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Sustaining consultation Consultation on the design of Great Notley school highlighted the benefits and pitfalls of the process

Consultation is often hard but generally worthwhile. It involves balancing a myriad of interests - those of the client, users and designers, through to those of the developers, local residents, planners and regulatory authorities. It may encourage confrontation and resistance, and it certainly means spending a lot of time talking to many different people.

The primary school project at the new village of Great Notley in Essex (aj 16.10.97, 5.2.98, 23.7.98) shows the value of consultation and highlights some important lessons. On this project, the client and design team saw consultation as partly an informative exercise and partly participative. Consultation involved canvassing views as well as building support for the project.

When the design team started in mid-1997, the village was still being built. There were few local residents, no board of governors or head teacher for the school. (A temporary board of governors was appointed in September 1998, and the new head teacher in January this year.) In the early stages of the project, therefore, consultation with actual users was not possible. To get the teaching perspective, the client involved head teachers from other schools who were able to inform the design and test its rationale.

Essex County Council was responsible for giving planning permission for the school, although the local planning authority, Braintree District Council, was responsible for Great Notley village. Before briefing the design team, planners from the county and district councils, together with the client and the developers of Great Notley, met and agreed a planning brief for the school, which was incorporated in the commissioning documentation for the project. The views of bdc at the design stage were important as it was already involved in defining the planning strategy behind the village. The district planners hoped to discuss the project with the design team before work on the design started, as they wanted the designers to understand the planning strategy behind the village. They recognised that the design ethos of the architect was different to that of the developer, and an early meeting may have given the planners more faith in the team. The design team argues that it was more advantageous to reflect on an actual proposal and waited until it had a concept design before meeting the planners.

The developer of the new village, Countryside Properties, was important to the success of the project. The land for the site was ceded to ecc by Countryside under a Section 106 agreement of the Town & Country Planning Act. This particular agreement gave Countryside the right to 'approve the design' not uncommon with this type of agreement, although this right is seldom invoked. The developer was concerned for the school to be designed within the context of the company's overall strategy for the village. The design team had to balance a modern solution, albeit using traditional materials, with more traditional, vernacular housing.

Consultation with Countryside was through meetings and presentations during design development. As with the district planners, Countryside felt that it was not involved soon enough in direct liaison with the design team. After the first consultation meeting with Countryside's chief architect, the design team amended the design to meet some of its concerns, especially those to do with siting.

In addition to meetings with the chief architect, there was a presentation to Countryside's board and chairman. The design team prepared visuals specifically for the meeting with the board, acutely aware that it needed to be speaking their language. At this later meeting, the developer was still concerned about the relationship of the school to the houses and felt that the building should be moved back on the site. Following further discussions and design amendments, Countryside gave its approval for the design.

The Great Notley Liaison Forum was the medium through which the design team could consult the local community. It was set up to enable members of the growing community to liaise with the developer of the village and district council. In September 1997 the client discussed the principles behind the scheme with the forum and invited additional proposals which the forum was reluctant to provide without more detailed information on the school's design. The design team gave a presentation of the concept design in early December 1997 and of the scheme design in March 1998. In both cases, the design team was merely given a slot in an already packed agenda. On reflection, it may have been better to have held a separate meeting or action-planning workshop to explore the project.

At the forum in December, the forum members were most concerned about the look of the building compared with the housing. However, they were reticent about saying anything in front of the design team and waited until they had left. This may have been because the members were unclear about their role in the consultation and how much influence they had. Were they being given information as a 'fait accompli' or were they being asked to be involved in the design process?

At the next forum meeting, there was more enthusiasm for the project. This may have been because the members were less surprised by the design, and because, in the meantime, a newsletter had been circulated to local residents. This provided another opportunity to explain the scheme and ask the readers how they would like to see the new building used outside school hours. This encouraged a little response, although the suggestions were similar to those identified by the design team and client.

An exhibition is a useful way of informing a wide audience of such a project. The Design Council's exhibition on the project, 'Touching The Earth Lightly', was launched at the riba in March 1998, and in May moved to the Braintree Museum, where Countryside Properties seemed keen to sponsor it. The aim was partly to inform and partly to build support for the project. It was noticeable, although perhaps not surprising, that the visitors were most interested in the models of the building which gave them an instant understanding of what the school would be like. The same effect was seen later at a meeting between the design team and the temporary board of governors. On that occasion, although drawings were used to explain the scheme, the governors appeared more animated when looking at the model. This reinforces the benefit of finding a language through which the designers and public can share an understanding.

Consultation on highways issues, and particularly the (non) provision of parent parking (which was considered a key sustainability issue) highlighted some of the problems of dealing with large organisations like county councils. The design team held discussions reasonably early on in the process with representatives of the highways and transportation department and felt that they had reached agreement on most issues. However, after a formal planning application was submitted, many of the issues had to be revisited and reargued as different personnel were processing the application.

Consultation with potential contractors was also considered essential due to the unusual nature of the project, and hence pre-tender interviews were carried out with a small number of contractors to ensure that they understood and agreed with the ethos of the project. All but one of those interviewed were invited to tender.

There are several valuable lessons reinforced by this project that deserve reflection. Consultation takes time and unless it is made a priority in a project, especially one with a tight budget, it may be relegated. The design team and client spent a good deal of time not just attending consultation meetings but also preparing for them. The amount of consultation required, especially with the local community and the developer, may have been underestimated by the design team, leading to concern about the amount of resources being committed to it.

Consultation must begin before committing a design to paper, however tentative, and should make life easier in negotiations with planners and developers, which is why they were involved in this particular project in setting a planning brief before the design team was commissioned. There is the worry for designers, however, that they will be forced down a particular route before they have had the chance to test other solutions.

Consultation is not just presentation, it is also about listening so that people feel involved in the development of the idea. The difficulty for many designers may be that carrying out consultation in the abstract, and perhaps with non-designers, is less attractive and possibly more threatening than their more normal form of presentation to clients. It may not be easy but this project has proved that increased consultation can be worthwhile, although there are probably still a number of others who feel that they too should have been consulted. Lessons have to be learned, however, about the level and timings of such consultations and who to involve.

Alastair Blyth is monitoring the project for the Design Council. Gordon Powell is the Property Care Officer for Essex County Council and has project managed the project for ECC from inception

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