The pace of Regeneration is accelerating. It’s exciting for some, disconcerting for others, but there seems to be a consensus that change is inevitable. Local people have been feeling disempowered as project-after-project gets the green light with no overall town centre vision in place. The previous political administration pushed through major changes of strategy, such as permitting taller buildings, which often over-rode the adopted policies of the 2011 Maidenhead Town Centre Area Action Plan and against the advice of planning officers.
Much of this happened in the short time between local elections. Was there an adequate public mandate? The Borough Local Plan has had to be extensively reworked after push-back from the independent inspector. Was there adequate consultation on this latest iteration?
We’re pleased to see RBWM now taking the required steps to back-fill the gaps in public consultation. Several place-making initiatives are in flight, one covering the town centre and its environs, another covering “south west Maidenhead” as the golf course scheme – and beyond – is now known.
In this blog, we give guarded support to one of the initiatives – the JTP Studios Make Maidenhead Vision and Charter. It ticks many of the boxes by connecting the public with world-class experts, but we worry that grassroots civic organisations like MNF are not true partners in the process.
Organised by JTP, a Community Planning Day on 23rd November 2019 had been many weeks in the making. So how did it go? Did the claim of putting community engagement at the heart of the placemaking process ring true? I was there throughout the day and hope you find the following analysis helpful.
But, first, how did JTP win the job?
JTP covered themselves in glory in March by helping the new owners of the Nicholson Centre (Areli) prepare a master plan for their site - and doing so over an intense weekend of public consultation and post-event brainstorming.
Or so we are led to believe.
The public – including me – were very supportive of the indicative master plan that emerged after a remarkable four days of hothousing. It has stood up remarkably well to detailed planning work since then. Opening the space out into a network of streets, lanes and public squares is essential to reviving the night-time economy of Maidenhead and I’m pleased that Rob Tincknell of Areli has been respectful of its heritage by resurrecting the old names of Moffatt Street, Sydenham Place and Pineapple (Lane) that pre-date the shopping centre.
Was this really done in four days from a blank sheet? Surely not.
Areli completed their purchase of the centre only days before. They’d have needed something to show their French financial backers to explain how they’d use the opportunity. JTP are a busy firm, stretched for resources, but were able to field a full team. It seems likely they were involved pre-completion, wouldn’t you think? The indicative master plan, with all its’ great graphics, most likely already existed and just received a final polish post the public event.
But it was enough to sell the subsequent town placemaking job.
Lots of walking tours
MNF got to hear about JTP’s second project in early September. We immediately reached out to try to work together and thereby avoid our respective public consultations tripping over each other.
One approach was to offer a walking tour. Maidenhead wasn’t new to those JTP team members involved with the prior Nicholson’s work, but others needed an introduction. Steph James (town centre manager), David Dyer and I led a walk on 1st October - in the rain – that included the Castle Hill area, in order to show the disconnect between town centre and suburbs.
JTP’s approach is to bring in top-class specialists to the team. One of them – the transport specialist Andrew Cameron – certainly did his own walk-around prior to the community planning day; I don’t know about the others.
We also suggested a meet to discuss MNF’s consultation plans. But there was no interest from JTP, which caused us to begin wondering whether their “repeatable” process just runs on tramlines, impervious to partnerships and true open engagement.
Promotion of the day
Roll forward a month to 4th November, stakeholder groups are invited to a launch event to start promoting the upcoming Community Planning Day. Charles Campion, who heads JTP’s engagement team, then made a big effort to get around. His presentation at Maidenhead Civic Society’s AGM was nicely pitched and enthusing.
But no social media. Not much in the Advertiser. No requests to this organisation for a promo. Puzzling, but maybe the strategy is to pre-qualify the attendees by promoting only to the “usual suspects”?
Community Planning Day
It was a long day.
Morning: A walking tour 10:00-11:00 led by Barbara Richardson (MD of RBWM Properties Ltd) was well attended – but rather wet and had to be cut short. The Argos unit was a bit nippy and drove some people away – and it was brave to run two noisy workshops in parallel in that echo chamber.
The morning workshop for adults attracted around 40 people. Using Post-Its, people were encouraged to identify Maidenhead’s “Problems”, share their “Dreams” and suggest one “Solution”. As the Post-Its were read out, people might be invited to expand upon what they’d written. No great surprises emerged, though the weight of numbers was interesting, with fewer concerns expressed about traffic/parking issues than expected.
The parallel junior workshop attracted just four people. But their feedback raised two issues that did not come up at all in the adult workshop: the need for more focus on personal safety, and the affordability of town centre activities for the unwaged.
Cllr Ross McWilliams of Cox Green took part in the adult workshop. With Charles Campion, he should be commended for a fine job in ushering away a disruptive passer-by.
Lunch was provided, which helped to hold onto the hard-core attendees.
Afternoon: The afternoon was much more fun.
Five groups gathered with an expert to focus on a topic – transport, sustainability, landscape, big picture and, hmm, another one. Lots of pens, maps, tracing paper – that is my idea of fun. I chose to work under the leadership of Andrew Cameron on Transport. One profile says “Andrew is an engineer with a background in transportation, architectural engineering and urban design. He has more than 20 years’ experience in how we can plan for movement while at the same time creating great streets and enjoyable places.”. That’s what we want.
We discussed why the town grew where it did at the foot of Castle Hill rather than next to the Thames bridge, some history of roads being constructed and how compact and walkable the town still is. We moved onto discussing the main problems now - the ring road barrier, pinched crossings of the railway, cross-town journeys funnelling through town, lack of pleasant green routes to link the centre to Riverside and to the northern/western suburbs.
The groups reported back at the end. The green routes were an overlapping theme from three groups.
Local artist Kirsty Brooks (l)
Active public attendance for the Day was about 40 people in the morning and 30 in the afternoon, with about ten doing both. The active engagement of 60 people is about 1 in 1,000 of Maidenhead’s population. After lunch, more people dropped in and circulated but could do little more than hover over the teams at work.
A few councillors visited, including David Coppinger who, as lead member for planning, is the political sponsor, and new Riverside councillor Greg Jones. As noted above, Ross McWilliams, lead member for housing, did a sterling job with the heckler! Ex-councillor Philip Love, who chaired the previous neighbourhood forum for a while, came too.
Michael Shanly was spotted being affable to fellow property professionals.
It’s likely that there will be a lot to like about JTP’s vision because they’re using world-class people to develop it. But we’ll have to wait until the feedback session on 14th January to find out.
Is the public engagement genuinely central to the process? Will it be a vision that Maidonians can feel ownership of?
The November event lacked the buzz that was achieved by JTP for Areli in March. The difference could be budgetary; maybe Areli were willing to spend more than RBWM. For what should have been a town-wide conversation about developing a shared vision, I felt the build-up was a bit feeble. Budget should have been a non-issue when volunteers, like those at MNF, were willing to give their time freely for weeks beforehand. Social media should have been used. If this was a genuine effort to involve the public, there should have been queues outside Argos to take part.
The scope was somewhat unclear. The maps used in the workshops extended beyond the town centre to include suburbs a mile away, but not enough to show how the whole conurbation works.
At best, I’m expecting our input will knock a few rough edges off a vision that will be determined by JTP. Let’s hope we like the vision. We can then grow into owning it. But it’s not “ours” just yet.