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The Place Champions Programme

Author: Kieran Toms

Development in London is changing. The National Planning Policy Framework and parts of the Mayor’s Draft London Plan are making real moves towards encouraging community-led development. Community Land Trusts are climbing the political agenda both locally and nationally. What types of land will be brought forward for development within London? We expect more development in suburbs and on warehouse sites and less on post-war housing estates.

In this context, our Place Champions programme is coming at an opportune moment. This is a pilot programme funded by Trust for London and run by Create Streets and London Citizens (from Citizens UK). The Place Champions programme aims to empower communities to meaningfully influence development in their neighbourhoods. It gives people confidence that their instincts, opinions and knowledge about their area can be just as valid as the views of a professional architect. We equip people with the technical terminology needed to express their views in a way that will have influence, and to stop them being bamboozled by industry jargon. The programme involves teaching and sharing best practice on urban design, influencing the development and planning process, community development and co-design. One participant, Felix Akiode in Peckham, very kindly called our first session an ‘ideal workshop for a layman like me!’ whilst Julie Brinkworth, a fellow member of Peckham Citizens, said that one of the main things she liked was ‘people working together.’

There are three main parts of the programme:

During the (‘Do’) session  we create a master plan for the site, which is reasonable and pragmatic – it respects the constraints faced by developers and councils, but pushes back where necessary better to reflect the needs of the local community. Created by the Place Champions themselves, alongside an architect, these master plans become very important documents. 

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We’ve been focusing on two areas so far. The first is Tottenham Hale, where where Haringey Citizens have been campaigning successfully on the Welbourne site and have already secured 65% affordable housing. The second is on the Aylesham Centre in Southwark, where there has been a Peckham Citizens campaign that has led to concessions from the council and the developer, as well as a petition with 5,000 signatures.

It is noticeable that, in both Tottenham and Peckham, residents want similar things: active ground floors, to feel comfortable walking around the development, and don’t want tall buildings in the wrong places. They don’t mind there being lots of homes though. They just want the kind of development that fits in with their existing communities.

It’s gone well so far, though the site visits we had expected to be a pleasant spring walkabout became a rather more arctic-like expedition through piles of snow! Nevertheless, the day still managed to be a ‘a cold but incredibly informative afternoon by everyone’s account!’ according to Peckham Citizens organiser Calum Green.

More significantly, we found that people aren’t used to having their views genuinely taken into account about development. It takes time for Place Champions to think beyond what’s there, or their fears for the future, and gain confidence to be able to demand what they really want for their area. One of the effects of bad development is that it limits people’s faith in the possibility of future development being good. This sometimes took a long time for people to overcome. But once they gained confidence in their own vision for the area, participants seemed very empowered by our programme.

We believe that a well-informed population is good for democracy. What we are trying to do with London Citizens, therefore, is to strengthen the democracy of London, by enriching the debate on our built environment, our communities and our civic life. London, more than ever, needs to resolve the questions: who will live where, what will it cost, and what will it be like? We hope that Place Champions can be a modest part of the solution.

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