The BBBBC launched its final report last week, with a presentation at Lambeth by the Commission and a response by the Secretary of State.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to give evidence to the Commission. Preparing for that and the conversation around the Commission’s questions was thought provoking itself; causing me to question the value of the vast pile of design guidance that I had accumulated over 30 years: is it a lack of guidance or a failure in its application?
Perhaps I am biased. By having the opportunity to express my views (and the Commission will have its view as to their value), I already feel engaged by the work of the Commission, but we need to broaden the depth and breadth of the conversation.
The Commission’s recommendations are wide ranging and stem from a passion that I am sure we all share; we want to do better. We are facing a housing crisis. Addressing this is not a numbers game, but also one of quality. I was once asked how the ambitious housing targets could be met in a high-quality way, in the more challenging markets of east London, and my answer was, ‘Pride’. We need to establish and build a sense of pride in where we live and the spaces and buildings that we use, and only buildings of quality can do this.
The Commission also recommend the establishment of a ‘Chief Placemaker’ role at local planning authorities, with political support. I have bemoaned the demise of the role of Chief Planners over the years, and the need for clear political priority and commitment to the planning department. The Commission rightly identify the role of policy and local plans in driving ‘beauty’ and personally, I believe the role of development management and policy should be merged, to broaden the skills base and interest of planning officers and to eliminate the artificial distinction between the two.
What I would say is that the interventions in the built environment that we are fortunate enough to be part of do not create places in themselves: they establish a platform for places that the communities create. The relationship of people and place is writ large in the Commissions findings with the requirement for developments to improve the areas in which they will sit, whilst also driving for a duty to demonstrate net gain (as opposed to lack of harm) in itself represents a step change in approach. The culture of the average and the anodyne must be resisted.
The Secretary of State committed to responding to the Commission’s recommendations. How these are translated into the planning system and pubic procurement remains to be seen, but consensus as to the aims and objectives at the outset is fundamental. He stated that he wants to be judged on the homes built during his tenure, but the development process is such that it may be a few years before the fruits of the Commission’s labour translate into actual buildings. As such, the foundations need to be laid now and the Government should lead by example, through procurement and the delivery of strong, pride-building civic buildings.
I hope that the Commission’s report is not the last word on the matter, but a forceful intervention into a conversation and an approach that will learn, and a conversation I started with myself, when sorting through 30 years’ of design guidance!
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