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Drive launched to create new generation of council planners

Public practice collage
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A major new initiative has been launched today that aims to embed privately employed architects and planners in stretched local authority planning departments 

Public Practice, a new broker-like social enterprise headed by Finn Williams, has been set up to place ’a new generation of planners’ within local government ‘to help tackle the housing crisis, and shape places for the public good’.

The organisation is already recruiting its first cohort of 16 ‘planners, architects and urbanists’ – known as associates – for year-long placements in strategic roles which will be paid for by the authorities.

Each associate is expected to receive a salary of between £30,000 to £50,000, and will receive ‘’industry-leading training and mentoring’. They will spend 10 per cent of their time taking part in collective research and development to be shared across the sector.

Meanwhile, according to Williams, authorities will be ‘offered a simple and cost-effective way of accessing a new pool of talent, as well as benefiting from shared research and learning’.

Williams said the scheme would bridge the ’longstanding and widening skills gap between the public and private sectors, recognised as the primary barrier to delivering the quantity and quality of homes the country needs’.

He said: ’The proportion of architects practicing in the public sector has dropped from 49 per cent in 1976 to 0.7 per cent in 2016. Today, almost half of local planning authorities have no dedicated in-house design capacity at all. 96 per cent of London boroughs say they require more planning and placeshaping skills, but 100 per cent have difficulty attracting appropriately qualified or skilled practitioners.’

Public Practice, which is a not-for-profit organisation, is supported by the Mayor of London, Local Government Association, Future Cities Catapult, British Land, Berkeley Group, and Peabody.

A Q&A with Finn Williams, chief executive officer of Public Practice

How would you describe Public Practice? Are there any historical precedents for it?

Public Practice is an independent social enterprise that places outstanding built-environment practitioners – architects, planners, urbanists – within local authorities to shape places for the public good. We’re recruiting a first cohort of associates for year-long placements in strategic roles within planning departments. They’ll spend 10 per cent of their time receiving industry-leading training and mentoring, and taking part in collective research and development which will be shared with the Authorities.

The obvious parallels are programmes like Teach First, Frontline and Year Here, but Public Practice isn’t a graduate scheme. It’s really about embedding expertise within councils to help build their capacity over the longer term. In that sense, better precedents for our approach are organisations like the Design Research Unit, Artist Placement Group, and KF Arkitektkontor – platforms for extraordinary designers to improve ordinary places.

What are you hoping to achieve?

There are a lot of councils out there taking a bold, proactive approach to planning. But every single one of them has told us they have difficulties attracting and retaining the right people. We hope Public Practice can start to shift perceptions of planning and public service, and create opportunities for a new generation of public planners to help local authorities take an active role in tackling the housing crisis and delivering higher quality, more inclusive places.

Why are you doing this now?

The skills gap between the public and private sectors has never been wider. The loss of in-house capacity is a trend that started decades ago, but in the last five years, net local authority investment in planning and development has more than halved. At the same time, we need to be delivering almost three times more homes than five years ago.

There’s increasing recognition across politics that government needs to get back into the business of building houses, but that means bridging a skills gap that has been 40 years in the making. In 1976, 49 per cent of architects worked for the public sector. Today it is 0.7 per cent. Public Practice is one way of starting to rebuild that capacity – not just by placing architects in councils, but by rebuilding the agency of the role of the public planner.

In what way can Public Practice help halt the ongoing marginalisation of the profession?

I trained in architecture but decided to move into local government because I was frustrated that so many of the most critical decisions seemed to be made before architects even got commissioned. Working at Croydon Council and City Hall, I saw that using an architectural way of thinking and communicating can have a really positive impact further upstream – not just on the quality of the built environment, but also on local economies, and communities. And it meant I could work with everyday areas of the built environment that architects aren’t always involved in. According to the RIBA, architects design less than 6 per cent of new housing in the UK. Working in local government is a way of influencing the other 94 per cent.

Is this open to architects as well as planners?

Absolutely. Public Practice is open to applications from practitioners across the built environment – planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, regeneration or historic environment experts – as well as practitioners from related fields like data science or social sciences who don’t fit into those categories. We’re looking for applicants with at least three years’ practical experience, and people who might be near the end of their careers as well as near the beginning.

We’re keen to create genuinely mixed cohorts in terms of expertise, experience and backgrounds, and we’ll be encouraging associates to learn from each other and share skills. Practising planners have told us that they feel the profession has fragmented into increasingly narrow specialisms, each of which is important, but none of which has much agency in its own right. Public Practice should help develop more rounded and interdisciplinary planners – in the broadest sense of the word.

What are you hoping the private sector will take out of this?

Developers and consultants understand that they need good expertise in planning departments to bring about good development. In fact, a relatively recent survey of housebuilders identified the resourcing of local authorities as the single most important policy measure for boosting housing supply. They’re willing to pay more for planning if it improves the speed, certainty and quality of the service they get – and often already do that on a scheme-by-scheme basis through Planning Performance Agreements. Public Practice is a more strategic and long-term way of building capacity than PPAs, and by bringing in support at a programme level it separates the placements from any conflicts of interest.

Do you have a long-term plan for Public Practice?

Our first cohort is going to be focused around London and the south-east of England. But if there’s demand, and we can attract additional support, we’d be keen to set up additional cohorts in other areas like the North West, the Midlands … There’s already interest in the model from authorities in Sweden and Denmark, so it might even go international. But ultimately, the goal is that Public Practice isn’t needed anymore. We’d like to see a situation where typical public sector job descriptions, working conditions and recruitment attract the best possible candidates.

What kind of support do you have for this initiative and what councils are interested?

Public Practice is supported by six Founding Partners: the Mayor of London, Local Government Association, Future Cities Catapult, British Land, Berkeley Group, and Peabody. We’re also in conversations with organisations like Historic England, the RTPI and the RIBA. We’ve spoken to more than 30 local authorities and other public sector organisations about hosting placements, and we’re inviting them to submit expressions of interest by 10 December. 

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