Community engagement – why it matters

Vicky Ratcliffe

Vicky Ratcliffe, LSHTM’s Community Engagement Consultant for the Tavistock Place building projects, reflects on many years of working with neighbours to ensure we improve our London facilities in the best way for the area and the people living and working there. 

A normal working day as a community engagement consultant? It was a sunny day back in 2015 and I was dressed in a giant, papier mâché mosquito head standing in the middle of a Bloomsbury park. I was at a community event with colleagues from the communications and engagement team to chat to local residents about how the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s scientists are tackling infectious diseases and other major health challenges.  

These issues are important and LSHTM’s work is renowned globally, but people living around our Bloomsbury sites aren’t necessarily aware. Sometimes we must be inventive to bring to life the exceptional work going on within our community – from teaching to research and everything else involved in making that happen – to improve health worldwide. While the mosquito head wasn’t an essential part of the process, it certainly provided a talking point that brought me closer to the people whose voices were vital to the success of LSHTM’s plans for the future. 

Emerging plans to tackle emerging health threats  

Back in 2012, plans were in motion for a new research laboratory facility to investigate current and emerging pathogens. Set to be called the Bloomsbury Research Institute, this was going to be a partnership with UCL, a partner with like-minded aspirations. The need to stay ahead of the curve on pandemic preparedness has remained all too clear in the wake of Ebola, Zika and COVID-19, but even in 2012 this was seen as an essential priority for global health. 

LSHTM had the key expertise and global partnerships, but it needed to upgrade its estate and create more flexible and sustainable working space for staff and students. Luckily, they had suitable land behind their existing Tavistock Place building. An old shed that had seen its best days – as a one time dairy and some-time British Transport Police depot - was used mainly for storage and could be put to better use as purpose-built facilities. 

Momentum was slow to build but by 2017 it seemed we had an exciting project on our hands, and planning permission had been granted. We then hit a setback. UCL decided not to pursue the scheme, and for a short while a cloud of uncertainty hovered above the project. But LSHTM’s aspirations didn’t waver, and in true form, they shifted and adapted.  

The estates team set to work with external partners and contractors to scale back the project, removing the need for labs by revamping Keppel Street’s facilities instead as well as broadening the remit of the new space at Tavistock Place to support the overall estates masterplan. To further reduce costs, two basement levels became one. The need remained for new flexible space for sustainable research and education and with some innovative thinking a £53million project became £35million (£23million construction costs) - and we were back on track. 

Designing flexible space in the heart of Bloomsbury: TP2 is born 

Our design partners for the building we now call TP2, BMJ Architects, created a unique way of maximising the tight, boxed in nature of the site of the old shed to create light and airy working space for research and professional services staff. We pored over drawings and a specially commissioned wooden model. We listened to presentations as the re-organisation of the space and creation of the new building was explained. Within LSHTM, staff were consulted and involved in the design process. 

Local residents meanwhile were living in very close proximity to Tavistock Place and facing the prospect of major disruption for the 3-4 years. Living in Central London they were used to building works in the area, but these were close. Very close. Unlike staff, however, they didn’t have the prospect of one day benefiting from the new building. We had to find ways to get them on board, and to build relationships with them as LSHTM’s neighbours for years to come. 

That’s where my work comes in. 

What is community engagement and why did LSHTM bring me in? 

From the start, neighbours and local community representatives played a key role in shaping the development. Like all local authorities, the London Borough of Camden insist, rightly, that local people have a say in what goes on in their area. To many developers this becomes a tick-box exercise; a way of keeping the planners happy and the development moving forward. Local residents had fallen victim to this attitude before. But what is LSHTM and the work it does without people? Without communities? LSHTM’s attitude to its neighbours resonated strongly with my own views about public involvement and I was excited to lead on this aspect of the development. The key to success would be bringing local people on board with not only the global importance of LSHTM’s work, but also how this work affects them. A prescient challenge given what we know now, post-pandemic. 

My role is hard to define at the beginning of a project. What appears to be coffees and chats are more about getting to know local people: their attitudes, what drives them, or more importantly what drives them crazy. I aim to establish who would be most useful to the project. Not just the ‘yes’ people, but those who will challenge the design and construction team to make the development the best it can be, with the least negative impact possible on local people. Those I invited to join our TP2 Community Liaison Group at the beginning of this project continue to work with me to this day to scrutinise and communicate important considerations and activities to help ensure the development enhances both the local area and LSHTM. Their contribution has been essential, in both the statutory and ethical sense, and has been acknowledged by LSHTM and the local authority. 

The breadth of understanding of our neighbours never fails to impress me, or at least their patience as I translate construction lingo into lay persons terms for them. From cycle lane priorities, to heavy vehicle ingress and egress, to the difference between a hammering pile driver and a hydraulic press-in. There isn’t much we haven’t covered. 

Vicky Ratcliffe with a mosquito mask on her head

Adapting to the challenges of COVID-19 

Sometimes the role isn’t easy, and 2020 brought a whole new set of challenges. As our contractor commenced demolition of the old shed, the pandemic hit. Suddenly our neighbours were all stuck in their homes. Stressed, concerned about the future, and with a large area of substrate being broken up right next to their properties as they held work Zoom calls or returned from long shift work. Thankfully for us, construction was one of the industries allowed to restart in early June, but for our neighbours, this was a huge concern. Ordinarily I’d be right by their side, talking through potential solutions, but times were different and I too was at home. Years of those coffees and chats were replaced by video calls, where body language barely exists and a sketchy understanding of the mute button made for stilted conversations. 

The two-way, personal engagement I was used to (think back to that mosquito head at the community celebration in St George’s Gardens in 2015) had underpinned our original planning application process with Camden Council. After two years of intense consultation I had sat in the Council Chamber at Camden Town Hall in 2016 and celebrated as our application was not only approved but commended for its community engagement. But now everything had changed. The local authority demands on our project to engage local people remained the same, but the landscape had shifted.  

Quickly, we moved all our community liaison online. I increased the number of check-ins with our key resident and community stakeholders via email and phone. Sometimes just messaging ‘hi, how are you?’ made the difference between a problem resolved quickly and reasonably, and a potential complaint to the local authority that could see the project delayed and huge costs incurred as a result. Sometimes I just had to listen as people vented their frustrations. Never easy, but an essential part of what I do. 

Looking to a revamped future with revamped facilities 

Through the ups and downs, the project continued. Contractors changed – 8Build were appointed for the main build following initial input by Kier – but our community engagement remained consistent, as did the feedback from local stakeholders who report that locally we are seen as an example of best practice in community engagement. In an area rife with development, this is praise indeed.  

With LSHTM playing a prominent role in the pandemic response, the need for improved facilities became even stronger, but now with the added dimension of the new flexible working spaces having to suit the modern hybrid style of working. The updated LSHTM plans have meant redevelopment of one area has freed up space elsewhere to revamp the teaching side too – with design work starting to transform the original Tavistock Place building (now known as TP1) to meet the needs of students in a modern, post-COVID world. 

I’m excited to work with LSHTM and the community group again as we start to map out the plans for ‘TP1’ to ultimately lead to a top quality Tavistock Place campus of research, space, offices and teaching facilities just a short walk away from Keppel Street with its labs, offices and soon to be revamped social spaces. To work with an organisation so readily open to genuine community engagement is a pleasure. To continue to be part of a project that will attract the world’s greatest scientific minds for the benefit of all is a privilege.