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Fear that Localism Bill devalues architects by encouraging them to work for free

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Architects have hit out at the government’s proposed overhaul of the planning system, fearing it could devalue the profession by encouraging practices to work for free

Part of the government’s ‘Big Society’ drive, the Decentralisation and Localism Bill will allow self-defined ‘neighbourhoods’ to decide what kind of development can happen in their area.

Locally-agreed Neighbourhood Plans and ‘development orders’ could allow some developments to proceed without planning permission, while ruling out other unwanted projects.

Leading industry figures have raised concern over the potential impact on the profession of the Localism Bill, suggesting architects will need to offer their consultant services for free to community groups in order to win work.

Chris Brown, Igloo Development chief executive, warned architects at an AJ100 breakfast meeting last week that they must engage with Localism and not ‘jump on a plane to Dubai and forget about it’. He said community engagement would create opportunities for ‘entrepreneurship’. He suggested there was ‘a huge business opportunity’ for architects who could initially work for free, marketing the idea of ‘good development’ to local communities and that young practices would bite first, creating a ‘new generation of architecture’.

However, dissenters were quick to point out the great risk free work posed to a profession which already struggles to convince its clients of the value of its work.

Andrew Beharrell, director of Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects said he was ‘taken aback by the cynicism of using pro bono work to market infiltration into communities’.

Peter Stewart, head of the RIBA planning group, added: ‘It’s really good for architects to get involved with local matters and contribute to local needs, but if serious work needs to be done, someone has to pay for it.’

Andy Von Bradsky, chairman of PRP Architects, said: ‘I see the Big Society as an activity naturally aligned to the work of community architects [however] there is a limit to how much can reasonably be contributed gratis.’

Robert Adam, director of Adam Architecture suggested the bill could cause a ‘crisis in bringing forward development’ and reduce practices’ workloads.

He added: ‘There’s reasonable evidence that 80 [per cent] of the public don’t like what 95 [per cent] of the architectural profession design.’

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) president, Ann Skippers, raised ‘real concern’ over the bill and questioned whether it could deliver on communities’ housing and employment needs.

She said: ‘We are concerned that government briefing on the bill does not demonstrate how elected local authorities can meet their responsibilities to plan for integrated sustainable development across their local areas let alone the wider-than-local areas, where strategic policies and priorities are needed. The sooner we all see the published bill, the sooner we will know if these fears are justified.’

George Nicholson, former GLC planning committee chairman, described the proposed delegation of powers, which were partly unveiled on Sunday, as a ‘dereliction of duty’.

He said: ‘Clearly local governments and communities should be given more powers, but the fundamental importance of “top-down enablers” is crucial to the mix.’

Tony Burton, director of umbrella group Civic Voice, however suggested that neighbourhood plans could improve the architectural quality of projects. He said: ‘[Reform could lead to] much clearer design related planning which could require a high quality of finishing for new developments.’


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