Tom Bloxham on Localism and the role of the architect
The chairman and co-founder of Urban Splash talks to HOK’s Sherin Aminossehe about developing in the Big Society
What is the difference betweenLocalism and Nimbyism?
My question is: what are we doing to create the concept of Big Society properly? We should really be concentrating much more on ideas about how cities work. In the past 20 years this has been about rebuilding cities with quality architecture and creating pride. Initiatives such as the Urban Taskforce, led by Lord Heseltine, have been very successful in this, coupled with other schemes led by good architects.
What does Localism actually mean? Is it really about the community group that wants a swimming pool in the local sports centre?
There should always be scope in society to give people a swimming pool, because that’s important. The problem is that groups aren’t always about making things happen, but about stopping them. The trick is being able to empower groups in such a way that makes creative things happen.
So instead of community-led planning or just architect-led design, should there be a process that mixes the best of both?
The best design for regenerating an area has to have both the community and good architects involved. At the outset, politicians must set the agenda and architects have to listen. There are always lots of competing views and somebody must decide which are the most important. We need ideas that are the best for the majority, like improving the local school and creating a better environment.
Taking into account the interests of both community groups and architects, who should make strategic decisions?
That person should be the politician. We live in a democracy, so politicians should be involved at every level, with local issues decided upon in parishes and matters of strategic importance at national level. In general, we need to have a much more engaged and grown up discussion about development and how we want to see our cities change.
If you live in a beautiful, medieval village you should be able to say no to development, but in return you will see a gradually declining community with fewer affordable houses, with young people priced out of the area and a pub that is no longer as vibrant. People have to accept that some change is needed in order to allow communities to evolve.
Is Localism at odds with the pro-growth agenda of the construction industry?
There is no question of the economic benefits of development. The regeneration of cities creates more jobs and more homes in revitalised areas and is a positive force, but the argument needs to be made in a better way. Since people are naturally conservative, we have to work harder at selling and championing good quality development and architecture.
How do you think the Localism agenda will affect the residential sector and developers like yourself?
We’ve never had any major problems with planning and planners have always been positive. Any problems that have arisen have been in the details, but we’ve been able to work talk through those. Problems for the industry are in viability and development finance in the residential sector rather than planning. Saying that, it will make it harder to get some developments through. People are happy to have expensive rather than cheaper housing in their neighbourhood, so the system will be driven by short-term interests.
How would you personally like to see urban policy develop?
First, start with a vision about what we want our towns and cities to be like – this needs to be politician-led. Then professionals need to push that through by commissioning great places, buildings, streetscapes and parks. Secondly, we need financial incentives in areas where the market has failed so that short-terms costs can be borne more equally.
Do you have any preferences on the type of financial incentives, such as the tax increment financing (TIF) used in the US?
TIF is interesting but there are many ways of doing this, for example, Enterprise Zones. There isn’t a single approach. The problem is we’re currently doing nothing, and all the regeneration we’ve had in the past 10 years could go into reverse, and finally into decline.
Do you have any advice for architects in the context of Localism?
Architects should concentrate on designing great buildings and spend more time on the spaces between buildings.
Anything to add?
We need to continue with the same sense of urgency that we’ve had over the past 20 years for regenerating places like Manchester and continue that across the country.