Engagement gets Doncaster Council £18.4m Levelling Up Fund
By Nouvella Kusi | Tue, Jan 25, 2022
5 min read
In Spring 2021, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council submitted its bid for £17.4 million of the government's £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund to improve the built environment, including cultural and heritage assets, and achieve town-centre regeneration. Four months later, the council was named one of 75 successful authorities, securing £18.4 million of the fund. Much of the success of this bid is attributed to the digital community engagement work executed in partnership with Commonplace and Locality.
Working to achieve a fast turnaround, Doncaster Council engaged just shy of 2,000 people on the Commonplace platform. This was achieved in just under two months with the help of Locality, a national membership organisation that supports community organisations to develop their local area. Their input helped to shape proposals that will support vital transformation for the former industrial town. By tapping into the local knowledge of residents, business owners and frequent visitors, the council could identify true local priorities and gain the needed insight into the bid. Locality, a national membership organisation that supports community organisations to develop their local area, was appointed alongside Commonplace to coordinate the engagement component of their levelling up submission. They used the data gathered from the project to create their recommendations report which was submitted with the bid
Our bid was voted 8th out of the 75 that were approved in England. 305 were submitted in total. We definitely think our success is down to the quality of the community engagement that occurred.
- Christian Foster, Head of Programmes at Doncaster Council
The Towns Fund and Levelling Up Fund
The Levelling Up Fund was a joint venture between the Department for Transport, MHCLG (now known as DLUCH), and HM Treasury to fund the development of areas of the UK most in need, to eventually "level up" the whole of the UK, ensuring no community is left behind. The impact of Covid on local resources and economic growth in Doncaster meant applying for the fund was the logical next step.
Head of Programmes at Doncaster Council, Christian Foster, had seen the role Commonplace had played in Blackpool's £34 million Towns Fund success and wanted to know if the same could be done for Doncaster's upcoming bid. This experience, coupled with Commonplace’s ability to mobilise rapidly, led the council to select what they believed to be the most effective platform.
The Commonplace platform was the one that stood out the most to us. We've got a great Council comms team, but because of covid, they were immensely stretched and we needed to explore alternative options. We didn't want to give the community different messaging; we let our comms colleagues focus on the covid, so Commonplace was an extra channel that got the work done.
- Christian Foster, Head of Programmes at Doncaster Council
The engagement took place in May 2021, and Doncaster was awarded the funds in October 2021. It focused on three key areas to be transformed: Waterdale Area, Enterprise Market Place, and the Waterfront.
The Waterdale Area
Doncaster's Civic and Cultural Quarter, which has recently experienced redevelopment, has had areas of further development highlighted to secure the area's status as the main business and cultural district for Doncaster.
Enterprise Markets Place
Doncaster's historic markets have seen significant improvements in recent years with positive public feedback about the transformation. As a result of the crucial role they played throughout the pandemic, the council recognised further improvements were still required to secure a thriving, vibrant and sustainable market estate, which would support traders and create a key destination for residents and visitors.
As one of the largest urban centre brownfield development sites in the UK, The Waterfront is a priority for the regeneration area for Doncaster. Currently underutilised, with vacant land, and small-scale industrial uses, the council recognised an opportunity to expand education and skills provision there and link this to new jobs that could be created in key sectors. The Levelling Up Fund helps kickstart the process by allowing Doncaster Council to prepare the land for future development.
The council also won £24 million for mixed office accommodation as part of the Towns Fund and planned a bid to name Doncaster the new home of the National Rail HQ.
With these ambitious plans in the making, Doncaster Council was committed to engaging with its community to determine the level of support for these areas and to ensure people had a say in the future of their town. The Council acknowledged community tensions could be eased through clear communication, bringing as many local people on the journey with them.
Engaging with the Community
The council initially struggled to pin down the appropriate engagement strategy given the time constraints and community tensions present in the town. Having previously carried out a straw poll to consult local people around Doncaster's bid for city status and experiencing low levels of engagement and largely negative contributions, the council knew a different approach was required for its Levelling Up bid.
Commonplace’s mobile-optimised platform suited the local population being targeted and encouraged high levels of participation over a short period. With online activity skyrocketing throughout the pandemic, digital engagement proved to be the more desired approach amongst local people.
The Commonplace platform was promoted by a successful Facebook advertising campaign managed by Commonplace’s Customer Success team. Being familiar with the engagement data in real-time, the Commonplace team could target different audiences and bring in a good range of age groups, many of whom were in full-time employment. It would not have had time to participate in any face-to-face form of engagement.
The numbers speak for themselves.
In just over two weeks, Doncaster's Levelling Up public consultation received 1,948 unique visitors, 521 contributions, 281 respondents, and 117 expressed interest in being kept in the loop through news updates.
- 267 contributions agreed that the Waterdale Area was run down, unattractive and underused
- 253 contributions highlighted the need for public realm improvements in all three areas presented
- 84 contributions acknowledged a need for the preservation of historical value through the proposed developments
- 104 contributions supported the plan to improve safety in the three localities.
As well as providing a quick way to contribute ideas for developing Doncaster, Commonplace captured views on a granular level from across the community.
All feedback is good feedback
91% of all feedback provided was positive or neutral. This differed significantly from previous public engagements carried out by the council. The project team attributed this to the design of the survey questions and the ability to present images as part of the engagement The Council collaborated with our Customer Success team to agree on the most effective way to structure questions and utilised artists' impressions to portray the proposed plans.
"The government was a little nervous around consulting, but the community really backed this bid. The visuals with the consultation really helped tell the story of what it could be."
- Christian Foster, Head of Programmes, Doncaster Metropolitan Council,
Evidence-based decision making
The key to a fruitful consultation recognises that all contributions are valuable, as they all provide an opportunity to learn and measure the appetite for change. Doncaster Council knew this and used all of the contributions, even the 9% marked 'negative', to create a promising bid.
The Council emphasised discussing all negative comments to address and alleviate any fear people may have. For example, it was a priority to address existing community tension around children playing near the mines, and this concern was reinforced by the data received via the engagement. The data enabled discussions with town leaders to find a solution and led to the partial allocation of the Towns Fund to this priority.
What's the plan from here?
As a result of the overwhelming local support for proposed plans, the initial levelling up agenda for Doncaster is very town centre-centric. The Council is keen to transform ageing and abandoned buildings into usable amenity space, providing an attractive public realm, boosting green space and supporting active travel to cater for local needs.
With Round 1 funding secured, Doncaster Council is already looking at infrastructure developments slightly further afield to level up other areas of Doncaster. The Council is working on two new bids to create a train line serving the nearby Doncaster-Sheffield airport and a manufacturing park in the same vicinity. Now that Commonplace has proved such an effective engagement tool in a town that had traditionally low rates of involvement, they plan to continue using the platform in future consultations.
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