Friday, 22 April 2011

Magazine Review: Planning versus The Architects’ Journal

As a regular reader of both Planning and The Architects’ Journal (AJ), I thought it would be informative to compare the respective magazines.  Both for what they say about the individual professions, as well as the relationship (or not) between the two.  With the economic slump, both magazines no longer act solely to advertise jobs as many trade journals do.  Gone are the days when late home on Friday I would head straight to the jobs page and instead all that is left now is to read the copy!
Since the recent re-brand, Planning magazine has incorporated Regeneration & Renewal magazine and therefore covers a much broader subject area.  Not that the previous version of Planning was narrow in scope, but the current approach does not shy away from the multiple aspects of planning.  This is the key difference between Planning and AJ.  Whilst in my view AJ is just concerned with the built form, Planning embraces economic development, regeneration and the environment whilst making connections to the built environment.
The key strength of Planning is that it captures the diversity of the planning profession.  Whilst one could argue that planners are the archetypal ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, this is no bad thing.  It is instructive to be aware of how omnipresent planning is – even with the growth of permitted development rights!  When I was a student I thought that Planning was too wide ranging and not focused enough.  However, having worked in planning for six years I now understand that the profession, like life itself, is messy and must be aware of how it connects with other facets of everyday life. 
This point is reinforced in the current edition (21 April 2011) with Jenny Crawford’s summary of the latest edition of Planning Theory and Practice.  The journal contains an article which is critical of ‘narrow-mandate’ government agencies that have a fragmented planning vision.  These agencies would do well to pick up an issue of Planning to understand that a blinkered approach to the profession is doomed to failure.
Where the magazine falls down is its lack of appreciation for architecture and design.  And no, I don’t mean adding more pretty pictures of buildings!  The days of in-house architectural advisers have long disappeared from Local Authorities, so it is vital that planners have greater design awareness.  From my experience, the level of knowledge within the planning profession with regard to urban design and architectural form is embarrassing.  Planning could therefore do the profession a favour and introduce a regular double-page spread on this specific issue.  This feature should not just present ‘best practice’ in the architectural field, but instead critically describe issues faced by the architectural profession.  This should include discussions on cost issues, how architects have worked with Local Authorities to deliver a scheme, and innovations in design.  The feature need not be too long, but it at least exposes planners to architectural debates that previously may have fallen under the radar.
The Architects’ Journal
AJ is not meant for people like me – especially at nearly double the cover price of Planning!  I could never imagine planners having the confidence in their profession to include satirical columnists (i.e. Ian Martin in AJ) in their trade journal.  Far too much humour for the RTPI.  Yet AJ is a much easier read than Planning.  It has 10-page case studies to really get to grips with the project.  It makes greater connections to the outside world and includes international projects as well as ‘The Critics’ section which ties the profession to wider happenings in society.  It even has gossip on in-fighting in RIBA!
But it will come as no surprise that I feel AJ should include greater content on planning.  As a planning consultant my main frustration is how the planner/architect relationship only truly kicks in at a late stage in the project.  Often this leaves the planner (whether this be consultant or Local Authority) asking for changes to the drawings at a late stage in order to accord with policy or regulations.  This can be as minor as asking for a change in the red line boundary or as major as knocking 5 storeys off a tall building.  Either way, it shows that planners and architects should speak more and earlier.
AJ should help this process by including more articles on how the planning process operates in practice.  This does not mean a review of government policy or new regulations being dreamt up by Eric Pickles, but instead the harsh realities of how planning decisions are taken.  Articles could focus on the pressures faced by Local Authority planners – times pressures, lack of resources, lack of knowledge, political pressures etc.  My main gripe with AJ is that the case studies focus too much on the design vision and the technical/engineering achievements.  How did the architect, and the wider project team, turn the original sketch on a note pad into a planning permission?  AJ needs to include a greater awareness of how decisions are made and why.
This would benefit young architects the most as they may not be aware of the messy business of post-submission.  A planner would be well placed to describe the reasons behind multiple revisions to the submission drawings and even why a Design and Access Statement is still required for a telephone mast!  Whilst Paul Finch and some of the columnists do make helpful connections between architecture and planning, a regular feature that reports back from the coalface would benefit the profession.
Read all about it.......
Unsurprisingly, I suggest that Planning needs more architecture and AJ needs more planning.  This simple conclusion proves that both professions approach the development sector differently.  Yet with clients feeling the squeeze and wanting to get more for less, it is vital that the professions improve their communication with each other.  Perhaps the respective magazines can start the process for us?
Planning can be found here
The Architects' Journal can be found here

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Neighbourhood Planning - the case of Bermondsey

Yesterday saw the announcement of 17 communities that have been chosen by the Government to be Neighbourhood Planning Vanguards.  In line with the planning reforms expected in the Localism Bill, neighbourhoods will play a greater role in formulating planning policy.  The 17 vanguards will therefore be eligible for £20,000 from DCLG to help organise themselves into a recognised body and begin work on a Neighbourhood Plan.

Life before Google Maps
How local is too local

Apart from identifying the vanguards and allocating the cash, DCLG has purposefully resisted issuing too much guidance on how the neighbourhood planning process should operate.  In the spirit of localism, it is now up to Local Authorities and the relevant communities to chart their own course.  This is a welcome change.  The planning profession has been shaped too much by over prescriptive rules and regulations from national, regional and local government.  This has led to a loss of creativity in the planning sector where professionals are too eager to dive into Circulars and PPS' to decide what is best for a neighbourhood.  By shifting the onus onto neighbourhoods, Local Authority planners will be tested to understand the aspirations of local residents and not just the generic results of technical reports produced ad nauseam by outside consultants.  

Mistakes will be made as the 17 vanguards pilot neighbourhood planning.  But this should be expected. Planning is a messy and political minefield - just like life itself.  However, I am confident that in some instances a neighbourhood will show true inspiration and allow a forum that engages with those members that have previously not connected with planning.

Working in the City

The Shard viewed from St Thomas Street
Of the 17 vanguards named by Greg Clark MP, one stands out. Bermondsey.  Whilst the majority of the neighbourhoods chosen fit with the parish council model often evoked by Eric Pickles MP, Bermondsey is an inner London neighbourhood characterised as much by large social housing estates as by the Shard.  From an initial inspection it appears that the neighbourhood forum is already up and running and has clealry set a timetable for the production of a Neighboruhood Plan.

However, from reading the Localism Bill and hearing Eric Pickles MP speak (see here), I often have the impression that Conservative planning policy is based on the rural idyll with a parish council, village hall and local pub.  This scale of settlement allows a neighbourhood to come together and make minor decisions on the use of the village green or the preservation of the local post office.  Yet Bermondsey is nothing like this and falls within a recognised Opportunity Area (see the London Plan) where existing planning policy promotes regeneration, economic growth and tall buildings.  The area surrounding London Bridge is one of London's fastest changing cityscapes with the Shard, London Bridge station redevelopment, the 32-storey Quill and other iconic developments in the pipeline.  This is an area which neccessatates strategic planning - with strong input from the Mayor and the Greater London Authority.

But the strategic nature of London Bridge and Bermondsey should not exclude the local residents.  It just means that neighboruhood planning in this area is sure to create more tensions compared to vanguards in Banbury or Dawlish.  Property developers require certainty in planning policy so that investment can be guaranteed and schemes can be designed appropriately.  In the case of Bermondsey it is unclear how the forthcoming Neighbourhood Plan will sit alongside the existing draft Supplementary Planning Document which encourages tall buildings and considerable development opportunities.  The Localism Bill makes clear that Neighbourhood Plans cannot be anti-development, but they can shift the emphasis of planning policy.  It will be interesting to see how the case of Bermondsey develops over the coming months and whether the parish Council model of neighbourhood planning is suitable for an inner city environment.  The Musing Urbanist will be keeping a keen eye on Bermondsey to see how this episode of neighbourhood planning sits within the existing and proposed planning regime.