News  |  Posted May 25, 2022

The Power of a Plan

How community action and place planning can add value to grassroots community development efforts.

Action planning is a collaborative design process… and cutting corners or avoiding it entirely will mean the quality of the end product will inevitably suffer.

What are the benefits of developing a long-term vision and action plan for your local community? As a six-month action-planning process supporting the community of Morvern on the West Coast of Scotland draws to a close, we asked our project manager Paul Ede to provide an insight into why such plans can prove to be a powerful stimulus for community action.

 

Writing a community action plan doesn’t guarantee delivery any more than having an architect draw up plans for a house ensures that it will be built. But trying to build a house without drawings can lead to disaster. Careful consultation, the development of an overall vision and an assessment of potential constraints and materials (or skills) available can significantly reduce the risk of a haphazard, inefficient and contested development process.

The danger of this analogy of course is that community development is always a far more relational, emergent process than the act of building a house…unless we imagine a beautifully bespoke building lovingly crafted over many years by a large range of dedicated citizens working side-by-side.  Regardless, it’s wise to take the time to develop a shared vision and understand everyone’s needs and aspirations.

But what value can such a community planning process add? Here are seven insights:

  1. Celebration and Consolidation. Taking the time to pause, consolidate, and assess where we have got to can be very valuable, especially at community scale. Thinking carefully once more about what we want to achieve and how best to do so can allow a blast of fresh air into a stuffy room, especially when our heads have been down focusing on the hard graft of delivery. The demands of starting and maintaining projects often give little time to pause for breath, look around, celebrate our successes and encourage one another. The opportunity to review how we are approaching our work can result in high quality change. Live Life Morvern has given the local leaders a chance to think about community organising not just community development. Taking the opportunity to organise a gathering of representatives from all their community groups for the first time ever enabled discussions as to how mutual support and shared administration between groups could release new energy for the future.
  2. Representation and ownership. Planning and advertising a 6-month community action planning process offers the opportunity to make sure that everyone who wants to contribute the treasure of their insight and time can do so in a way that works for them. The more people that do (and feel valued for doing so), the more people identify with the results of the plan and take ownership for the future. In Morvern, every one of 156 households in the area was made aware of multiple opportunities to get involved: from face-to-face drop-ins, the option for phone discussions, events dedicated to local kids and teenagers, online discussion workshops, online and paper questionnaires, business and community group surveys, social media and eNewsletters and direct interviews with key local citizens. One local confirmed that “the consultation process and workshops were very widely publicised in a number of ways so that everyone couldn’t but be aware of the opportunities to make their voices heard.”
  3. The power of a plan that achieves representation and ownership lies in the public mandate provided by the evidence it produces. Community leaders, local citizens and wider stakeholders can have confidence that the goals and actions identified have been developed from the bottom-up and meaningfully capture the aspirations and goals of the community. More scrutiny and assessment is often still required, but a traction for these conversations is established that enables momentum moving forward. In Morvern, the local Community Council, Development Company and Community Trust initiated, led and finally endorsed the Action plan that has been produced, confident in its mandate.
  4. Involving external stakeholders and co-ordinating local effort. Many of the community groups and businesses in Morvern already had strong leadership and goals before the action planning process began. The process didn’t respoke the wheel of what was already moving forward, but instead captured a snap-shot of what was already in motion, as well as developing new options for future action. Making all these things explicit and transparent – laying everything out on the table – has power by enabling everyone to see the big picture. This enables conversations about resources, collaboration, partnership and efficiencies that would have been missed or made much harder otherwise. And that goes for wider stakeholders as well. In Morvern several local landowners attended and contributed to sessions, and the key agent responsible for the interface between communities and Community Planning was contacted and got involved at an early stage. A local councillor made sure she attended the Community Group Forum at the end of the process. The interface with regional political and Community Planning structures was enabled and reinforced by the action planning process in a context of very low previous contact.
  5. Drawing on the wisdom of the group and enabling people to listen to alternative perspectives. An action planning process enables more robust, higher quality thinking by drawing on the wisdom and insight of a wide variety of local experience and expertise. Creating spaces where people who don’t usually connect have a chance to listen to each other and respond has profound value as an end in itself: action planning as a relationship-building process that strengthens community life and understanding. Such outcomes should be recognised for the value generated, beyond just the final report. As one local resident described it after one of our workshops: “[this was] a worthwhile session that made me think about things from the perspective of others. It emphasised that what is ‘pro’ for some can justifiably be a ‘challenge’ to others and vice versa, and although we will never be able to solve all to everyone’s satisfaction, as long as it moves us closer together it’s a win.”
  6. Sourcing fresh ideas from the margins. Young people involved themselves in new ways and brought fresh insights to the wider community about their ambitions and needs. The desire for a space run by and for themselves, a new fun swimming option in the form of a pontoon in the local loch and the idea of a co-ordinated network of local young creatives and their work all emerged during conversations and encouragement afforded by the action planning process, whether by young people attending full public sessions or more discrete, targeted hot-chocolate conversations especially for them.
  7. Supporting funding applications. The power of a plan like this is that it can demonstrate with absolute clarity that any future funding bid from any individual group forms part of a well-organised, holistic and co-ordinated local approach, banishing the bugbear of duplication and reassuring funders that this is a community not just a project that deserves investment and can be trusted to deliver. Even mid-process, PAS was able to write a letter in support of Morvern Games and Gala Week’s (now successful) bid to the Scottish Land Fund for monies to buy 49 acres of local land at Knock Park. Local leaders stress that this was a valuable intervention. Funders, just like local citizens, want to feel involved with energised, exciting initiatives…and what better way to grab their attention than a well-presented and well-thought-through big-picture vision? As one local in Morvern put it “[The Vision section] looks fantastic and makes me think what a great bunch of people we have living in the village, and how valuable this process is at getting them out from the woodwork.” In addition, a plan enables co-ordinated funding bids shared by multiple groups for larger pots of money like Crown Estate funds.

Are you a community leader or citizen thinking that your community needs a Community Action Plan or Local Place Plan to help co-ordinate future efforts and deliver the benefits just discussed?  We’d be delighted to hear from you and explore your needs and aspirations.  Contact Elaine Mowat on elainem@pas.org.uk