The Town Meeting: the award-winning planning engagement project, one year on

Scene from the "Town Meeting"

Scene from the “Town Meeting”

In this guest blog post, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle reflects on an exciting year for the Town Meeting project, which uses theatre to engage communities in planning.

It’s now a year since we started the Town Meeting project and 7 months since the project won the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement at the 2015 RTPI Research Excellence awards.

The Town Meeting uses theatre as a way of co-producing research into public participation in planning with communities themselves. The Town Meeting has been performed in 12 communities across the north of England. The use of theatre in this way is unique and has engaged audiences in the issues in a way that traditional forms of research cannot. If you are interested to find out more about the project and the play, we have written a blog about it here and produced a ‘behind the scenes’ podcast about the development process here.

The impacts of the RTPI award

One of the major impacts of winning the award has been to develop the credibility of the project with both professionals and funders. The initial phase of the research was all about understanding the issues in more detail. We’ve now had a chance to do that and the second phase of the project has been to try to change planning practice to address some of the concerns raised by the participants in the project.

To undertake this new phase of the project we have been fortunate to get funding from the ESRC Impact Accelerator Account scheme and Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal. Having the research recognised by a professional body, the RTPI, through the Research Excellence Awards was invaluable in making the case for further funding.

The new phase of the project aims to take the lessons learnt from the play and turn that into a tool which planners can use to co-produce knowledge which can inform strategic planning.

Bringing planning and health together

So far we have worked with health professionals and planners to explore how planning and health can be reunited. In the workshop, health professionals and planners were presented with a proposal to build a super-casino in a run-down seaside town. The play provided a forum for the planners and health professionals to discuss the wider implications of development proposals in a new way.

The event highlighted the lack of understanding that health professionals have of the planning system. It’s often felt that planning can be the solution to many problems but it has been clear from the project how little citizens and professionals alike understand the process of planning and its limitations.

Collaborative planning

We are now about to start working with Northumberland National Park Authority to assist in the development of their new local plan. Through a new version of the play it is hoped communities can understand the importance of the local plan in framing any later planning decision that may affect them.

Previous performances of the play and discussions with audiences have made it clear people only get involved in planning issues at the point when it’s often too late to have any meaningful impact on that decision. The paradox is that at the point at which they can make a meaningful difference, the preparation of the local plan, it is often difficult for communities to see the relevance to them.

Using a play as a tool in collaborative planning can therefore turn the abstract process of preparing a local plan into something meaningful by showing how it has a direct impact on later planning decisions which may affect them greatly. The play also allows the community the freedom to create a vision for their local area, in this case the National Park.

Gaining the trust of planners from the National Park was helped greatly by the award. There is a degree of risk on their part in taking on this untested, and some may say frivolous, method of plan production. The award has given the planners the confidence to take that risk.

We are hopeful that the next year will lead to some concrete outcomes for the project, and to the play making a meaningful difference to the way communities and planners co-produce knowledge about places that matter to them.

Final thoughts

At a recent performance of the play in Cockermouth, the ‘Blennerhasset Village Parliament’ was mentioned. I had not heard of this and asking around the department, neither had any of my colleagues. Started in 1866 as a way involving the whole population in the governance of the community, the village parliament was an example of community governance in the 19th Century.

It was a reminder that sometimes we think we are being innovative when in fact we are merely repeating history – and of the fundamental value of engaging people in the process of research.


Dr Paul Cowie is a Research Assistant in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Newcastle. Paul’s research focuses on community planning and community representation in the planning process. In 2015, Paul and his project The Town Meeting won the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement at the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence.

This year, the Idox Information Service will again be sponsoring the RTPI Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, as well as the Student and Planning Consultancy Awards.

The closing date for applications to the awards is 31 May 2016. Further information and application forms are available here.

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