Former riba president David Rock is pressing the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (cabe) to dig deep and foster a new generation of 'Town Champions' to turn around run-down communities.
Rock has sent commissioners including cabe chief Stuart Lipton a booklet he published this week on the subject, in a bid to get cabe to fund five or more pilot projects for two years. Under the scheme, Rock envisages cabe on its own or in partnership with a local authority spending upwards of around £25,000 on each champion per year depending on their role and town size, and for their work on uk towns to be documented as an example for others to follow. Further cases of similar initiatives abroad could also be included. 'It could be a template to take things forward' said Rock, 'and cabe could have a tremendous influence in extending the concept.'
The idea dovetails with the findings of the Urban Task Force, which specified that there was an 'urgent need for people with expertise in urban design, planning and property development'. 'Town champions', the third in the series of president's initiatives, was written by Dan Bone of civix. It gives details of how the champions could function, as well as the kinds of attributes they need to 'make things happen'.
'Those who fill the role must bring an holistic view and wide experience across a range of frequently separate skills - a multi-professional in fact' said Rock. 'You need a street-wise, head-up person who's interested in everything, not just in surveying or architecture or finances. But although the streetwise architect should have a wide holistic view because of their training, there are other professionals who could fill the role. That's why we changed the name from Civic Architects to Town Champions.'
Essentially the champions would be employed by local authorities and need to be versed in the three key resources concerned with urban development - finance and funding, people and politics and the design of buildings and the environment. Whilst a range of urban enablers from different backgrounds will be required, says the document, it is the architect that has been trained 'specifically to visualise at both the large and the small scale.'
Rock says that the champions must be 'outsiders', consultants employed by the district council from 'thirty to fifty miles' away in order that they remain unencumbered by local bureaucracy and are free to recommend radical ideas. That way they could be impartial and remain outside the town's traditional 'mafia' of surveyors, architects, developers, etc. 'They could be described as a community entrepreneur or as a new 'third force' in contemporary urban society, helping communities to achieve their desired quality of life and the environment they deserve'.
The champions must work with the planners, not against them; must be financial realists with a grasp on grant regimes and funding mechanisms; and be good at forging partnerships. Teaching the town champions of the future should be through the professional institutes working to develop cpd programmes and with the educational sector to develop more focused courses and qualifications.
Civic Trust director Mike Gwilliam said: 'I'm a real enthusiast for this and we should begin by carefully choosing potential areas across the country and let it build from there.'
He added that he felt there were such people with the skills to do the job, citing engineer Alan Baxter, and that there were probably more from the arts or business worlds. Possible pilot areas were places like Ramsgate, Huddersfield or Wimbledon, he said, exhibiting a range of settlement sizes.
The germ of the champion idea arises from Rock's own experience as an early champion of Billericay in Essex and a 12 year spell with the town of Ware in Hertfordshire.