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Public Practice: how is the initiative to shake up planning departments faring one year on?

Lucia cerrada anthony coleman
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The pioneering social enterprise offering placements at local councils is set to expand across the UK – and architects are applying in droves. Ella Jessel finds out why it has struck such a chord. Photography Anthony Coleman

Architect Lucia Cerrada’s desk in Tower Hamlets’ planning department overlooks two of the borough’s most famous post-war housing estates, both undergoing radical change.  

The last-remaining block of the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens and the newly scrubbed-up and privatised Balfron Tower are the products of an experimental era of municipal housing when about half of all architects worked for local authorities.

Today that figure sits at 1 per cent. But Cerrada (pictured above), a new recruit to Tower Hamlets’ place-shaping team, is one of the first members of a new initiative that could finally begin to nudge those numbers back up. In fact, while recent figures show a decline in the number of in-house architects nationally, in London the trend is reversing.

Local government is presented as a place where architects’ skills could have immediate and long-lasting impact 

The 34-year-old architect, who qualified in Spain and previously worked for Maccreanor Lavington, is part of the first cohort of Public Practice, a pioneering social enterprise which seeks to tackle what it calls the ‘long-standing and widening’ skills gap between the public and private sector.

Public Practice acts as a broker, matching up councils in London and the South East with talented architects and built-environment professionals on 12-month placements. Its first intake of 17 ‘associates’ only started in May last year but the scheme is already expanding at breakneck speed. A second batch of 37 started last month.

Its first two cohorts attracted 430 applications, two-thirds of whom had never applied to work in the public sector before. It has doubled the size of its second-year cohort, introduced an additional group to meet demand, and is now plotting national growth. 

The first group jumped straight into the deep end on a range of projects that included procuring architects on a major regeneration scheme in Newham, working on garden towns in Epping Forest and setting up design review panels in Havering.

Alpa depani anthony coleman

Alpa depani anthony coleman

Alpa Depani, placemaking lead at Waltham Forest Council

So how has the initiative’s 2018 vanguard of associates, now alumni, found the experience? And does the programme’s popularity among architects signal a shifting relationship to the public sector?

Public Practice was set up in 2017 by Finn Williams and Pooja Agrawal to address the long-standing issue of how to build local-government planning capacity and in doing so improve development quality of new homes.

Its core funding comes from the GLA (in total £220,000 between 2017-2021). But it also receives significant funds from private-sector parties interested in planning. 

Its cash-paying partners including major property players such as British Land, Berkeley Group and housing association Peabody. In its letter pledging £65,000 over three years, British Land said its support reflects the belief a ‘capable and motivated’ public sector is critical to London’s growth.

The private sector has a lot to learn in how to make your life easier and still make you excited about your work 

On one level, it acts as a non-profit recruitment service, charging the councils placement fees of between £5,000 and £7,000 which are then reinvested back into the scheme. Associates are hired by the local authorities on one-year, fixed-term contracts, or on secondments from their existing employers, for salaries of between £30,000 and £70,000.

But as Agrawal points out, it is not about ‘filling empty seats’, but working with councils to devise strategies for embedding talent long-term. As part of the programme, associates take part in regular research and development days, encouraging networking and skill-sharing between authorities.

At the end of Public Practice’s first year, all but one of the first group have remained in the public sector. Their new employers also seem impressed, with 94 per cent of the original authorities applying to take further associates.

To architects, it was an easy sell. Its manifesto included lines such as ‘bureaucracy is not a constraint on creativity’, presenting local government as a place where architects’ skills could have immediate and long-lasting impact.

Cerrada joined public practice from UCL’s Bartlett school, where she was doing a PhD. She was matched with Tower Hamlets to develop best-practice guidance for super-density development in areas like the Isle of Dogs.        

The sense of being part of a team doing ‘important, public-minded work’ was powerful

In a meeting room in the council’s 1990s Mulberry Place HQ, a hulking civic centre by the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel, she explains how she always wondered what it would be like to work in the public sector but never knew if she would ‘fit the bill’.

‘When I read the manifesto from Public Practice it really resonated with me,’ she says. ‘They touched on values that I connected with and it seemed like the opportunity to join a group and be part of a movement.’

Her work is ‘incredibly exciting’, she enthuses, pointing out how much long-term influence designing frameworks has compared with direct design delivery. This is despite the fact ‘it may not be thought of this way at architecture schools’.

What are the main differences from working in practice? ‘Where to start?’ It’s the culture in general,’ Cerrada says, listing off some of the positives: a diverse workforce, ‘modern and advanced’ working practices which encourage flexitime working and a better work/life balance. She has even joined a union.

‘The private sector has a lot to learn in how to make your life easier and still make you excited about your work,’ she says. She hopes to stay on at Tower Hamlets ‘as long as I can’. There are challenges, of course, such as ‘understanding the complexities of the council’s organisational structure’ and who you have to go through to get something done. The office is also quite corporate and lacks meeting space – though this could be solved in a few years when it moves into a new AHMM-designed base in Whitechapel. 

These struggles are echoed by other first-year associates, who all mention grappling with the sheer scale of the local-government machine as well as other culture shocks such as ‘mind-boggling acronyms’, ‘BYO teabags’ and bad file management systems. However, Alpa Depani, who spent her first year in Sutton but is now in her second placement at Waltham Forest, has found planning departments ‘surprisingly dynamic’ and not ‘leaden’ as she expected.

Like Cerrada, Depani had also nurtured ambitions to work in the public sector but couldn’t see an ‘obvious route’. She says: ‘I remember feeling sad reading in 2010 that Leeds’ last city architect was retiring and wouldn’t be replaced.’

She admits to an ‘element of professional snobbishness’ about joining a local authority as a ‘planner’, having trained so long for the architect title. But she acknowledges that Public Practice’s aim is to ‘develop roles and fill gaps’ within a local authority, rather than simply fit into pre-existing ones.

Public practice tfl anthony coleman

Public practice tfl anthony coleman

Source: Anthony Coleman

Left to right: Public Practice associates John Stiles and Sharon Giffen with TfL projects design manager Tom Sykes

Tom Sykes moved from small practice Burd Haward Architects to Transport for London (a ‘large, multi-headed organisation’) to work as a design and quality manager. He says the sense of being part of a team doing ‘important, public-minded work’ is powerful but he occasionally felt isolated as the only designer in TfL’s Property Development team.

Public Practice is tackling this by sending in more associates to form teams, often creating entirely new roles. Sykes is not sure if he will return to practice, but has now been joined at TfL by two new associates: John Stiles and Sharon Giffen. 

Tower Hamlets’ head of regeneration Sripriya Sudhakar says the benefits of Cerrada’s placement include her ability to independently manage projects and the network of associates and contacts from academia she has brought with her. 

As the council moved away from direct delivery in the 60s and 70s to becoming a regulatory authority, it ‘lost people along the way’, explains Sudhakar.

She says that while the borough is able to attract talent, its challenge is stopping staff being poached down the line. ‘Because of that shift, which has happened over time, we are no longer seen as a place for architects to work [long-term] which is unfortunate.’ This is where Public Practice comes in, she explains, by providing a platform to show local authorities as exciting, rather than ‘dull’, places to work.

Public Practice placements started at a time when councils had finally begun building their own housing again 

How are cash-strapped councils affording all this role creation? Public Practice is around 50 per cent cheaper than agencies, and does not charge councils a retention fee to keep staff on (usually around £10,000, according to Agrawal) as it hopes this will help build a ‘pipeline within local authorities’. 

It also helps that councils have recently begun building their own housing again, albeit in small quantities. According to another first-year associate, architect Hannah Lambert, there is ‘more money available’ for local authorities as GLA grants and government funding for housing projects starts to trickle through.

Lambert, who was already working in the public sector for the London Legacy Development Corporation, had direct experience of this during her Public Practice placement in Newham, where she led a team putting together a planning application for an estate regeneration programme in Canning Town, Newham’s first of that scale. She brought in local group People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH) to help procure the design team, to be led by Adam Khan Architects. The social enterprise is now in conversations about how to roll out in regions across the UK, with likely areas for expansion including the West Midlands, Manchester, Liverpool and the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor. 

Lambert cautions against Public Practice ‘running before [it] can walk’ and wonders how it will balance growth across all sectors of the built environment rather than more design-orientated roles such as urban designers and architects.

Royal Town PIanning Institute chief executive Victoria Hills, meanwhile, warns that while the initiative is ‘really, really important’, it is not a silver bullet and the route into planning needs to be broadened through apprenticeships and other areas. ‘Public Practice is part of the solution, but there’s a whole menu of things we need to do,’ she says.

Artboard 5

Artboard 5

Map showing the authorities where Public Practice has placements, as well as London-wide bodies GLA and TfL

Agrawal says doubling the size of the cohort was something Public Practice thought ‘very seriously’ about. ‘Authorities are saying to us we want [all these roles] filled in six months. And we had 75 applications from them. To only do 17 again would have felt like we had let them down.’

She is also clear it is not just for architects, planners and urban designers, but for all built-environment professionals; the latest crop includes an engineer and sustainability experts. 

Talking to Public Practice’s first cohort, it is clear the programme has tapped into a sense of disillusionment with traditional modes of practice. Agrawal describes this as a growing frustration at the ‘squeezed’ role of the architect combined with a more general momentum in and around London about how to tackle housing issues such as affordability and placemaking.

‘Rather than designing for people, [architects] are designing for the market and I think that frustration was really apparent’, she says, adding: ‘That’s the fundamental ethos of why we became architects – to serve the people that live in places.

Depani describes the public sector’s attraction as a rejection of ‘starchitect culture’, pointing out she is also part of a generation of architects that grew up in town centres characterised by ‘post-war civic architecture’. ‘[We] lived through the removal of so much of it under the assumption it was all ugly and wrong, as well as a gradual dismantling of the state in general,’ she says. ‘It seeps into your consciousness.[Yet] there is so much civic architecture I admire that was a product of municipal architects. I could never understand why that role doesn’t exist any more.’

Cerrada agrees. Perhaps initiatives like Public Practice can help begin to ‘redefine’ the idea of what success means in architecture. ‘The concept of architects collaborating without anyone’s name at the top – it would be fantastic if it could be seen as a success as well.’

Q+A: Alpa Depani, placemaking lead, Waltham Forest Council

Alpa depani b&w

Depani joined Public Practice from Brighton University where she headed its MA architecture studio, having previously worked for a number of small and large practices. She is now in a second placement at Waltham Forest after spending a year at Sutton Council  

How was your first year as a town centre design associate in Sutton?

It’s almost impossible to condense the experience down. I worked across three teams (planning policy, town centre regeneration and development management) so a big challenge was trying to understand the roles of people within those teams and how their priorities were shaped. There was a change in the type of work I was doing. I went from designer to arbiter of design. 

What does your new role involve?

I’m involved at a strategic level and provide design guidance on a range of major projects and masterplans across the borough as well as formulating briefs for forthcoming schemes. It’s an exciting time to be at Waltham Forest; there is an energy and appetite for design-led development and the promotion of social as well as fiscal value. And of course we are currently London’s first ever borough of culture.

What are the main differences to working in practice?

Scale and time. I mostly look at large-scale developments, which is not new in itself, but I don’t get to work through the scales and see the construction details any more. The scale of what you consider relevant context is much bigger too. I’m always looking well beyond the red line boundary.  

Have you noticed a skills gap in the local planning authorities?

There is a skills gap. Design thinking is not always prioritised in the decision-making of urban developments. 

But it cuts both ways. I’m not sure architects in practice fully appreciate the complexity of local and national planning policy or even systems of local government and the extent to which politics influence development. 

What can private practices and the public sector learn from each other?

People and places are messy and unpredictable and made up of sometimes contradictory priorities. I think the public sector is more attuned to that because local authorities are the same! The range of voices is bigger, which broadens your perspective but also forces you to work harder to defend your position. But the public sector could learn a lot from architecture practice when it comes to IT and document management.


Q+A: Tom Sykes, projects design manager at Transport for London

Tom sykes b&w

Sykes joined the transport authority’s property development department from Burd Haward Architects where he worked on housing projects. He now works to improve the quality of schemes on TfL land. In April he was joined by two new associates. 

What are some of TfL’s principal design challenges?

My experience has shown me that the more visionary and creative you are able to be at the start of a project, the greater its potential quality as it moves forward. This is a significant challenge, especially on TfL’s land, due to the inevitable complexity of constraints: tunnels, signalling, cables, long thin sites. If I could change anything it would be to create more opportunities for embracing the possibilities of a site at an early stage. 

Has your contribution been well received by the rest of the team?

Yes, it has. Many of the people in the team have experience of delivering construction projects from the client side, and so understand the process. The difference has been in giving development managers, and their design teams, the opportunity to think more creatively about a site’s potential. 

One of my first jobs was to set up a design review panel using mayoral design advocates. These reviews and surgeries became popular forums for discussing the wider aspirations of individual projects and made the process more inspiring.   

Is there revived interest in architects seeking work in the public sector?

Yes, and especially now that organisations like Public Practice are showing how rewarding it can be. When I applied I had little idea about what sort of jobs there might be in the public sector for an architect. Now, I want to tell everyone how much design education and training can give outside of the walls of our profession, and the enormous difference that can be made by spreading that knowledge. 

I think as more people realise this, the interest in the public sector will increase, and from what I have seen the public sector is soaking up that talent and energy and doing great things with it. 

What are the main differences from working in practice?

Leaving architecture practice meant leaving a group of people who have all been educated – and often think and speak – in the same way. As the only designer I have, at times, felt lonely in my new environment. Public Practice’s R&D days helped here, as they were not just an opportunity for research but also to learn from the rest of the cohort about how they were adapting to this change.

The move also came with a surprising shift in freedom and responsibility.  

Do you now see yourself working in public sector long term?

I’m not sure. It was almost halfway through my initial year before I felt I was making significant change and starting to put meaningful strategies into place to support design culture. 

I want to stay now in order to make sure that those changes stick, but also because of the slightly heady feeling of seeing the change you had hoped for start to come about. On the other hand, I do miss the challenges of designing. I hope I can find a way of balancing the two. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Another point of view about the organisation may be read here tribunemag.co.uk/2019/05/best-laid-plans

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