By the very nature of the dynamic world of planning, design and construction, we are constantly keeping tabs on an ever-changing world, both physically and theoretically. Few would align planning and dynamism in the same sentence ordinarily, however change is plain to see throughout many of our towns and cities. As a case in point, Reading has changed dramatically over the last 20 years with buildings still being built, converted, planned and consented continually.
From our Reading office we have the luxury of being positioned on the 10th floor with 300-degree views of the town and surrounding countryside, something many of us arguably take for granted. This view however currently offers six construction landmarks that sit high above Reading; cranes – three to the north, one to the west and two to the south, constructed in situ to undertake a sustained period of activity across the unsuspecting public below, raising from the ground the latest edition to the skyline.
Reading Borough Council have recently consulted on a Local Development Framework, to shape and govern the next regeneration push within what is arguably one of the most untouched areas of central Reading to date – Minster Quarter Area. Untouched as it may be, it remains full of community and more pertinently, associated ‘place attachment’; the proven theory that people are attached to a place, space or building for reasons that extend beyond aesthetics and desirability.
Having attended Planning Question Time at the University of Reading last month, Sue Manns pointed out that in a recent local authority Development Plan consultation, from circa 150,000 residents, less than 200 responses were received; of which, only a small proportion were local, non-professional residents. On the contrary, Jenny Nell of Winchester City Council proudly noted that within their local authority area, they have only a couple of Neighbourhood Plans – a result, we were told, of the Council’s targeted attempts to engage with communities during the preparation of their Local Plan, reducing the perceived need for a Neighbourhood Plan.
Public perception and perhaps more importantly participation, has always been seen as a key ingredient to successful planning. Afterall, whilst we may design and plan developments, as professionals rarely do we live, work and play in the end result. This we leave to the unsuspecting public below. The planning industry then has a responsibility not just in the successful making of place, but also in ensuring we are conjoined in achieving the common goal; mediation of space. Launched in October 2017, the Reading 2050 Vision – a collaborative approach between Barton Willmore, Reading UK and the University of Reading, outlines an ambitious, smart and sustainable future for Reading. The project thrived on input from a range of public, private and third sector contributors, via a series of workshops, exhibitions and consultations. The outcome, in contrast to a site by site based approach, is a vision demonstrating how Reading could develop cohesively over the next 30+ years.
During our last PropertySphere event, we asked a group of young professionals where they thought the centre of Reading was. Interestingly, if not surprisingly, perception was both varied and divided. We then supplied a location at random and asked whether it could conceivably be the centre. More surprisingly here, arguments were easily formed to justify why a location chosen at random in Reading could be considered ‘the centre’. Clearly this was an arbitrary exercise, but nevertheless the result points to a fragmented approach to planning, reminiscent perhaps of an almost hurried and reactive nature, but perversely maybe also an indication of future potential. Of course, piecemeal development can work and indeed often successfully integrates into the existing fabric of a town or city, however, cumulatively, that same piecemeal development can change the fabric of an existing town or city, quite considerably.
Amidst recognised diminished local government resources, can we assist the navigation of the planning system so it becomes easier to provide feedback? Yes. We can sense check any feedback we receive – is it representative of the community? Is the voice from each household represented? There must then be a very clear message in terms of ‘wants’ vs ‘viability’ and, more imperatively, we must create an environment where the public and private sectors can work cohesively from an early stage, alongside the community, to ensure a representative and inclusive consultation. Partners are beginning to tackle this very theory and kick start the thought process of the community and it’s important that this continues.
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