Why is resident engagement so hard in Portsoken?


I recently popped along to the Green Box Community Centre, where the City of London Corporation and its selected design consultants, Studio Partington, had arranged a residents’ consultation to discuss plans for Mansell Street’s brand new community centre.

This facility is being built right next door to the present community centre as part of the 4C Hotel complex currently under construction in Little Somerset Street.

The meeting was informative, with several preliminary design concepts being shared and feedback being proactively sought as to which of the proposed designs were favoured by residents and, more widely, what exactly it was that local people wanted from this new community asset.

The painful thing to report, however, was that this consultation event was extremely poorly attended. Only two residents from Mansell Street turned up, with a further three (including myself) from the Middlesex Street Estate.

Curious about this, I asked the organisers how many local people had attended an earlier consultation event that had occurred two days previously and was told that the answer was also in low single digits.

Responses to a recent questionnaire posted out to Mansell Street residents also reportedly resulted in quite a disappointing response. Worse still, a residents’ workshop to brainstorm ideas for the new community centre was arranged a few months back.

Despite the City of London representative assuring us that this had been well advertised, it enticed but a single resident from Mansell Street to turn up.

This is real head scratching stuff. I hardly need to point out the obvious irony that the community could not be rallied together to discuss their new community centre. Crikey! The event I attended was, again, reportedly well advertised by the City of London Corporation. Every household on Mansell Street got a flyer inviting residents to come along and air their views, and yet virtually nobody bothered to turn up. I find this rather depressing and dispiriting.

It’s not as if local people don’t have a significant stake in this project. They clearly do. Nor is it the case that they won’t be using the new community centre. They clearly will.

The current Green Box is a valued community asset and is reportedly well used, with its GP surgery, mini-library, and its hall that is hired out for a variety of parties celebrating everything from birthdays to Eid.

This makes it seem all the more odd that there appeared to be so little interest from residents when they were explicitly invited to come along and give their opinions.

It sounds obvious, but we should surely all be keen to promote advocating for community participation in projects that will have such a direct impact on the community in question.  There can be no better group of people to advise the professionals responsible for delivering a new community centre than the people who will actually be using it.

Local residents are necessarily the experts here and their voices need to be heard. That this didn’t happen much during these consultations suggests to me that something rather important is broken in the dynamic between local residents and the City Corporation. This raises the perplexing question as to what exactly this might be.

Is it apathy on the part of the people of Mansell Street regarding their new community centre? Maybe.

Last summer, when the redecoration works in Petticoat Tower were nearing completion, I recall participating in a residents’ walkabout with an officer from the Corporation and the redecorating contractor.

When several residents complained loudly about the choice to repaint the interiors of the Petticoat Tower in a moody, dark grey, the representative from the Corporation stated that this was the favoured choice emerging from a consultation with residents.

The problem was that only a handful of residents bothered to return the survey posted through every door stating their preferred colour scheme.

Like the story of the Little Red Hen, it seems that everyone thought it was somebody else’s job to tell the Corporation what they wanted. A few did, and dark grey won the day much to the consternation of the people who didn’t respond but then decided they hated the new colour scheme. Might the same apathy be occurring regarding the Mansell Street Community Centre?

Or is it instead a problem with the approach adopted by the City of London Corporation regarding the undertaking of the consultation process? Are chiefs getting the message across in an effective and accessible way to the people who live in Mansell Street? Is there anything the local authority could be doing differently to better promote the conversation with local residents?

One hint offered by one of the few attendees present was that there is a perception among some locals that there is little value in such consultations with the City because there exists a belief that residents tend not to be listened to, so why bother going through the motions.

If there is any truth in this, it represents a potentially much more problematic issue, which is that there might be a fundamental disconnect between the people of Mansell Street and the local authority which is responsible for looking after them.

I have absolutely no idea which of these explanations was responsible for the poor turn out of residents during the community centre consultation process. Is it a lack of interest, a lack of communication or a lack of faith? Or is it something else entirely?

The answer to this question should matter to both the City of London Corporation and residents alike if it is deemed desirable for the local authority to being doing things ‘with’ local people rather than doing things ‘to’ them.

Ian McPherson is a City of London Guide who lives on the Middlesex Street Estate with his partner and young daughter.

Cover image by John Winfield (Creative Commons).