Joining the dots: how civic societies can raise their game by thinking about the bigger picture

Looking at a planning application for a major new development without regard to its impact on infrastructure is a bit like planning a big dinner party and thinking about the food but not the context: as well as the logistics of food purchase, preparation and presentation, you have to think about the guest list, the seating plan, the ‘mise-en-scène’ and even the ‘choreography’. If you want to delight your guests and have them judge the evening to have been a success, you have to get the details right.

In a similar way, we should look at new development proposals in terms of whether they will delight the people who will live or work there, the people who will make use of its facilities or even just pass by on a daily basis. What will be needed, not just in design terms, but in terms of the associated infrastructure to make the project viable and sustainable? Thinking about the pipes and cables needed to convey water, power and, these days, data. What will be the likely impact on transport networks? Do local roads and rail networks have the capacity to cope with new development? Are there going to be enough car parking spaces (and now, electrical charging points)? Will there be a need for new shops and community facilities such as schools, doctors, hospitals and so on? And as our towns and cities grow, the greater will be the expectations of local residents, businesses and visitors: are there enough restaurants, theatres, cinemas, hotels, conference centres, green spaces, community centres, and so on, to support the needs and demands of people living and working there? It all takes some planning and thinking through and this is where having a clear vision of what the future will bring should certainly help! Sometimes, it’s a question of scale: a few hundred new houses on the outskirts of a large town or city is one thing – but just a few dozen houses in the centre of a village something else again. They will, however, all have an impact on infrastructure – and that’s an infrastructure that will usually be shared with existing residents and businesses.

Now, all the above is important and I’m sure we are already conversant with the arguments and have a good knowledge and understanding of what is happening, or being planned, in our own areas. Sometimes, though, we have to look over the border to see how developments in neighbouring towns and cities might affect what is happening in our own patch. We need to take the ‘helicopter view’ to work out how the dots should be joined up. With the creation of combined authorities, local councils are working together not only to share services but also to plan infrastructure – the West Yorkshire Combined Authority is, for example “Developing an integrated transport network to support people, business, economy and growth” and this work will provide “a twenty year vision for developing a modern, high class, integrated transport system that supports the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership’s Strategic Economic Plan for sustained and healthy economic growth – especially for jobs and housing”. We are likely to see more of this sub-regional and regional planning in coming years – the proposals for a Yorkshire Mayor rumble on but could well lead to Yorkshire-wide planning decisions being made in the future (anyone remember Yorkshire Forward?). Civic societies will have to be alert to these arrangements because decisions made by such regional and sub-regional bodies will impact on us all at local level and it will likely be more important than ever for civic societies to work together in the future.

Now, one way of achieving this closer working and to build alliances on points of common interest is, of course, through attending our YHACS meetings where you can speak to representatives of other societies face to face and hear news from across the region. While we work hard to find interesting speakers to help stimulate your thinking, it is often that the most animated part of our meetings is when people are networking with each other over coffee. Whether you come to our meetings or not, there is, additionally, our newsletter, full of news and views and which we know our members much appreciate.

One final word on infrastructure: with so much going on around us politically, societally and technologically, it would be easy to forget that civic societies have infrastructure needs of their own. Modern communication tools, effective committee and sub-committee structures, risk management procedures, data protection protocols, programme and event management – the list goes on. How much time you need to devote to the infrastructure requirements of your society will depend to some extent on how big and how active your society is, but we all need to give these matters the thought and attention they deserve.

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