Chelmsford wins city status – with help from RSA fellows

April 24, 2012 by
Filed under: Fellowship 

There is only one town in England to have been awarded city status as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations – that town is Chelmsford.

Malcolm Noble

The RSA fellow-led Changing Chelmsford project played a key part to make this happen.The application for city status referred to this project as a “ground breaking initiative bringing together local people, academics and key businesses to consider the most appropriate future for the town”. For two years the town has been through a process of conversation, collaboration and (most importantly) community action that has helped create Essex’s first city.

What is Changing Chelmsford?

Achieving city status is only one small part of an on-going story. In 2010 a small number of individuals from Essex County Council, Chelmsford Council, the Academy of Urbanism and the RSA established Changing Chelmsford as a pilot project.

The RSA fellow-led Changing Chelmsford project played a key part to make this happen

The aim was to develop a strategic vision for the town – retaining our links with the past while creating an identity for the future.

Responding to the 2008 Borough Council ‘action plan’ for the town centre, we brought together local individuals, organisations and professionals with others able to share experiences from similar places in England and elsewhere within the EU. Funding was obtained from the local authorities, business sponsorship and the RSA Catalyst budget. A programme manager was appointed to run what was labelled ‘Changing Chelmsford – how bold is your vision?’ Eight workshops led to a ‘town like ours symposium’ and a synthesis called the ‘Town Commons’. The outcomes were 100 plus ideas, 18 self-organising initiatives and one big step.

Statue of Marconi in Chelmsford. Photo by Stephanie Mills

A festival of ideas

In 2011 we launched the ‘Festival of Ideas’ – 9 events involving 116 invited participants from 48 different organisations and many members of the general public. The focus was the concept of the ‘Heritage Triangle’: the desire to transform three unused or under-used buildings representing the town’s heritage and the links between them. They were an 18th century Quaker meeting house, the Marconi factory and the Georgian Shire Hall – all sites now have new activity or are going through periods of reform. 

Chelmsford is still changing – we’re not finished yet. In October our Festival of Ideas will be organised in partnership with Anglia/Ruskin University.

How to make it work

The essential elements to success have been:

  • Recruiting committed individuals – you need to include people from across the local community (the fellowship is a great place to start)
  • Establishing a formal organisation – essential if continuity is to be maintained (Changing Chelmsford is now a Community Interest Company)
  • Rigorous planning – the key to making progress. To quote Abraham Lincoln: ‘given six hours to chop down a tree, I will spend the first four sharpening the axe’.

What’s next?

Chelmsford is still changing – we’re not finished yet. In October our Festival of Ideas will be organised in partnership with Anglia/Ruskin University. Local community groups will play a key role: notably the Young Explorers, with work embedded in the curriculum of local schools and Chelmsford College.

To discuss how you might do something similar in your area please get in touch.

Malcolm Noble FRSA is Chair of Changing Chelmsford CIC. Read the Changing Chelmsford report from 2011.  


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