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NEWS FEATURE

Public Practice: raising the bar for local authority design quality

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Adam Branson talks to Finn Williams, co-founder of a new initiative aiming to shake up council planning departments with an injection of design talent. Photo Anthony Coleman

‘I think we have got an extraordinary wealth of talent in the UK, but that’s not evident when you look out of the window,’ says Finn Williams. The comment is meant to be a general observation. Then he actually does look out of the window and smiles, recognising that his remark applies all too well in this instance.

The venue for the AJ’s interview with Williams is the café in the brand-new Sainsbury’s next to Abbey Wood station in south-east London. Through the window, the sprawling paean to concrete that is Thamesmead stretches as far as the eye can see. It is exactly this sort of urban environment that, with his new initiative, Public Practice, Williams hopes to influence for the better. So what’s it all about?

An architect by training, Williams started his professional life in private practice, working first for OMA and then for the consultancy General Public Agency, now Publica. However, after a relatively short time he made the move into local government as deputy team leader of placemaking at Croydon Council. The experience got him thinking: how could more people be encouraged to make the move?

As soon as councils stopped being places where you could go to deliver change with a social agenda, they stopped attracting ambitious people

The result of his deliberations was the kernel of an idea that would go on to become Public Practice. While the model would change over time, the basic proposition has remained the same: a programme whereby private sector professionals from across the built environment spend a year working for local authorities. 

In theory, the benefits of such a programme would be multiple. First, it would foster a greater level of understanding between the public and private spheres. More importantly, it would improve capacity in local authorities at a time when arguably they have never been more stretched. Finally, by boosting capacity, it would also result in better development.

However, getting from concept to reality took time. Rather sweetly, the first big opportunity to properly research the idea was delivered in the form of Williams’ first child.

‘The point where it became a proposition, a model, was when I had six months off looking after my baby,’ he says. 

‘It was an opportunity to have a lot of coffees with people I had been meaning to talk to for a while – with the baby, hopefully sleeping, in tow – and to test the idea. They were people working within local authorities, people who would hopefully go on the programme, potential supporters, and politicians.’ 

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Riba24228

Source: Architectural Press Archive

London County Council Architects’ Department avidly listening to Frank Lloyd Wright’s views on the Royal Festival Hall in July 1950

Having tested the idea, Williams worked it up into a position paper and submitted it to Terry Farrell’s Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, which was published by the government in 2014. ‘It ended up being one of the proposals championed by the review,’ he recalls. ‘That gave it an element of legitimacy and its first public airing. At that stage, it was still very much my own initiative – it was the kind of organisation I wished had been there for me when I made the transition from the private to the public sector.’

By this point, Williams was working in the regeneration team at the Greater London Authority. He continued to plug his idea in his own time, but soon gained the support of colleagues and the mayor. ‘In a way, the initiative that made it happen came not from me but from the administration and the mayor’s design advisory group,’ he says. ‘The need was identified and the research was done under Boris Johnson; the proposal came formally under Sadiq Khan’s administration.’

But Williams was knocking at an open door. He went on to found Public Practice with Pooja Agrawal, another architect-planner who worked with him at the GLA.

The lack of capacity in local authority planning departments had long been a major issue. ‘In fact, every single report that has been published, not just since 2010, but back to 2007, 2004, 1998 … every report has identified not just the lack of capacity, but the lack of proactive planning skills as an issue in terms of delivering high-quality places,’ Williams says.

It’s an issue that has particular resonance in the architecture profession. Whereas once, authorities directly employed architects to take a lead on shaping how cities and towns developed, today that proactive role has almost entirely vanished in the UK. In turn, planning departments have retreated and, with a few notable exceptions, are largely reactive in nature. ‘It really goes back to when local authorities stopped building,’ says Williams. ‘As soon as councils stopped being places where you could go to deliver change with a social agenda, of course they stopped attracting ambitious people who wanted to build things.

‘None of this is to say that there aren’t brilliant people in local authorities – there are extraordinary people who are hanging on in there doing really innovative work. But there aren’t enough of them.’

Every single report has identified the lack of proactive planning skills as an issue in terms of delivering high-quality places

That is the issue that Public Practice aims to address. And now, with the backing of London’s deputy mayors for planning and housing, as well as organisations such as the Berkeley Group, British Land and Peabody, Public Practice has become a reality. Recruitment for the first cohort of the programme, which focuses on London and its commuter belt, took place at the end of last year and received 212 applications for 16-20 places.

Williams was highly encouraged by the number of applications, but so too by their quality and diversity. ‘The quality was extraordinary,’ he says. ‘We were just bowled over by the level of experience and maturity among all age ranges. We got people applying who are in their 50s and 60s, coming towards the end of their careers and who want to give something back. We’ve got people who are running really successful small architecture practices but who want to work part-time within a local authority. 

‘We’ve also got people who are near the start of their careers, working in big offices and running projects as project architects, but are frustrated by their lack of agency and being forced to supply the right answers to the wrong questions and who want to work further upstream. It’s a really interesting mix of backgrounds.’

As well as ‘quite a few’ architects, those applying had backgrounds in social sciences, data sciences, design, planning, regeneration conservation.

Croydon

Croydon

Source: Jim Stephenson

Croydon Council is one local authority which has made efforts to bring in architectural expertise

The first cohort of associates, as they’re known, will take up their placements in April at their allotted authorities (30 authorities have submitted expressions of interest, so Public Practice is oversubscribed on that front, too) and will be working on a wide range of projects and initiatives. Indeed, many of the authorities have proposed creating entirely new roles, rather than simply placing associates within their existing departments. 

‘They’re creating new posts, for example by bringing together development management, policy and regeneration functions around a particular place to create a single new post that has much more power to work across the council,’ says Williams. ‘Or they’re introducing a new architect role to oversee quality on all of their council-led housing delivery.’

Williams is also pleased – and a little surprised – to find that councils responded enthusiastically to another aspect of the programme. For one day every fortnight, associates will meet up to share ideas and create and test solutions, effectively doing research and development work. Given that councils are having to stump up to fund salaries, you might have thought that losing 10 per cent of their associates’ time would be an issue. Not so.

‘In many ways, they’re viewing this as a shared research department for local government,’ says Williams. ‘One of the things I’ve been surprised by is that some authorities have asked: Is this enough? Their associate will be going to do collective R&D one day every two weeks, but the authority effectively gets back 16 times the amount of research.’

Williams is already talking to Public Practice’s backers about rolling the model out to different parts of the country, although for now the focus is on getting the first year right.

It is yet to be seen how much impact the initiative will have on the overall quality of the built environment, but there is certainly no doubting the scale of his ambition.

‘London is a world-leading centre of design talent,’ he says. ‘But I would say when you look at ordinary places, rather than iconic, one-off projects, it’s just not translating into most people’s experience of their built environment. For me, that’s what Public Practice could do.’

Adam Branson is a freelance writer specialising in the built environment

Finn Williams: CV

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  • 2004 – 2005 Architectural assistant, Office for Metropolitan Architecture
  • 2005 – 2007 MA (RCA) Architecture, Royal College of Art
  • 2007 – 2008 Project co-ordinator, General Public Agency (now Publica)
  • 2009 – 2013 Deputy team leader of placemaking, Croydon Council
  • 2015 – 2016 Co-curator of the British Pavilion, Venice Biennale of Architecture 2016, British Council
  • 2013 – 2017 Regeneration area manager, Greater London Authority
  • 2014 – present Director and trustee, Planning Officers Society
  • 2014 – present Planning group member, RIBA
  • 2015 – present CABE built environment expert, Design Council
  • 2016 – present Board member, Planning Advisory Service
  • 2017 – present Co-founder and chief executive, Public Practice

This feature appears in the Education issue – click here to buy a copy

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    Excellent initiative but not just in London, the shires in the rest of the Country are desperately short of architectural representation at County level. County authorities are busily outsourcing design to construction companies, and we know where that leads don’t we, just look around :-) Huge criticism of public building, and safety, design standards across the nation.

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