Maintaining public and political support

Nigel Turpin
15 September 2009

Competitions are a great way of delivering high-profile community building projects, but how do you secure public and political support throughout the process?

Nigel Turpin, Nottingham City Council

Nigel Turpin, Nottingham City Council. Copyright

Despite the general consensus that improvements were needed to Old Market Square in Nottingham some people wanted things to stay the same. Officers and councillors at Nottingham City Council worked hard get local support for their vision to create ‘one of the most impressive public spaces in Europe’ through a design competition.

Nigel Turpin, lead officer for the council, worked with local politicians to ensure the project’s success. ‘One of the main things we did was to take our politicians to other cities that had delivered high ambitions, like Birmingham, to see how its city centre had changed. We also spoke to the leader of the council there to hear his view about the process of change and people’s response.’

Nigel Turpin is team leader for the Urban Design and City Centre Team at Nottingham City Council . He has used design competitions to attract talented design teams and deliver a number of exemplary buildings and public spaces as part of their city centre masterplan.

Part of Making competitions work.

Nigel Turpin's tips for making competitions work

1. gather arguments and examples to convince skeptics of an idea’s value and purpose
2. don’t be afraid of dialogue - ensure consultation is open, well publicised and inclusive
3. use public consultation as research to inform the design brief and engage people early
4. involve right people at right time, setting up groups for people’s input at different stages
5. establish a network for stakeholder engagement at the outset – this will help later on.

Test the ground

Nottingham Market Square, in front of the city’s town hall, was in desperate need of improvement. The shabby space had not changed since 1929, had poor accessibility and was not used as much as it could be. Nottingham City Council commissioned three studies:

  • perception study
    showed that some people preferred no change and any project to reshape the square would need to be carefully managed
  • access and movement study
    ‘we had to demonstrate why money should be  spent on the square and convince members of the value of this. We showed that the space was actually a barrier to economic development as it impeded movement. The police had concerns about security in parts of the square. Accessibility was also poor.’
  • economic study
    showed that the square had great potential for job creation and the possible generation of £12m a year in revenue.

By commissiong these studies, the council helped gain support for a project to change the square for the better.

Convince the politicians

People could vote for their favorite project online and at the exhibitions held by Nottingham City Council.
Copyright Gustafson Porter

Nigel Turpin says ‘the square was a highly significant project and we wanted to attract the best design team possible. We knew from experience that competitions could be effective.’ So lead councillor John Collins worked with council officers to convince other councillors that holding an international design competition was the best approach.

Persuading the councillors was the first step in ensuring public ownership of the project. The council set up working groups to had to engage the public as well as statutory and private stakeholders including retailers, funders and city council officers.

Gather local business support

Retailers with shops around the square were key stakeholders. ‘We established a relationship with the retailers earlier on, meeting them round a table to explain our thinking about how the space should evolve.’ This group met every two or three months throughout the project.

Nottingham City Council set up a working group for others interested in the project which included Nottingham in Bloom, an events manager, a city centre manager, highways officers and English Heritage. This working group influenced the brief and the design, integrated services for events and seasonal planting and ensured that maintenance was planned.

Get the press on board

Often at lunchtime, it's so busy there's no place to sit,' says Nigel
Copyright Dom Henry

The press were given updates including a publication of the shortlisted designs and press releases about the shortlist and the consultation event. ‘We made sure the Evening Post knew about the project right from the start, and gave it ownership of the debate about improving the space,’ says Turpin.

The six shortlisted designs were published in the Evening Post alogside editorial comment and letters from the public, both positive and negative.

Consult the public

Proposals from six design teams were shortlisted by Nottingham City Council from more than 60 entries. The social researchers behind the perception study co-ordinated the public consultation. ‘The proposals were exhibited in two shopping centers, so people could talk to each other about the proposals.’ People could vote for their favorite project online and at the exhibitions.

Judges were presented with summarised comments from the general public and selected groups to inform their decision. The winning entrant from landscape designer Gustafson Porter was selected by both the public and the judges.

Reap the rewards of careful consultation

 'We've noticed that people enjoy using the square more and more. It is increasingly interactive and  people have claimed the space.'
Copyright Dom Henry

A late change by one of the stakeholders came during the run-up to a local election. Electoral politics can make competition processes more fraught than usual as people attempt to make political capital out difficulties. However, as stakeholders had been properly consulted and engaged, the difference was overcome through negotiation.

The Old Market Square project recognised the significance of the space to local people. By accepting the need for proper consultation, the project team gained local support for an ambitious, bold and contemporary reworking of the square.

The rewards of this approach are clear. ‘We’ve won numerous design awards for the square and we’ve noticed that people enjoy using it more and more. It is increasingly interactive and over time people have claimed the space. Often at lunchtime, it’s so busy there’s no place left to sit.’

Further reading

More advice on delivering the winning scheme