21 November 2012

What is the Kingston Society for?

The Kingston upon Thames Society took a brave step in it's November meeting to start a root and branch review of the Society's objectives and methods by asking the simple question, what is the Society for?

Various members of the Committee (including myself) took it in turns to make a short statement on a part of the Society's activities and then opened the debate up to the whole room.

I was trying to participate in the debate, take notes, tweet and take a few photographs at the same time so my notes are even less comprehensive and comprehensible than usual. I offer them here more of less uneditted.

Brian Godding, the Planning Secretary, opened by reminding members of the three objectives stated in the Society's constitution:
  1. To promote high standards of environmental design, planning and architecture in or affecting the area of benefit.
  2. To educate the public in the environment, history, natural history and architecture of the area of benefit.
  3. To secure the preservation, protection, development and enhancement of features of historic or public interest in the area of benefit.
He added that the Society's relationship with the Council (RBK) was not as strong as it was, e.g. we were no longer invited to private briefings.

The Society is not just about protecting the old and we will support modern schemes we approve against public perceptions, e.g. Huf Haus.

At this point the Surbiton Filter Beds got a mention and for a while threatened to derail the meeting. There was much cross-purpose discussion with the Committee trying to defend the decision whereas the question they were being asked was how the decision had been made.

That then led us in to another discussion on the role of the Committee and its relationship with members, e.g. is it autocratic with an all-powerful Committee or should we be looking for ways to involve members more in decisions like this.

The basis on which applications are judged good is not clear, should we harden the guidelines on which we use to do this, i.e. try to define "good"?

Our membership recruitment leaflet lists some areas of concern in the Borough but the Society does little to address some of these, e.g. streets.

There was a general feeling that the Society is too reactive, e.g. responding to planning applications or RBK policy statements, rather than setting out what we want to achieve and then working to bring this about.
There was a brief, and fairly unanimous, discussion on whether the Society should expand its sphere of interest beyond the physical world of planning and in to how the Borough works, e.g. licensing and traffic. I think we should not but almost everybody else thinks we should.

Similarly members agreed that heritage is important, despite not being specifically mentioned in the constitution, though preservation is. It was also noted that the Coronation Stone is not mentioned in RBK's core strategy.

Various suggestions were made on how we could involve members more, e.g. bring controversial matters to monthly meetings, do more consultation by email and publish committee minutes so that members can comment.

If the Society does take on a wider role then the number of groups that it could work with will also grow to include Residents' Associations and the other local societies with interests in heritage etc.

There was strong interest in the Society establishing sub-committees or working parties to cover specialist topics and there were some volunteers from the audience to get more involved in the Society's activities. In particular Jennifer confirmed that she was no longer able to continue to manage the Heritage Open Days and a few people offered to take this on as a group.

We all want a better "environment" whatever that means to each of us. Wholeness matters, it's not just the buildings we appreciate in our locality.

Should we be active in helping and encouraging people to get things changed, rather than trying to do everything ourselves?

Our mission could be summarised as Protect, Celebrate and Improve. We protect through responding to planning applications and celebrate through HODs and talks but we do little, directly, to improve.

The Society can take a lead in developing a sense of place, which begs the question on what places we have, what their characteristics are and how we want them to develop. There will be conflicts here with different groups of users having different needs. For example, should North Kingston be a quiet area for residents only or does it also have a role in supporting the Town Centre through, say, parking and social life?

Some key points

The Society has yet to consider the results of the meeting so this is all very unofficial, but these are the main messages that I took:
  • The Society should widen its remit and that will require changes to the way that the Society is organised and the other groups that we work with.
  • We need to engage with members much more. Our Facebook page and this blog are small steps towards this.
  • We need to define what we mean by "good" in each sphere and each place that we are interested in, e.g. traffic in the Town Centre and licensing in New Malden.
  • This is a significant change for the Society and will take a lot of time and effort to complete but the membership are very supportive and are willing to play their part.

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