We Are Bankside: a case study about engaging businesses in neighbourhood planning


Southwark is one of the oldest areas of London, layered with history. Traditionally, it has been a vibrant hub of cultural and economic activity, thriving with the some of the more uninhibited domains of theatre and entertainment, markets, and other commercial activity and investment.

The wider area around Southwark has been a focus for regeneration for the last 15 years, driven by key projects at the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. This has meant that residents and businesses here have had a great deal of change to deal with in a relatively short period of time.

The type, scale and intensity of development pressures in the Bankside neighbourhood of Southwark are a very different mix than those experienced by many neighbourhood forums. However, the broad themes that have come out with the development of the draft neighbourhood plan will still be familiar to anyone working on a neighbourhood plan themselves.

Set up and structure

We Are Bankside is the group responsible for producing the Neighbourhood Plan for Bankside. They have devised an organisation structure based around three core groups:

  • The Constituency (people who live and work in Bankside and will vote in the referendum)
  • The Neighbourhood Forum (whose role is to steer the production of the Plan)
  • The Secretariat (whose role is to oversee progress on actions coming out of the forum, and ensuring necessary information is fed back into it).

As part of the plan itself, the group is working on an exciting project around the viaducts, which have traditionally been seen as dividing the physical space. Taking a fresh perspective, the group hopes to make improvements that allow the structure to become a connector, linking activity across the area, nicknamed the “Low Line”.

Balancing business, residents’ and visitors’ interests

open_space_600As Valerie Beirne, the Bankside Urban Forest Manager of Better Bankside explained, there are three main groups that make Bankside what it is:

  • The strong residential community
  • The business community
  • The strong network of local community organisations like Bankside Residents’ Forum and Bankside Open Spaces Trust.

A further constituency relevant to Bankside are the millions of tourists who come from all over to see the many historical and culturally significant attractions.

It is this mix of resident, business and visitor communities that people value most about the neighbourhood. One of the core missions of the Neighbourhood Plan, therefore, is how to keep the balance of these valuable elements: old and new, residential and commercial, visitors and locals. The plan will aim to enable development that will not swing the balance too far in any one direction, keeping the balance between the three primary groups of business, residents, and visitors.

Becoming a business-led neighbourhood plan

Originally, it was the Bankside Residents’ Forum which put in a bid and was chosen as a Front Runner neighbourhood planning group. But the question was soon asked: what happens in an area like Bankside, where roughly 6,000 people live, but where around 60,000 people work, and millions more visitors come for the local attractions?

who_600This led to the residents’ forum joining forces with Better Bankside – a local Business Improvement District (BID) representing over 460 businesses in the neighbourhood. Both organisations recognise the unique mix of communities in Bankside, and agreed to develop a ‘partnership-led’ neighbourhood forum, that drew in a wide variety of other local groups with strong links in the area such as Blackfriars Settlement, Bankside Open Spaces Trust and Coin Street Community Builders.

Better Bankside’s involvement in progressing a neighbourhood plan for the area brought benefits such as resources (in terms of officer time to progress the neighbourhood plan) and skills (to engage with the business constituency). The benefits for Better Bankside were also tangible, giving the BID a basis on which to respond to emerging policy and planning issues that is based on consensus being developed through the Neighbourhood Forum.

Involvement of businesses at an early stage

Building on the pre-existing connections of businesses and other groups also helped facilitate getting the forum up and running to begin with. The Residents Forum and Better Bankside already had a cooperative relationship before the introduction of neighbourhood planning. Although not all business were members of the BID, Better Bankside had also built relationships with non-member businesses, which provided a conduit to expand business engagement.

A number of workshops around themes relevant to the neighbourhood plan were held with local businesses. For example, the BID hosted workshops on topics such as retail and transport. The format for these was open meetings, so that both businesses and residents could attend. Led by Better Bankside, the workshops drew on emerging priorities identified by the business constituency and the Neighbourhood Forum.

Extensive survey work has also been undertaken by Better Bankside. The aim was to help understand how businesses wish to see Bankside develop as a neighbourhood in future years.

One key learning point for the BID is that businesses are invested in and care passionately about the neighbourhood. Planning issues such as loss of business space are key concerns to the business constituency, and the BID’s participation in the neighbourhood planning process is a tangible platform for businesses to help shape the future of the neighbourhood.

Why is engaging businesses important?

large_small_business_webEstablishing links with groups, businesses and networks allowed We Are Bankside to reach out to nooks and corners of the community that might have been more challenging to do otherwise. This engagement is by no means a one-way street. Involving local groups and businesses:

  • Brings important community assets and knowledge to the table
  • Businesses are able to work as advocates to the community
  • Helps connect you with people who are strongly linked in to what is happening locally (e.g. if your local corner shop is engage with your neighbourhood plan, they can help engage their customers in turn).

This type of chain-linking and building on existing relationships has made the process of building a stronger group and engaging a diverse community a little less daunting than it might have otherwise been.

Working with Better Bankside as a core member of the Neighbourhood Forum has enabled the Forum to reach a wider range of businesses, from big landowner/developers all the way through to small independent businesses. The flexibility of Better Bankside’s programme enables it to work with a wide range of business interests, and has helped ensure that smaller businesses have the opportunity to feed into the process.

By engaging with the broadest cross-section of businesses and community groups possible, We Are Bankside has been able to fully utilise the existing layers and structures of the community, both informing their work, and deepening their community engagement with a two-way information flow, within the community they serve.

Top tips

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Most communities have existing networks of people and organisations who are championing positive change – tap into the latent enthusiasm!
  • Think about what kinds of business networks already exist e.g. chambers of commerce, and how you can link your neighbourhood planning activity with what they’re doing.
  • Think about opportunities for bringing businesses and other parts of the local community together (as with Bankside’s transport and retail workshops) and what topics would have broad appeal.
  • Planning impacts everyone, whether you live, work or visit a neighbourhood – capturing the views of all of those constituencies matters.

Many thanks to Valerie Beirne, We are Bankside, and her interviewer PAE volunteer Kimry Schlacter 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.

Photo credits

© All photos are copyright We Are Bankside