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Comment & reaction: The Prince’s Foundation role in the localism agenda

The profession reacts to the government’s decision to fund a new role for The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment

Earlier this month The Prince’s Foundation was named as one of four recipients to share £3.2 million of government funding to help spearhead its Localism drive – a move described by some as ‘conservative’.

The charity, along with The Royal Town Planning Institute, consortium group Locality and the National Association of Local Councils together with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, was chosen to receive funding to help provide communities with free enabling advice and, potentially, to help produce neighbourhood plans.

Ian Ritchie, of Ian Ritchie Architects, was cautious about the role for the Prince’s charity, famous for promoting Poundbury.

He said: ‘It sounds very conservative. I would hope they come to it with an open mind, rather than prejudice.’

Martin Roe, partner at Austin Smith:Lord, added: ‘The question that inevitably arises is the extent to which the position and role may be used to influence decisions around architectural design itself.

‘My experience is that most architects are very good at community collaboration. I hope that this is recognised and that the impetus provided by the selection of advisers leads to real progress for communities and the built environment and is not diluted by pitched roof versus flat roof debates.’

Robert Adam, however, of ADAM Architecture, welcomed the foundation’s new role. He said: ‘The architectural establishment in its various forms is primarily dedicated to what the architectural establishment wants. Too often this is based on ignoring what communities want. The Prince’s Foundation is one of the few professionally-based organisations that think differently.’

And Paul Finch, chairman of Design Council CABE, said: ‘The Prince’s Foundation is no stranger to this subject area and has been doing work in the field for many years.

‘The main thing is that people with little experience will have access to enablers, who know what they are talking about and who can offer whatever level of help might be necessary, either producing neighbourhood plans or advising where development should happen.’

Comment

Hank Dittmar, chief executive of The Prince’s Foundation, talks about what lies in store now that the foundation is the recipient of a government grant to assist with community planning.

The government’s drive towards Localism in planning poses a challenge to an industry shaped by generations of top-down directions and large, centralised government procurement programmes. The reversal to a presumption for sustainable development seems, to some, to contradict the emphasis on community and neighbourhood planning. But this misreads the call for Localism as a reinforcement of ‘Nimby’ thinking, rather than a call for responsiveness.

Within the profession there have always been champions of community planning, local engagement and bottom-up thinking. The idea that an engaged public could demand improved quality in exchange for agreeing to development is an attractive one. And there is nothing in the new proposals to contradict the planning presumption towards sustainable community set out in 1998 in the Urban White Paper.

The Prince’s Foundation counts itself amongst the many bodies to inherit a community planning legacy dating back to the 1970s. Rod Hackney, Nick Wates, John Thompson and many others begat a nationwide movement, the Urban Villages Forum, and numerous groups active to the present day. There is strong evidence of the power of the community voice in shaping its surroundings for the better. 

With the government’s commitment of funding to initiatives promoting local planning, the opportunity exists to interpret Localism and subsidiarity for the 21st century. The Prince’s Foundation is one of four groups in this latest initiative that will be offering free advice to local communities on the planning process, alongside the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Planning Aid and Locality (a consortium of local interest groups). While the other bodies will run advice and guidance services on general planning process, the foundation will complement their efforts by conducting engagement planning events addressing live growth issues. The outcome of these tailor-made sessions will be recommendations for bringing community, developers and planners into alignment, tapping resources for community build, or other frameworks for growth on a neighbourhood or community scale.

The Prince’s Foundation’s track record of community engagement dates back 15 years, leading to a variety of schemes that have now been built or granted planning around the UK. Our Enquiry by Design methodology is interdisciplinary, multiple-scaled and aims to privilege local knowledge alongside specialist expertise. When one engages with local knowledge and local DNA, one has to park preconceptions about architectural theory and form at the door and realise that these drivers pale next to issues related to traffic, safety and the qualities of the existing place. Importantly, though, this approach may lead to a much greater participation of architects in the shaping of new housing or commercial developments

Clearly, the difficulty in finding resources to pay for their time remains an obstacle to architects’ participation in local dialogue. But the great redistribution of property hinted at in the reorganisation of local authority estates may result in a string of asset-rich new community vehicles. Architects, with their professional interest in a broad range of social, economic and technical issues, can be the conveners of strategic thought and mobilisation of projects. Communities themselves can often be more resourceful than conventional thinking anticipates and, if provided with accurate information and a modicum of professional vocabulary, are quite capable of engaging in informed dialogue with highways engineers, local authority planners and developers.

Non-professional groups do not automatically accept architectural commonplaces like the glazed elevation or the flat roof, but neither are they uninformed consumers of historicist styles. Their priorities encompass a range of issues – not least affordability and environmental concerns – but architectural dogma does not sit high on their list. They are, however, often surprised to learn that the things they most admire in traditional historic centres are replicable, to some degree, today. Architects coming from standard jobs with mainstream construction will have to learn how to work with this grain if they are to thrive in a new era of Localism. Local consensus will become critical to successful planning consent with certain scales of project.  

The most significant professional challenge in the era of Localism will be the defence of the principle of growth, in the absence of a government mandate. Architects must continue to argue for improvements to the built environment, but will have to help people see that new development will not necessarily degrade their quality of life. A different interpretation of new build will find favour with local people, who must consider the implications for their children’s lives, for the future of a valued local shop, surgery or school. Communities must become the strongest ambassadors for development as a positive force.

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