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Brian Waters on planning- 'Architects must bring their vision to the Big Society, and not for free'

The coalition government has set out its stall with the new Decentralisation and the Localism Bill: power to the people.

This is real ‘bottom-up’ stuff, but as Terry Farrell once remarked: ‘When you’re at the bottom you don’t always know which way is up.’ And this is where our profession needs to reposition itself by activating its design and communication skills to facilitate neighbourhood communities in articulating their wishes for their living and built environment.

It’s an opportunity for ‘community architecture’ to come into its own, just as slick developer-led public consultation exercises have begun to discredit themselves. No longer will the main thrust of consultation be about ‘selling’ a development proposal: the client will be the neighbourhood itself and, to succeed, it will have to bring vision back into planning, using our skills to identify the driving issues which will generate beneficial change, and to demonstrate how to manage change itself.

Developer-clients have tended to repress architects’ motivation to relate design to social objectives, at least beyond the particular building type they are dealing with, but social and economic issues will emerge as the key driving forces and design will often be the enabler. We will have to broaden our knowledge base and extract inputs from our new neighbourhood clients as well as specialist knowledge from other professions. We will also have to work with new kinds of client to identify and exploit the necessary resources.

There will be a tough learning curve for all involved. Local authorities will have a duty to co-operate with neighbourhoods as they develop their plans and are required to support and resource them. It will not succeed if it is done on a pro-bono basis and it is vital that the profession does not start down that slippery slope, even though this is the relationship we now tend to have when working with such groups. The Big Society cannot come free if it is to achieve worthwhile outcomes.

The current spending cuts will make the transition very difficult, but the change in this balance of democratic power will take many years to become established, so don’t panic.

Meanwhile, the legal rules of the current planning system will remain in place for several years and finding the way through as the game is changing will be the difference between success and failure for all concerned. For architects, a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ will give us the scope for reasserting our lead role. The 2008 Planning Act amended the statutory definition of ‘sustainable development’ by giving it a second leg: ‘good design’. We alone have the skills to deliver that.

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