Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Core Connections (L 27)


1. I am a qualified urban designer, with an MBA, giving me a scope to consider business and financing aspects of masterplanning in addition to the design ones. I have worked in planning and design since 1983.

2. I was part of the Civic Trust’s consultancy arm from 2000 to 2004, during which time I led teams with expertise in helping local communities to prepare future plans for their town centres or estates. We worked in seaside towns, where economies had collapsed due to changing holiday patterns, but also in market towns including ones affected by unexpected flooding, where short term trauma prompted a desire for more effective longer term planning. We liaised with local Civic Societies in most cases, but were independent.

3. In general it is my experience that communities mobilise around threat, and that opportunity is seldom sufficient as a motivator except to the leaders of projects where a personal interest is involved: such as children’s facilities (young family motivates); youth societies and sports, music nature conservation, outdoor sport clubs (when your children reach teenage stage); or hobby-based projects such as orchards, allotments, restoring canals etc (often most attractive for those reaching a third age with some spare time). Health, cycling and growing things are also now emerging motivators for groups in their twenties to be active in some places.

4. The life opportunities and motivation that can prompt active volunteer effort are therefore complex and will rarely align with the ‘need’ in the town or community place if measured objectively. There will also be an immense knowledge gap, and a massive tendency towards reinvention of the wheel. One of the roles the CT Regeneration Unit had was to bring to communities’ attention experience of other projects, and of what had worked and not worked.

5. It is nevertheless true that massive local frustration has built up against the planning process in many places, primarily directed at less than high quality design, and associated lack of a local sense of place, from the clone High Street to the ‘anywheresville’ housing estates. The perception that the district planner is more at the behest of the developer than the community served is what my first example illustrates.

6. Case 1: A parish in East Sussex was unable to persuade the developer or the planning officer to create a village green on the development site in the location where the rest of the village wanted it to be...instead it was located at the furthest point of the new development from the existing village boundary, making true integration much harder to promote. What would the process be to change this? Would the parish have the funds to produce a complete, workable alternative layout? Of course such work would cost upwards of £90,000 to prepare, with fees for the SUDS schemes, ecology reports, tree surveys, landscape layouts as well as the architects fees for their housing plans, all needed to demonstrate how the village green in the location wanted would be viable. Who would pay this? Certainly it would not be the developer: or at least if the developer did such a plan as one of their options, there would be a demonstration of the foregone opportunity cost and thus evidence to back up a claim that the scheme the community wants would be non-viable. Otherwise, all things being equal, why wouldn’t the developer have followed what the community wanted? The answers could help us understand how localism needs to change perceptions and ways of working.

7. I was glad to be at the start of the initiative called Building for Life (with the Housebuilders Federation) when I was at the Civic Trust, and I am glad at the very widespread acceptance now of its criteria (of which I was the modest first draft’s author) to improve the average sense of place in mass housing schemes. If local groups are to use it, however, they will need free training in the skill sets required to make judgements, as the 20 points are together quite holistic, and cover many aspects of placemaking. Or they will need funds to appoint their own assessors and advisors. In particular making successful places on empty sites requires 3-dimensional imagining skills, known to be lacking statistically in the majority of people without training.

8. When the Civic Trust Awards are judged, there are three judges as a minimum: a local representative who knows the area and community, a designer with quality experience, and a local authority officer (who has a role to explain the local authority’s perspective). I suggest this is a sensible balance to adopt more widely: parishes and community forums could use the same combined judging panel approach. So how does this relate to Localism? Without at present any indication of how all the groups wanting to intervene to design their neighbourhoods can obtain access to skilled advisors and funding to pay for them, the suspicion is that this bill will have a frustrating infancy when enacted.

9. Case 2: If the developers can work with their communities to produce the agreed masterplan and community investment plan, there could be a sensible way forward. In Suffolk we have created over several years, at site and town-wide levels, evolving masterplans that are intended to capture local views in concept stage, and are to be added to as they are "loose leaf and flexible". They emerge from long term community involvement and regular working between developer, parish, district and health and education: workshops are held regularly and the different players are beginning to recognise each other.

10. It is slow as a process: communities wanting results will suffer fatigue as construction is not delivered by DHL from a catalogue, and lack of savvy and experience to insist on quality can mean bitterness creeps in if the concept the designer drew looks mean and tatty when it arrives. Indeed in some cases maybe it should be a more immediate off the peg process: village halls, health centres and schools probably do not need to be so bespoke, they just need to be good. Again a good local advisory panel could assist the community to commission, and to understand where pressure can best be plied when tracking outcomes of design work on the projects that they want to see happen. It does though need funds!

January 2011