When community-led means community exclusion

Taking a community-led approach to place making is fundamental to putting local voices in the lead of local projects and is growing in popularity with both policy makers and their agents on the ground. However, if it’s improperly implemented, it can also exclude key local voices. Manchester’s Bee Network is in danger of being a case in point.

Funded by the Mayor’s decision to allocate £160m – over half of the Transforming Cities Fund for Manchester – Chris Boardman’s Bee Network project aims to revolutionise the cycling and walking infrastructure of Greater Manchester. The project has been much-praised for its joined up and strategic level approach. The level of investment means that £15 per head is now allocated to active transport in Manchester per year, almost putting us on a par with cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Key to the praise is not only the level of investment but also the approach. As Boardman himself puts it “We only work with the willing” – heading off criticism of top-down imposition of major structural change. Boardman has continually stated that infrastructure won’t be delivered in places where people don’t want it but instead from anywhere that puts forward a strong proposal.

On the face of it, that logic is hard to disagree with – why impose something that isn’t wanted? – and it feeds into an increasingly popular agenda for Community-led Development (CLD). CLD is the process whereby institutions work together with communities to create locally owned visions, conceive goals and achieve them. It is a planning and development approach with multiple advantages for all concerned: it puts local voices in the lead; builds on community strengths; is agile and can achieve systemic change rather than satisfy simply short-term goals. It is, understandably, increasingly popular with local authorities leading regeneration or infrastructure projects, for all of the reasons above – and one more besides.

There is a perception from many that CLD is less resource intensive than, say, employing a team of regeneration officers or paying for a team of expert consultants to be brought on board to understand the views and needs of a community. In an age of council cuts it’s easy to see why that appeals.

It’s a fundamental misconception, though, and one that has potential to do damage.

The approach assumes that all communities are equally placed to lead. The reality is that many aren’t. Invariably, neighbourhoods with particular characteristics are more capable of self-organising for change than others: those neighbourhoods with a well-developed infrastructure for civic governance and communication; those with a collective sense of entitlement and connection to resources; and those with a proliferation of residents who are able to identify the concepts and language that appeal to investing institutions.

The danger is that valuable civic infrastructure is awarded and allocated to those who can easily build a case for support rather than on the basis of need or impact. Of course, that can be mitigated by an active process of engagement for communities – reaching out to the higher hanging fruit to ensure they are supported to build their case. But to do that takes significant investment of time, money and expertise – something that flies in the face of the supposedly resource-light appeal of CLD.

It now seems inevitable that the Bee Network project will fall into the trap that poorly-understood CLD lays for cash-strapped municipalities. The approach of allowing the individual GMCA councils to bid for what they want – only working with “the willing” – appears to have led (in Manchester at least) to councils waiting for residents to take the lead on bidding for the funding. So far the communities that have publicly declared their intention to bid include Altrincham, Chorlton, Sale, Romily, Prestwich, Stretford, Old Trafford and Levenshulme (apologies if I’ve missed anyone, let me know and I will add you).

Of course, none of those neighbourhoods are exclusively affluent and there are those who will rightly argue that infrastructure changes in a neighbourhood will benefit everyone, regardless of who instigates the process, but is that really the case? When communities are invited to lead development, with little management of that process, we must also consider the interests of those who step up to the plate. Levenshulme is a case in point – where the process has been steered by a business owner who has a vested interest in creating infrastructure that is likely to attract customers to their business.

In Levenshulme I have access to the workings of the bid development process and I’m not by any means saying that those kind of conflicts are universal. However, it’s worth considering this recent article from Anne Lusk – a Harvard academic looking at barriers and routes to cycling amongst lower-income and ethnic minority communities. This particularly telling comment completely contradicts the Bee Network’s guiding principal (and the approach being taken in Levenshulme) that major roads should be left relatively untouched in favour of small-scale interventions on side streets:

“In higher-income neighborhoods, cyclists might choose bike routes on side streets to avoid heavy traffic. However, people in our study felt that side streets with only residential buildings were less safe for cycling. This suggests that bicycle routes in lower-income ethnic-minority neighborhoods should be concentrated on main roads with commercial activity where more people are present.”

So the question becomes, what is the alternative? Is poorly executed Community-Led Development that favours the easily mobilised better than top down imposition of civic infrastructure? Please let me know your thoughts below.

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