Public Practice: It's time for nationwide action on planning, not just high-level ambition 12.02.20

Written by  Public Practice

Public Practice react to Building Better, Building Beautiful reportPublic Practice Associates, 2019. Credit: Ivan Jones

A focus on community in the Beauty Commission report is worth celebrating — but we need practical, nationwide action to make the built environment work for everyone, write Helen Goodwin and Nikki Linsell of Public Practice

There is much to celebrate in a report that captures a shared recognition of what it means to live happy, healthy lives together and that foregrounds a shared objective to create places that foster this, regardless of often siloed professional backgrounds. It is encouraging to see the government-commissioned Building Better, Building Beautiful report highlight the need to measure quality and outcomes rather than quantity, placing an emphasis firmly on the qualitative and experiential dimension of our everyday places that so often get overlooked in the two-dimensional and quantitative world of planning. Public Practice welcomes a report that advocates raising the profile and role of planning; we believe there is no role more influential in safeguarding our shared values for the long term and in shaping the future of our homes and neighbourhoods than that of the public planner.

While a revised planning system that incentivises good development is welcomed, the idea of a 'fast track for beauty' is intrinsically troubling. How can ‘beautiful placemaking’ be legally enshrined and who will determine what gets fast-tracked? The report is right to highlight the necessity for the public sector to be an intelligent client that sets the bar high, both in planning and delivering our built environment. But translating planning policy and guidance in practice requires a range of built environment expertise to be embedded within the public sector at all stages of the planning process – from planmaking and policy-shaping to delivery – as well as the up-skilling of officers and elected members.

Starting and ending with the community

The fact that the report introduces the intangible concept of community to the rational world of planning is to be celebrated. Starting and ending with the community (the end users) in mind must be the goal. However, implementing engagement with diverse communities in a way that moves from a tick-box consultation process to the co-design of neighbourhoods is no simple challenge – the obvious one being resource and capacity. In Newham, for example, where there are 28,000 people on housing waiting lists, the challenge of building homes for and with these communities will likely need more than a couple of officers on the case of engagement.

We support the idea of a Chief Placemaking Officer to oversee and ensure the quality and long-term sustainability of our everyday places. However, it will require fundamental organisational and cultural change within councils to address the issues that often plague local government – overstretched officers, clunky HR processes, out-of-date operational systems, overly hierarchical structures – if such a prominent role is to work. This will also require the reversal of years of budget cuts to enable the recruitment (and retention) of a team of in-house built environment professionals acting as ongoing custodians of placemaking and stewards of their local communities, for now and future generations, which also means addressing the urgent climate crisis.

Understanding planning – where do education and training fit in?

The answer is not shorter architectural courses. It is a recalibration of how we educate our built environment practitioners of the future; this includes architects, planners, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers, ecologists, transport and infrastructure specialists, sustainability and economic experts, and a whole plethora of other professionals, many of whom cling onto their own professional identity in a way that inhibits a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to good place-making. To achieve this, we need interdisciplinary professional training, the offer of new routes into planning and a revised understanding of what ‘planning’ and being a ‘public planner’ really means.

While we embrace the report, the challenge is how to turn high-level ambition into everyday reality and ensure the necessary conditions are there for its delivery. That means getting appropriately trained people in place to make well-informed decisions about places and communities. Public Practice has started to make a difference in London and the South East. Now we need to build it into a broader, national movement and get the right conditions in place to enable all built environment professionals to turn high level policy ambition into everyday reality.

By Helen Goodwin and Nikki Linsell at Public Practice

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