibility for all.

Best practice examples were shared, including ensuring community champions are put in place from the beginning to be a conduit between developers and local people, particularly when it comes to using statistics to communicate the social needs and impacts.

Everyone agreed the sector must focus on telling people’s stories and being transparent in how we communicate. A good example of this was shared, using video to capture a community’s shared history and memories of a space, sparking discussions about its future.

The workshop concluded by asking each table to explore what it meant to deliver long-term social, environmental and economic impacts within a community. Often, our strategies for social impact are set up in the design phases and don’t always address the build and beyond.

Delegates were quick to share ideas, addressing the problems faced by many in the local area. This includes “referring to case studies” for best practice and metrics, allowing these to guide decisions. However, it was also noted that this must be place-based and we should “diagnose” the social need at an early stage before we begin to act, working with communities rather than imposing decisions upon them in order to maximise social impacts.

The workshop format of each session across the day gave people a chance to share ideas, listen and learn. The conversations highlighted the ever-growing demand for clarity on how we deliver social impact and what it really means. For Oxford, a city facing its own unique set of challenges, it was clear that giving people a voice and showing everyone that their opinions had value, will be critical to unlocking development.

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