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Defining the problems that afflict our high streets is as valuable as finding the solutions

Understanding a problem in the round is something that architects are trained to do, writes Paul Finch

Conversations with architects at MIPIM last week were numerous and stimulating, not least because there seems to be a new interest in speculative research into a variety of areas that most certainly need it: housing supply, carbon capture, the implications of data technologies for built form and the way we define value being a sample.

Understanding a problem in the round is something that architects are trained to do, and it can bring fresh thinking into tired areas. For example, Make has been looking at the revival of the high street, not from the perspective of retailers and the terrible state of landlord and tenant relationships, but from the broader perspective of why high streets work in the first place.

The practice concludes - which may sound obvious but was not obvious to the Portas Review - that the way to revitalise high streets, and town centres as a whole, is to ensure they are packed full of people. If the people are there, the retail will follow. People will not be there if there is no residential accommodation, if parking is impossible, and if the general urban experience is a woeful one.

A variety of unconnected location strategies have seen town centres and high streets denuded of people because they are no longer locations for the hospital, the university, the shopping centre, the library and the swimming pool - with 360-degree catchment. When high streets get the retail vitamin of a Sainsbury’s Local or Tesco Express, there is a fuss because they are said to be ‘killing the high street’, when in fact they may be the sole useful magnets.

Motives of public organisations for moving out of city centres is generally to cash in on the value of their sites but, as ever with programmes of dispersal, the dis-benefits for the city are downplayed in favour of whizzy new premises in this or that edge-of-town location. How clever to put Regent Street Poly into Harrow-on-the-Hill.

The political mania for closing down local police stations and libraries in favour of remote headquarters buildings servicing unfeasibly large chunks of the city is accompanied by wailing about the decline of community, but it is precisely these sorts of decisions that undermine the idea of London in particular as a series of villages. The worst decision was the elimination in the 1960s of those wonderful London boroughs - Finsbury, Battersea, Marylebone, Tottenham - in favour of cumbersome mega-councils that are neither big enough to be strategic across London nor small enough to give specific identity.

In raising these issues, Make has reminded us that the framing of the question determines the usefulness of the answer. A combination of lateral thinking and the spotting of analogous examples provides real value, even if too many clients think architectural services are about knocking out construction details. How you get procurement procedures to acknowledge the desirability of paying for design brainpower, and giving it time to flourish, is a question all of its own, which we hope the Farrell Review will help to illuminate.

As to more prosaic questions - how to deliver enough homes, where aeroplanes should land - we should still be ensuring that we are asking the question in an intelligent way. I have often wondered, in respect of PFI procurement, about the granting of cleaning contracts for 25 years. What exactly was the question to which that was the answer?

It makes for quite a good parlour game, and illuminates the mindset of people and organisations that were asking the wrong question. Unfortunately, that includes some very bright people in the Treasury. If only cleverness were enough.

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