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  • Writer's pictureMatt Bell

A new social contract

We need a social contract for property and placemaking – can you help?

I’m an optimist. Always have been. But it’s not a rational position right now. We have a health crisis which has created an economic crisis that is leading to a social crisis. There will be about 3m people unemployed by 2022.

So which crisis matters most? For good reason, the Government is 100% focused on the short-term fix of vaccination. More so than tackling the structural health inequalities that so exacerbate this one.

Meantime, recession looms. Except it isn’t a recession. It’s a structural transition. We won’t be going back to anything. We’re being forced to move on from an extractive mentality that briefly thrived in a world of unlimited resource to a model and a mindset that recognises we exist in a symbiotic relationship with a finite world[1].

Which takes us to the social crisis. One way to view this is through the lens of a social contract. By that I mean, the rules and behaviours which enable different parts of society to co-exist and contribute. It’s manifest in things like corporate behaviour, neighbourliness and public trust in the government.

One area where that social contract is obviously broken is property. Arguably it never existed. Not, for example, when private railways steam-rolled their way into London during the mid-nineteenth century, displacing tens of thousands of people without compensation. Nor in the chequered history of forty years spent trying to improve, remodel or replace local authority estates. And certainly not in the present dysfunctional operation of the 21st century housing market.

At the heart of it all is the question of who decides what gets built and where communities stand in the process of urban change. Over the last year, I’ve been talking with a group of people working in regeneration, design and community development and this conversation has now coalesced into a network that formally goes live today. It’s called Collective Community Action (CCA).

We’ve set ourselves a shared goal – to debate, provoke and propose the changes needed to ensure that communities take centre stage in the process of changing cities like London for the better.

Our focus at the start will be on advocacy and education. We want to see every candidate seeking election in 16 weeks’ time as the next Mayor of London to commit to a Mayoral Statement of Community Involvement.

This will be a policy document setting out the Mayor of London’s public duties regarding the role of communities in urban change. A social contract, if you like, for property and placemaking.

We want this Mayoral Statement of Community Involvement to champion the social and spatial policies of the new (soon to be published) London Plan. In particular, its strengthened commitments on public engagement at an early stage and throughout the development of local plans and regeneration strategies; its intention to ensure that urban change tackles inequality and its causes; and its direction that new development should always build on a clear assessment of existing social infrastructure and on who and what is already there.

We think it needs a set of benchmarks to define what is acceptable in terms of public consultation and a mechanism to ensure that Statements of Community Involvement provide clear proof of local endorsement.

It would also act as an incentive for inclusive processes and multi-disciplinary approaches that clearly help to secure public support for good new development based on clear evidence of real need and desire.

In short, this is about making sure that progressive policies in a city-wide plan actually make a difference to what happens on the ground. It’s about communities taking centre-stage in the process of change and the way that places are made and managed.

If this issue fires you up and you’d be happy to endorse the idea of an MSCI, then please get in touch. Just add your name on the website: It doesn’t matter what you do and or whether you’re a CEO or citizen. We need you on board.

There’s a publication here that explains it all alongside some inspiring case studies of the kind of practice that could be commonplace in London, if we all got behind this.

And glory be, that’s an optimistic thought to end on. Maybe I was wrong!

[1] (All this explained much more cogently in a brilliant conversation between Indy Johar and Robert Phillips which you can listen to here: )

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