Woodcote: a case study about community engagement

geograph_2534860_by_Des_BlenkinsoppThursday 3 April was a milestone day for the villagers of Woodcote: their Neighbourhood Plan referendum. 91% of those voting said “yes” to the plan. More significantly, 59% of the village population turned out to vote, the best turn out by far in Neighbourhood Plan referendums. This is a clear and unequivocal endorsement on how the community got behind the whole Neighbourhood Planning process.

The Examiner made reference to the extent and the effectiveness of the community engagement and consultation that underpinned the Neighbourhood Plan “I am satisfied that the requirements for the community consultation were comfortably exceeded during the production of the Neighbourhood Plan...and went well beyond the legislative requirement for consultation”.

How did they do it? Here are some top tips:

Set up an Advisory Group: Woodcote found that there was far more work than the Parish Council could cope with. An Advisory Group of 15 volunteers provided the additional capacity needed, enabled parallel working and made the Plan less of a ‘top-down’ exercise.

Use the information you already have: three Village Appraisals (1984, 1991 and 2000) and a Parish Plan (2008) provided a basis on which the community could work up their Neighbourhood Plan. Together with questionnaires and consultation with villagers, this identified the main issues within the village. From these the objectives of the plan (pdf) were identified.

Turn negative into positive: the initial push to create the plan was as a result of the threat of uncontrolled large residential sites being developed in the village. But this negative start was soon turned into something positive when the Neighbourhood Plan process itself identified the need for proportionate growth, to ensure that a balanced and mixed community in Woodcote would continue to thrive well into the future.

Keep the community in mind: the Advisory Group was firm in its aspiration that the plan is for, and being put forward on behalf of the community. Whilst the plan has to be examined by an Independent Examiner, it is the community that owns the plan and will vote on it, and that should always be kept in mind.

Use various consultation methods: the consultation process allowed villagers to contribute in different ways, as the amount of time and effort they could give to the process varied. The group recognised the value that all villagers could make, either large or small scale.

geograph_1007902_by_Graham_HornHold public events: the main way in which the community as a whole were engaged in the making of the plan was through two public consultation events, the first held in March 2012 and the second in April 2013, and two community workshops in July 2012.

Engage key stakeholders: the Advisory Group met with stakeholders within the community, such as the Headmaster of the local schools, local doctors, the Women’s Institute, estate agents and local landowners.

Go out to the community: members of the Advisory Group on six occasions made themselves available to the public for general questions at the Public Library.

Keep up written communication: email addresses were requested from those attending the public events. Regular newsletters were distributed via email. Update reports were submitted to local newspapers, The Henley Standard and the Woodcote Correspondent. Prior to any public meeting leaflets were dropped to all households, detailing time and venue of the event.

“Little and often”: communications were sufficient to maintain the interest and involvement of the villagers. Continually disseminating manageable amounts of information to the community maintained interest and engagement – especially during the long period of consultation and examination when little appears to be happening.

Aim for a clear, readable neighbourhood plan: the clarity and straight forwardness of Woodcote’s plan made for easy reading for residents, short on time and perhaps interest.

The result

The Examiner included the following comment made by a member of the community as a tribute to those involved in putting the plan together:

“Having attended the general meetings, we commend the thoughtful evaluation carried out by the team, after collecting detailed information and viewpoints. We are most fortunate to have had such a dedicated and clear-sighted team”.

Photo credits

Many thanks to Geoff Botting, chair of the Woodcote Neighbourhood Plan Advisory Group, and his interviewer PAE volunteer Debbie Jones for their help with this case study. These case studies are produced by Planning Aid England as part of the Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and delivered by a consortium led by Locality.