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Urban design pirates blight our cities and our profession

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The idea of urban design or 'masterplanning' is a good one, from the point of view that 'design' implies someone has thought about a small piece of geography.

However, the term 'masterplanning' is bad, and for two reasons: because it implies that it was done by a master, or that it acts as a blueprint or matrix to be filled in; and because it has something to do with planning, which is one of the most hated and discredited activities known to man.

In my own practice, these activities are called Big Architecture, which I feel is more appropriate for such an important activity.

It is Big Architecture because the skills and intelligence required are no different to designing a kitchen or evolving a strategy for a school. It combines practicality and poetry, or a questioning of the status quo, or complete madness, or raw courage, to unlock elements of joy and beauty within the project.

You can, therefore, appreciate the surprise and disgust I felt when it dawned on me that many of the practices which win urban design commissions in the UK are civil engineering firms and project managers.

Why? Many of these tasks are tendered by local authorities on the basis of competitive bids. Many might involve engineering, civil engineering or project management roles. As a result, many engineering and management firms, along with some of our lesser commercial architects, have set up 'urban design units' to bid for this work. The bids they put in are loss leaders - if they win the masterplanning commission they will be in a good position to win the more lucrative role of engineer or manager. So we end up with projects being undertaken by unqualified, cynical people with ulterior motives.

This practice must be stopped. I have witnessed situations where a piece of work that should take between nine and 12 months for a fee of £50,000-£200,000, is awarded for a study over three months for £1,500 and limited expenses. No wonder the quality of towns and cities does not improve.

In St Helier in Jersey, the masterplanning for the former docks areas was tendered. It was won by Tibbalds Monroe for a fee of £17,500. Two years later I asked the local planner what had happened to this document. He said he had not thought it prudent to show it to the politicians and that it was gathering dust in his bottom drawer.

That is not only a waste of £17,500 of public money but also a waste of three months.

Lip service is paid by authorities to the 'correct' steps on a road of apparent due diligence.

Normally, this path is the one that leads to yet another series of big sheds that succeed in wrecking an existing town centre, with smaller shops hanging onto a precarious thread of existence. The firms and practices that indulge in these consultancy activities must stop before they destroy the lives of many of the ordinary people in this country.

I have seen firms of supposed planners in the Black Country suggesting that the 'token' housing in a town centre regeneration scheme should be shoehorned between the service yard at Tesco and the inner ring road.

The world of consultancy is littered with people of no vision and no imagination, whose 'skill' is turning round under-priced reports in the least possible time. Every year, millions of pounds of public money is squandered on masterplanning studies, undertaken by urban design pirates.

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