Queen Camel: a case study of involving volunteers

Background

QC_2Queen Camel is a village in the south west of England. Part of it is in a conservation area and it has regionally important archaeological sites. The A359 runs through the village and is used by many vehicles including HGVs accessing local farms (many of which have diversified into becoming large-scale grain producers).

The population at the last census was about 1,000 and research, done as part of the neighbourhood plan, shows an aging population. Queen Camel acts as a service centre for the surrounding area, as it has a school, surgery, post office etc.

Using your existing experience

Rosemary Heath-Coleman, Chairman of the Parish Council and of the Neighbourhood Plan steering group, explains that Queen Camel stood out because it had a history of community involvement in planning. It had a parish plan, which had been implemented and was actively used, and had created a “development plan” which sat under the parish plan.

This experience, she believes, led to the local planning authority (LPA) approaching the parish council to see if it would be interested in applying for the Neighbourhood Planning Vanguard programme (later Front Runners). The interest in planning at a local level is not limited to neighbourhood planning; Queen Camel also has a Community Land Trust which will start building imminently. 

Tip: think about any experience your area has had which could be relevant to neighbourhood planning. What did you QC_4learn and who was involved? This could include:

  • A parish plan
  • A town or village design statement
  • Making representations about a local plan
  • A regeneration programme
  • Residents’ surveys

Using your contacts

In Queen Camel, the existing representatives from local bodies such as the school, memorial hall and playing fields came onto the new neighbourhood plan steering group. This had the advantage of continuity.

However, on reflection, this did not allow for “new blood” (e.g. newcomers to the village) to come onto the group, something that with hindsight the group feels would have been beneficial. So, think about your own area: what groups already exist? Who is active in them? How will you include other members of the community who aren’t covered by existing groups?

Tip: think about who’s on your group/steering group:

  • Are areas or community groups not represented?
  • Do you need to actively recruit new members?
  • If you’ve got people who have been involved in a similar group before, will they want to stay involved throughout the NP process? They may want a change!

It’s also important to think about how your group/steering group operates:

  • Define roles and responsibilities – don’t assume people will understand what a role involves!
  • Make sure that if a member is representing another body they are feeding back to them and vice versa so you get the input of views you need.
  • Spend time on terms of reference or a similar document to back up how you’re going to operate.

Using the skills your volunteers have

The Queen Camel group is experienced at organising events and aim to make the best use of them as way of making sure people know what’s happening with the neighbourhood plan. “Over 100 people regularly turn out to events we organise” says Rosemary “and we make events attractive with food and drink, promoting them by word of mouth as well as newsletters and websites, and sharing the positive feedback afterwards.” So for this type of activity you’ll be looking for volunteers with skills in:

  • Organising events, e.g.planning and timetabling, preparing materials, preparing and organising catering, finding venues
  • Promoting events
  • Gathering and analysing feedback
  • And of course…some volunteers to be there on the day

Tackling skills and knowledge gaps

Rosemary says that, as a parish, they found the process of getting their Neighbourhood Area designated very straightforward. Also, as a group, they have found the consultation so far to be a lot of work but something they’re comfortable with and find interesting.

What is proving harder for the group is getting to grips with the technical aspects of Neighbourhood Planning. Very welcome support has been provided by Tim Cook, from the council, who regularly attends meetings. The group is also now getting support under the Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme from Planning Aid England to help shape their actual policies and is aiming to take a draft plan to the annual village meeting in May 2014 for display and discussion. It’s important to be aware of your knowledge gaps and seek out support and advice where you need it.

Making the most of training

QC_1The Queen Camel group had training in Planning for Real® and carried out a PfR exercise. They linked up with the LPA, South Somerset District Council, who produced a huge scale map of the parish stuck onto boards. This was set up at the school and model houses – designed to look exactly like the houses in Queen Camel! – were made.

The Neighbourhood Planning group volunteers were involved in various tasks for this, including:

  • Organising drop in sessions where people used coloured flags to mark for example, where they thought new housing should go
  • Analysing the results for input into the next stage of the neighbourhood planning process
  • Taking the exercise also to junior and secondary schools for pupils to have their say
  • Presenting aggregate results were presented at the annual village meeting
  • Leading a discussion at that meeting, from which possible sites for new housing and school were identified.

Remembering the “soft skills” you need

In Queen Camel, the neighbourhood planning process so far has been, Rosemary says, “a bit like a jigsaw”. This is because they have been waiting for decisions to be made about a new school site, which could free up land where the existing school and hall is. Patience has been required (an added complication is that education is a county matter and the group has better links with the district council). “Remember this isn’t just a vision – it’s a real plan and is trying to bring about change. You will get hold ups and have to deal with issues along the way” advises Rosemary.

Top tips for working with volunteers

QC_3It’s essential to remember you’re working with volunteers, Rosemary advises. People will be free at different times and while the approach taken needs to be professional, try to make it fun too. Her tips include:

  • Work around people’s availability. You may need to have ad hoc meetings as well as those arranged a long time in advance.
  • Make sure communications are good and kept up in between face to face contact.
  • Put project plans in place for sub-groups on topics such as housing to help keep track of what needs doing.
  • Try for a workshop approach rather than a formal meeting – you want people to participate.
  • Reward those turning up on a Saturday morning with a hot drink and croissants!

These case studies are produced by Planning Aid England as part of the Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and delivered by a consortium led by Locality.