What should be strategic? Can the Urban Task Force change the government's belief that design is not a strategic issue?
The Greater London Assembly Bill, published just before Christmas, seeks to establish the powers of London's new mayor - powers intended to be emulated across the country in due course. At its last meeting, the London Planning and Development Forum was able to debate the bill, assisted by the head of planning at the Government Office for London, Joyce Bridges, and two of the possible mayoral candidates.
Development control is to remain primarily the responsibility of the boroughs, although the mayor and assembly are to have extensive planning powers which will bring together all their other responsibilities. There are two aspects: the preparation of a Spatial Development Strategy (sds) and development control.
The sds is to have a role like a structure plan or the old Greater London Development Plan, containing the mayor's general development policies, but is not a development plan under the 1990 planning act and so is outside the plan-led system, even though it has a statutory base and the borough Unitary Development Plans are meant to conform with it.
The bill says the sds 'must deal only with matters which are of strategic importance to Greater London'. What these may be is not defined. This should help the mayor take the plan through its adoption procedures quickly, essential if in his/her first four years he/she is to see any results on the ground. It is likely to be based on current work by the London Planning Advisory Committee, a consortium of the boroughs, even though lpac is to be abolished under the legislation.
The issue of what is strategic arises again under the second of the mayor's planning roles, development control. Indeed, most of the 110 submissions responding to the preceding white paper dwelt on the proposed thresholds for planning applications which would be referred to the mayor as affecting strategic issues. These, as I have discussed previously (aj 26.11.98), relied on the questionable correlation between strategy and size, and most of the debate, and opposition, to these proposals shared this concern. Even so, the bill puts no duty on the boroughs to have regard to the sds in determining planning applications, despite the fact that the mayor will have power to direct refusals in circumstances to be specified in regulations.
This is because the ministers have ducked this controversial issue by saying that it will be covered by a future Order. Joyce Bridges rationalised this by saying it would allow changes to be made in the light of experience, without the need to go back to primary legislation. It will meanwhile be impossible for mps to consider the ramifications of this power without first having sight of the proposed regulations.
Asked where design fitted in to the mayor's responsibilities, the Government Office was emphatic that design was not considered to be a strategic issue. Given that the creation of the mayor would probably not have been a manifesto proposition were it not for the hugely influential Architecture Foundation/Evening Standard debates which took place before the election, and the hopes for a mayor on the continental model who would be an aspirational leader in the field of urban and environmental quality, this response is more than disappointing; it seems almost scandalous.
The main hope of rectifying this squeezing-out of the continental mayoral model lies in the work of Richard Rogers' Urban Task Force. Its secretary Jon Rouse, in his talk entitled 'The Seven Clamps of Urban Design'1, suggested one clamp of 'visual illiteracy'. He said the task force was testing the feasibility and desirability of recommending that regional centres of excellence in urban development be established in each of the English regions, and elaborated on what these might do. He added: 'We must also reactivate the public imagination by making urban design once again the basis of civic pride and identity.'
The mayor, too, must subscribe to this priority and there is nothing in the bill to stop him/her doing so - though it would be far better if the legislation were to be improved during its passage through parliament to make design a focus of his/her Spatial Development Strategy.
Breaking down professional demarcation zones
Jon Rouse also said that virtually no one was properly equipped with the skills to demand, create and interpret excellence in urban design. To rectify this, the task force is exploring two aspects: the professional skills base and the problem of compartmentalism: 'We have quested to define professionalism functionally and have tended to under-value cross- professional or generalist skills. All our professional institutional frameworks have a tendency to reinforce the divisions.'
Certainly a dynamic tension exists between architecture and its spin- off professions such as planning and quantity surveying. With the cic, the Urban Design Group and the Urban Design Alliance, there are counterbalancing forces at work, but the institutional framework disguises the real integration and cross-boundary work that actually goes on. For example, the largest source of planning consultancy is provided not by planning consultancies but by architects. The notion of urban design, although seen by some architects as another example of spinning off to others what we do best, also has the potential of helpfully blurring the professional boundaries and encouraging the development of cross-border skills.
1 'The Seven Clamps of Urban Design' published in full in Planning in London, January 1999, from 0171 834 9471.
2 Planning, 2 October 1998, from 0181 845 8545.
Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership: 0171 828 6555.