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Vision building - can you map the future of place?

17 May 2021

ADEPT’s Excellence in Place Leadership programme, co-designed and run with Amey continues to go from strength to strength with the second cohort. Kate Langdon, Interim Director of Environment, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, describes the first session for 2021 - the Future of Place.

We all know this last year has been relentless. We’ve had our heads down and worked horrific hours to ensure vital services continue to be delivered. Covid has been a challenging experience for everyone, desperately so for some people, but it has also escalated some profound changes to place. Our high streets are significantly altered, our usage and value of parks and open spaces have increased, as has the way we move around our localities. Consequently, expectations of how that offer should look in the future has shifted.

It has also changed things for our communities – not just in terms of what they have gone through - but also how and where they live, work, and shop; their driving habits right through to an awareness of the volume of waste they produce. They have stepped up, pulling together to provide highly valued volunteering support that as local authorities, we need to continue to harness. And then there is climate change. People’s heightened understanding across so many interlinked issues will help us, as place directors, to capitalise on the climate agenda to design a green recovery. This session on The Future of Place has never felt so timely.

Led by Fast Future’s Rohit Talwar, we were introduced to Foresight, a process used to vision-build and support forward planning and service management through understanding the drivers of change. We worked through a series of place scenarios to identify the four or five megatrends most likely to impact on our authorities and chose one big priority theme for focused group work, developing an outline plan of tasks and timescales, research needs and capability requirements, and collaborative and locally-focused tasks.

By splitting into different groups for each session, we got a real flavour of everyone’s views. As part of the learning process, Rohit could be quite direct in challenging thinking, particularly when we were drilling down on detail and losing sight of the megatrends. Keeping focused on that bigger picture was a struggle initially. We had to recognise unconscious bias and unpeel how we thought things should be shaped and mapped to concentrate on the megatrends that can really shape the future of place.

There is no doubt in my mind that we need to do more of this big picture thinking but ongoing budget pressures, and responding to and supporting a Covid recovery on top of tacking climate change, leaves many local authorities facing a resourcing challenge. I don’t know what the answer is, but sessions such as this are vital. I know that at times, I’ve become too immersed in ensuring the wheels are still turning, everyone is still working safely and that our communities are getting the good quality universal services they need. To be able to lift my head out of that for a day was a priceless opportunity.

I shared the slides with my direct management team, and although we haven’t had the time to properly put anything into action yet, we are setting aside an Away Day for strategic thinking. I have started to filter the thinking into 1:1s with my leadership team; we’re a small team and at any point they can be asked to deliver more, so they need to be equipped with the tools to think differently. Instead of fixing it right now, they need to start thinking about sustainable fixes and that’s a real mind shift for a lot of us when the pace of demands keeps increasing.

For me, a key question is how local authorities stop short-termism without our Elected Members and our communities thinking we’re ignoring things? How can we press pause to allow ourselves the time to develop sustainable, strategic solutions? That might mean some areas of service are poorer for a little while, but if we could take our communities with us so that they understand there is a long-term plan in development, it would benefit everybody. People have to have confidence that we are entering recovery and we are there as a key support, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that Covid has given us the opportunity to rethink what place should be. Using the Foresight tool in this session has definitely helped to map out what we might want that future to look like.

Local authorities can’t meet these huge, complex challenges on our own - we haven’t the skills, capacity or funding. There is a real urgency and need to come together with partners, private and voluntary organisations to realise what we can all bring to the table in the longer term to make place thrive. And, intrinsic to future models is the role of the community. What is it capable of doing itself, and better? And from that, where can we step back to focus on where we really can add value?

On the day, I remember turning on the computer and thinking I haven’t got time for this, but when I logged out, although my eyes hurt with tiredness, I also realised that this is where I need to be. On a personal level it gave me the confidence to apply for my current role and to talk about horizon scanning and the Foresight approach as part of my interview. Both personally, professionally and in the day to day, these sessions are invaluable.

Find out more about the Future of Place session here.