Planning project Public Practice picks up pace – can it now shape how cities are built? 25.04.19

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Public Practice 2019 Spring Cohort TimothyChase 3Public Practice's new cohort. Photo: Timothy Chase

From a class of 17 to start, the planning non-profit has bigger ambitions for how cities build social housing. Is the tide turning for public planning departments


Public Practice, the non-profit initiative aiming to develop a new generation of city planners, is growing fast after its breakthrough first year.

The London-based initiative creates placements for architects and planners in local government, with the aim of building the capacity of planning departments to respond to London's crisis of affordable housing.

Following a successful initial cohort of 17 ‘associates’, the course will now take 37 selected applicants into local authorities and is launching a second intake in 2019 to again multiply capacity. Starting this April, new associates will join 24 councils across London and south-east England, including new authorities such as Ashford, Enfield, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Public Practice was congratulated on its growth by Jules Pipe, deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, and chair of the project's board. ‘Public Practice has made tremendous progress in its first year, opening up new opportunities for talented built environment professionals to make a real difference in helping London’s boroughs tackle the most pressing issues facing the capital,’ said Pipe.

Public Practice was launched in September 2017 by Finn Williams and Pooja Agarwal to respond to a shortage of skilled practitioners in public sector, at what its founders say was a nadir for British planning, as budgets had been slashed by more than half since 2010.

‘Public Practice was founded at a time when the capacity and status of public planning appeared to be at an all-time low,’ said Williams. ‘But there are already signs that this landscape is starting to shift.’

Since 2017, the government has begun to grapple with the UK’s chronic shortage of affordable housing, by lifting the cap on council borrowing for housebuilding, and investing in new initiatives. Williams said the project’s forthcoming associates had been selected from across broader range of disciplines, including design, planning and public engagement. The forthcoming associates had played a role in injecting some new energy, encouraging councils to create new ‘cross-cutting’ roles to allow the new arrivals to connect different departments.

Public Practice was started with the objective of bridging the divide between architects in private practice and public sector planners but has made no secret of having broader aims to shape how UK cities and housing are planned.

‘In just over a year we have seen more than 400 practitioners apply to join the programme,’ said Williams. ‘Over two thirds of our applicants haven’t applied for public sector jobs before.’

Public Practice was featured in ICON 187 (January 2019) in a story on the people driving the agenda of a new generation of social housing.

Speaking in November 2018, co-founder Agrawal made clear the initiative’s aims for the future: ‘We’re developing the new generation of public planners that we’ll need to develop a new generation of social housing.’

Here, she answers a few new questions about what we can expect in the coming years. 

ICON: What has been the highlight of the first year for you?

Pooja Agrawal: A highlight for me this first year was a day trip to Brussels, organised by three Associates as part of their research into integrating residential use and industry in cities. The trip involved colleagues from the Greater London Authority, Barking and Dagenham and Old Oak Park Royal Development Corporation. Exploring best practice on the ground, meeting public sector officers in Brussels leading this change, and having the time and space for officers to collaboratively address the bigger picture, across borders, for me symbolised what Public Practice is all about.

ICON: There seems to be the chance for planning departments to begin taking a more active, creative role. Do you see PP playing a role in shaping how planners and planning departments work in future?

PA: In order for planning departments to be more proactive, not only do they need the finance to be adequately resourced, they also need to be able to attract the right skills to the public sector. Public Practice is already having a huge impact through the range of talent and expertise it is bringing to public planning. But along with the increased pipeline, Public Practice is also fundamentally changing the nature of planning by re-writing the job description, enabling cross-departmental and cross-authority working, and by addressing the most pressing needs local authorities face through its research programme. Through everyday practice, advocacy and research, Public Practice will continue to shape how planners work now, and in the future.

ICON: What impact would you like Public Practice to have in the next five years?

PA: Impact on the ground can take five years to materialise; we are keen to see the delivery of the high quality projects that Associates have helped to instigate this year, and the changes they have made to systems such as procurement become the norm in their authorities. For Public Practice itself, we have started our journey in the South East of England and in five years we will have grown nationally, and perhaps even internationally, to have an impact at scale. Public Practice is part of a growing movement to redefine the role of the public sector, and we look forward to helping to lead this change on the ground.

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