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Thorne and Orr on the state of Britain's streets

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Clare Melhuish reviews...

In the conference on the LCC early this month (AJ 21.3.02), it was noted that, while ambitious urban strategies such as the County of London Plan were viewed with admiration in Europe, the response was paralleled by a sense of disbelief at the apparent absence of any machinery for implementation, and disappointment at the failure of so much idealism to come to fruition.

At the Urban Design Group's session on 'Reclaiming the Public Realm' last Wednesday, the same issue came to the fore. Robert Thorne and David Orr of Alan Baxter Associates were presenting their research on the quality of British streets, commissioned by CABE and the DTLR, in which one of the key issues emerged as the incapacity of local government structure and system to manage and coordinate an effective decision-making and implementation policy relating to the environment - particularly in terms of design issues.

When it comes to the appearance and operation of our streets, whether in urban or rural situations, there is, by all accounts, a plethora of different guidance documents for local and regional authorities to follow, the application of which also varies dramatically. In addition, the guidance and legislation itself is 'out-of-step with current thinking' on priorities, and departments within authorities are 'unable to work together'.

There is 'a huge problem with personnel changes', 'power struggles between engineers and others', and between different tiers of authority, 'too many objectives', and too many unintegrated layers of strategy. These conflicts are compounded many times over by the increasingly publicised problem of 'utilities running amok'.

All this added up to a 'sheer agony of trying to find out about the decision-making process' for Thorne and Orr, which contrasted dramatically with their experience in Copenhagen, Freiburg and Marseilles. Thorne commented on 'the clarity of management structure in a German town'. In Britain, merely gaining access to the right people to talk to was fraught with complications.

The result, as Thorne and Orr's report will clarify, is that our streets are a mess. By all accounts, the DTLR and Tony Blair himself are very concerned about this, but whether it is actually possible to unravel the bureaucratic muddle underlying the problem is another question.

One of the recommendations is that public realm strategy should be built into local development plans, and another is that the status of streets should be clarified as 'shared spaces', in which vehicles should not be dominant, and which should be subject to legislation distinct from that of the Highways Act, governing roads. But it will also suggest the importance of promoting 'design champions', and, as its 'one ace surprise', the institution of a 'new kind of code', setting out the rights of different users of urban streets. The implementation of such measures is another matter.

Robert Thorne and David Orr's report on achieving quality streetscapes is due for publication, subject to approval by CABE and the DTLR

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