“It’s bittersweet, really.” says Jan, leaning back on the new, spacious bench near the gate of her local park, Nowhere Gardens. “I was definitely one of those saying that this would never work. And, well. I was wrong. I guess I don’t mind admitting that, now. Things have just changed so quickly”.
Jan’s local park was at the forefront of a revolution in local governance and democracy in 2025. Five years later, we sat down with her to think about what had been gained, and lost, since the introduction of neighbourhood citizens’ panels.
“When I was chair of the Friends Group for this park, we worked so hard”, says Jan. “Everything felt like a battle, from encouraging people out on a Saturday morning to pick litter, knowing there’d be more by Sunday, to lobbying the council to get play equipment replaced, or even properly looked after. We were on the front line, both of day to day parks maintenance, but also of the holes left in social care – bumping into people rough sleeping in the park, dealing with the fallout from people joining our group because they needed something, much more than we could provide. The National Federation of Friends Groups did an amazing job, but we always felt like we were battling over the scraps – like each park was in competition with each other for funding. Parks in general were in competition against all the other calls on the council.
“Sometimes we’d get 20 people out for a litter pick or a party, but we never got more than five or so actually coming to meetings and helping with admin or fundraising. We did it because we loved this park. Most of us live around the edges of it, and it’s like an extension of our back gardens”. She pauses, looking over at a family picnicking next to the play area. “Maybe it was partly the sense that it was ours which meant no one else wanted to join”.
The 2020 pandemic had kicked off a national conversation about the importance of green and public spaces to public health, and the inequalities of access, provision and quality across the country. This was particularly acute in Jan’s area, where the relatively affluent neighbourhood immediately surrounding the park sat in between two dense estates with little greenspace of their own.
The “double” devolution of power from local authorities to new neighbourhood citizens’ panels was first proposed in the 2023 planning system reforms. Many were cynical at the time, seeing the move as a way of further stripping local authorities of power and funding, but community and neighbourhood organisations saw opportunities. The other change, that to some seemed like a nuance, was the change in emphasis of the planning system as a whole – from focussing on buildings and the built environment, to focussing on land and the wider landscape.
A neighbourhood experiment
It was the Nowhere Trust, a local community enterprise, that persuaded the local authority to invest in a single neighbourhood experiment. The Trust had already set up a neighbourhood forum and created a neighbourhood plan for the area which had been approved in a local referendum. Jan had been on the Nowhere Trust committee.
The Trust saw the opportunity to create deeper democracy, a whole new set of civic relationships, and an environment that worked for both the people surrounding the park and those in the estates just beyond. The Trust’s team of community organisers knocked on every door locally, and spoke face-to-face with over half of the local residents. They also organised a number of meetings and parties, many in the park.
The heart of the proposal was to take advantage of the double devolution to create a neighbourhood citizens’ panel to make decisions on where to spend money on local “green infrastructure” (plants, trees, street furniture, park lawns) – as well as maintaining a budget to support community-led projects. The really radical thing the Trust proposed, though, was appointing the members of this panel by lottery. A key job of the community organisers and those initial parties and meetings was to introduce people to this new civic role and to see if they were willing for their names to be “in the hat” to potentially become new panel members.
At the time, Jan grumbled, “well, I was a bit offended. Me and the rest of the Friends, and other local groups, had put so much time in and now here’s an opportunity to make real change. And they’re just pulling names out of a hat? It seemed absurd”.
The citizens’ panel
Maybe it was the absurdity of it that got people’s attention. In the end around 500 people said they’d be willing to be in the pool of potential panel members, and the local park party where they announced the results of the lottery was the best attended party yet. Twelve new local representatives were chosen that afternoon, random numbers picked by local kids and cross-referenced against the database of potential panel members. Two-thirds were residents from the estates, and a third were from the houses nearest the park. The majority hadn’t been involved in any civic roles before. “Honestly, I thought they’d never stick at it” says Jan, with a wry smile. “And maybe I was a bit resentful that they got paid, not much mind, but after we’d put all that work in for free, it was a bit galling. But they did mostly stick it out, apart from that one gentleman who had family issues, and to be fair, they managed to get more done than we ever did”.
The Nowhere Trust’s community organisers worked with them over the course of their two year term, helping them work well together, manage conflict and make decisions. One of the organisers, Safiyya, explained the tricky balance involved in the role. “We are working to help them build their power as a group. We are very much there to facilitate – and that’s where being able to pay them is so important. We’re all equals with different roles – theirs to decide, ours to hold the process and the space. It’s challenging, but when it works, it’s brilliantly exciting”.
The Panel took a little time to acclimate, but quickly Jan noticed some changes. “They supported a local teacher to run regular forest school sessions for the little kids but advertised them on the estates first. I think that meant that all those kids and their parents got more comfy coming to the park. The swings were suddenly much busier!”. There was a series of small but very practical changes – creating some designated barbeque areas with big fox-proof bins and an online booking system so people could see whether others were already planning to use the space.
They hosted a series of community circles in the park about expectations, behaviours and desires. Jan attended some of them and noted “to be honest, the thing that blew me away was how off-putting some people find dogs. I mean lots of us are dog walkers but I had no idea how scared some people were of them. Now we have some agreed dog-free times. Because so many people were involved in the process, people are more comfortable asking others to move on if they are there with a dog in the dog-free time”.
Now on their fifth cohort, the members of the Panel are getting more ambitious. While 2023 was all about the park, in later years they extended planting and other schemes along the neighbourhood’s streets and through the estates.
“It’s like the whole place is a park now”, says Jan. “I see more birds and butterflies around and so much of the new planting is edible. It’s really nice walking down the street. I feel like it’s more looked after somehow and I think that is what began to change my mind about the whole thing”.
“One big thing was when the Travellers came”, she says. “Every couple of years they would turn up, and we would kind of brace ourselves – people didn’t like them being there. There would be more mess, and it always felt like locals were looking to the Friends to sort things out. This year someone got in touch with them and found out when they were coming; they organised a welcome party and a skill share and mapped out a bit of the park for them to stay on. I actually went to the welcome party and chatted to some of them. I can’t believe we’d been in this antagonistic relationship with them for years and never even had a conversation”.
The local authority judged the pilot year a success and has seen both the general health of people in the neighbourhood improve as well as fewer instances of anti-social behaviour. There is also a growing cohort of ex-panel members who are now more deeply involved in civic life. The rest of the borough now has similar citizens’ panels and other areas around the country are taking note.
“We genuinely never wanted to exclude anyone”, says Jan, “but it was obvious even then that we were, somehow, excluding people – or more accurately, we were gathering people around us who looked like us and thought like us”. She pauses again, looking over at the family playing on the swings and sighs pensively.
“I have a better sense of how other people see the world now and that actually means that this park – and, well, really the whole world – has become much more magical to me”.
With thanks to Catherine Max for some of the ideas in this piece.