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A useful consultation process - but little time for reflection

I am sitting in a hall in Barnsley with 200 people. It is Saturday afternoon and the townsfolk, with a liberal dose of consultants, are reporting back to each other about their workshops, which explored the future of the town. The weekend was kicked off with the world premier of the Alsop movie, by Squint Opera, concerning the future and the 'possibilities of clearer definition, town living, increased density and mixed use'.

Each of the consultants from other South Yorkshire Renaissance towns had gathered for this weekend of planning activity to give an intensive consultation process in order to inform the masterplan, which is the next stage of the Barnsley development.

The weekend has been managed and organised by John Thompson of John Thompson Associates and formerly Hunt Thompson. John is a veteran of the community and public consultation movement, which he has elevated to the art form of 'doing'a complete town in four or five days. By 'doing' I mean testing the hopes, fears and desires of a cross-section of the townsfolk through workshops, under a variety of headings, holding evening report-back sessions where representatives of the groups would outline their ideas and throw them into a big melting pot of possibility.

After two and half days of opening up peoples'abilities to express themselves, the JTA extended team would gather and interpret and deliver back to the town a masterplan with plans, images and commentary.For the first time, they have a forum where opinions and ideas can be expressed. The workshop of the young produces inevitable skateboard desires, but I liked the fact that they wanted it on a massive scale that would, for those that can, be an alternative public transport system.

Rita, after having stated previously that if you want to improve Barnsley you should change its name to Paris, is voluble about the need for a decent theatre - a brand new modern theatre that attracts the best directors and actors. The market traders who have formed the backbone of the town ever since the market got its charter in 1268, cry out for a space of quality without draughts and rain.

I noticed recently when I was in Valencia that the central market was not only a spectacular space with an extraordinary array of fresh food but that the Saturday morning was celebrated with a brass band marching around it. This in part reflected the idea of Steve Houghton, the leader of the council, that the market should become a theatre of commerce in the day and a theatre of events at night.

One lady called out for places of private thought or reflection in the town, some would call this worship, which received a spontaneous round of applause. Others talked of living in town. The young were interested in living in high-rise apartments with 'generous' terraces. All in all, the results reflected what my team and I had already discovered after five months of extensive talking and testing the town. We found that people recognise a need for radical change after the demise of the coal industry and that mixed use, and a more dense and betterconnected town, was desirable.

I noticed that the JTA team sanitised the visions into a warped Prince Charles vision, which did not reflect what I heard or discovered. There were also no towers - why did I get the impression they had drawn all their pictures before? The four or five days were interesting, but I feel they do not truly reflect the possibility for the people. They had no time to reflect or re-imagine.

WA from Ardsley Hall, Barnsley

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