I attended a design meeting recently that was unusual for several reasons.
First, it was a design meeting for a local authority project. We don’t usually work for local authorities.
Second, this particular local authority was thinking creatively about what to do with redundant land in its ownership. It didn’t want to 'sell the family silver’ for the sake of a one-off financial return and it did want to provide high-quality social housing. So it was looking at innovative ways in which it could partner with the private sector to arrive at mutually beneficial and sustainable housing solutions. Interesting.
Third, a decision had been made to involve a senior planning officer in all stages of the design. In my roughly thirty years of involvement in the built environment, this is the first time that I’ve come across a planning officer contributing to design. Unique.
We work in a lot of different local authorities around the country. They’re all the same, in that they’re all cash strapped and under-resourced, and the staff are over-worked and underpaid (mostly). However, they’re not all the same in the way that they have responded to the challenges of recent years.
In the area of planning, which is our most common reason to be interacting with local authorities, most Local Planning Authorities have chosen to hide behind their bureaucracy to limit and control their interactions with the outside world. More enlightened authorities, however, have allowed increased and better communication, at least for professionals, because they know that early consultation on schemes reduces time spent on an application and leads to better outcomes.
Of course, it’s often easy to think that a planning officer’s role in life is to stop development happening! Many circumstances in which an individual planning officer has gone out of their way to be as unhelpful as possible, spring readily to mind. But, like the rest of us in the industry, most planners came into this world to make a difference in the built environment. It must be endlessly frustrating for them to be hamstrung by a system that reinforces a ‘them and us’ culture. Better communication is always the answer. We know that the best results emerge when we’ve been able to develop relationships with officers over time. You know, as if the relationship was between two professionals or two humans beings, trying to deliver a quality solution.
In Cheshire West & Chester I have more involvement with the local authority than elsewhere because of my role on several local bodies. I’m a board member of Chester Growth Partnership, a member of the Cheshire West Design Review Panel and Chair of the Amphitheatre/Dee House Working Group. This involvement brings me into contact with many more council officers than just those in the planning department. And I’m pleased to report that they’re mostly OK! Professional, talented and dedicated but to some extent constrained by the the ‘system’, the cuts and the machinations of politics and public accountability. Hence I think that it’s important to celebrate good things when they happen.
As the public sector shrinks, it becomes increasingly reliant on the private sector to deliver services and to ensure that decisions about the built environment are successful and well received by the public. It comes down to communication again, with the one side valuing the contribution of the other. Local authorities need to become more entrepreneurial and creative, and they need to engage more meaningfully with the private sector. However, it’s a two-way street, and business and local communities need to be better organised and recognise that local authorities comprise real people trying to do their jobs under challenging circumstances. Things are changing for the better. But they’re not changing fast enough.
Which is why a meeting about the creative use of public assets, at which a planning officer is allowed to make a positive contribution to design, is so refreshing. Is it a sign of better things to come?
I certainly hope so.