Monday, 21 November 2011

Planning and Localism: whose design is it anyway?

“Experience here and overseas shows that when local people have the chance to influence the function and appearance of developments, opposition can be turned into enthusiasm and buildings are constructed that we can be proud of.”
Planning & decentralisation minister Greg Clark

The UK construction industry had enjoyed a decade of unprecedented boom. However, since the advent of the Coalition Government, their emergency budget, the Comprehensive Spending Review and their continued drive for public sector cuts, the world of construction is being forced to remodel and adapt to a new era of austerity.

The Coalition Government's spring Budget announcement for a series of radical changes to the planning system, procurement and the introduction of Localism through their 'Big Society' initiative will change the face of the architectural and built environment sectors. These issues were discussed in the recent RIBA Planning and Localism Conference in Newcastle. A brief overview of the issues discussed is outlined below. This is taken from the twitter diary written by RIBA Yorkshire’s Ruth Donnelly.

Harry Rich, Chief Executive of RIBA, welcomed everyone to today's RIBA Planning and Localism Conference, by stating that we are in a time of great opportunity and great risk in this time of change.

Why design matters (but is still undervalued)
Colin Haylock RTPI President Elect

Harry Rich and Colin Haylock. Photographer Moira Conway.
Colin spoke about the importance of good design and the frustration that it is still not valued by clients. He explained that 2010 brought with it a new government with a new agenda, but questioned whether the agenda was in fact a new idea. He commented that localism may result in a reduction in policy, but may also result in a reduction in guidance.

He explained that the positive aspect of the Localism agenda is that it gives communities the opportunity and power to say yes to development and growth.

His discussion moved onto the importance and future of collaberative, multi-disciplinary design review and its place within legislative framework. The recently published Bishop Report proposes national Design Review, delivered locally, funded through planning fees. Moving forward, it is important to learn from Design Reviews and reinject this learning into the whole design process.

Colin summed up by stating that Localism is a challenge and an opportunity. It will, and needs to, change people's perceptions of their environments.

Beyond bricks and mortar: The architect’s role in the Big Society
Steve McAdam, architect and director of Fluid Office

Steve McAdam, Fluid Office. Photographer Moira Conway.
In practice, Steve has had a lot of experience in regeneration and community engagement, and explained the importance of successful engagement, as a method of engaging people and communities to establish what they want from the places that surround them. He discussed the different methods of engagement he has used. These include:
  • Walk and talk:follow map and talk to people on route
  • Parachutes: random selection of locations, photograph and undertake interviews in the chosen locations
  • Route mapping: ask people to draw popular routes
  • Daily diaries: people to take a photo of their location every hour in a day
He concluded by stating that community engagement is not about asking people to design, it is about identifying how people live and using the skills of the architect to use this information to make successful places.

How localism is shaping planning
Steve Quartermain, Department for Communities and Local Government

Harry Rich, John Rowland and Steve Quartermain. Photographer Moira Conway.

Steve is the governments chief planner. In his session he discussed how localism is shaping planning and how it will affect communities.

He started by outlining the current problems in the planning system. He stated that the current system is costly, it alienates and disempowers communities, and it has failed to deliver. He stated that the aim of the reform is to achieve greater democratic and local control, and to rebalance the system in favour of sustainable development.

He then explained that the purpose of the new Planning Framework is to streamline national planning policy, protect and enhance natural and historic environment and promote sustainable development.

He defined 'sustainable development' as planning for prosperity (economic), people (social) and places (environmental).

Steve ended on a positive note stating that the government aims to promote good design in order to create better places.

New suburbia, community and self build
John Rowland, John Rowland Urban Design

John started by identifying the placelessness of British suburbia, using an image of two identical suburban developments, in two different areas.

He stated that localism can enable communities to have more of a say in the making of their own environments, to reduce the identikit nature of housing across the country.

Like Steve McAdam earlier, he identified that community engagement without the involvement of a cross section of the community is pointless, and that involvement is needed across the board to allow the community to feel a sense of ownership of decisions.

He outlined a few community engagement tools such as charettes, planning weekends, design and other workshops, explaining that the main aim of community engagement tools is to gain a consensus of opinion, or this cannot be reached, a majority vote. John used a few statistics to outline issues of housing in the UK:

  • CABE report from 2005 found that 86% housing is of poor or average quality, meaning only 18% is good or excellent.
  • Just 10 housebuilders control the UK housing market.
John discussed a few European examples of successful place making. He used Malmo in Sweden as an example of good housing. He described Der Strip in the Hague as having a range of house typologies within a successful masterplan. Another example used showed a play area, whose design was developed with community involvement. This had no railings, no notices saying 'no,' giving the responsibility and ownership to the community.

NPPF and the Localism Bill: what does it all mean?
Zack Simons and Ellen Wiles, Thirty Nine Essex Street

Ellen Wiles and Zack Simons. Photographer Moira Conway.

Zack questioned whether an abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies will shift the power down to local level as intended, or up to a national level. He suggested that there will be a black spot where the power will shift upwards before the shift balances out.

Ellen provided some explanations to the following:

  • Neighbourhood Development Order: order that grants planning permission in an area to developments or classes of developments.
  • Neighbourhood Development Plan: policy relating to development and use of land in area specified in the Plan.
  • National Planning Policy Framework is a combination of 25 planning policies in one document. Ellen explained that its main aim is to simplify the system, to speed up the process and stimulate growth. The idea being that the smaller the government involvement, the greater the localism.
Ellen's main criticism of the NPPF is that there is no legal definition of sustainable development. Steve Quartermain gave the government definition earlier in the day, but this is too broad to mean anything in legal terms. Ellen continued to say that the NPPF focuses on economic growth and predicts that this will, by default, become the definition of sustainable development.

One positive aspect about the document is that design covers two whole pages, and is identified as a key element in achieving sustainable development. Significant weight is given to truly outstanding or innovative designs in the document.

Ellen concluded that the NPPF document is still being defined and it will be interesting to see what impact it will have when it is published.

Co-producing the common place for the common wealth
Stephen Hill, Chartered surveyor from F20 Futureplanners

Stephen stated that design is only one component of development and organic growth is important, to allow a place to develop at its own pace. He expressed the importance of building centres and along connections. He referred to Les Grottes in Geneva, Switzerland as an example of successful organic growth. This is a neighbourhood that popped up as a social and architectural experiment. The whole area was bought by the city in 1930 as it was known for its poverty and danger to public health. Due to the advent of the War, nothing happened until the late 1960s when a group of local squatters decided to renovate the neighbourhood themselves.

He also used Vauban, south of Frieburg, Germany as a model of sustainable development.
This 'new town' has developed since its inception in the mid 1990s.

Stephen also noted Byker Wall in Newcastle as a precedent of community engagement. All of these examples go to show that community engagement is not a new idea, and can be used to create sustainable and healthy environments, where people want to live.


Breakout workshop from RIBA Building Futures Game. Photographer Moira Conway.

The afternoon continued into a series of workshops:

Design Review workshop
North East Design Review Service

John Devlin made a very succinct point that a society is remembered for its legacy in art and architecture and not its bank rate. The Design Review Service is a peer review of a scheme by fellow professionals who aim to increase the quality of developments whilst adding value.

The Business case for community engagements
Steve McAdam, Fluid Office

Steve expanded on the community engagement tools he explained earlier by involving the group in workshops to help individuals to understand the architects role, and how they can use community engagement to their advantage.

Building Futures Game: A consultation tool
RIBA Building Futures team

This workshop split the group into teams to question where and how people will be living in 50 to 100 years time when the climate has changed and cities are bigger than ever.

The afternoon concluded in a debate about the future of planning and design drawing on lessons learnt during the day.

Ruth will be tweeting at the Low Carbon Conference in Bristol on Tuesday 22 November. Follow her diary here

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