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Adapt to Localism or die

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To survive in the Big Society, architects must be experts in PR, says Christine Murray

What might have been a bit of empty rhetoric is real. This week’s Localism Bill is proving to be the cornerstone of the mooted Big Society. As the AJ went to press, sneak previews of the bill reveal upheaval aplenty for the planning system, but more crucially, the profession.

So what does Localism mean for architects? Two things so far:

1) Less work for architects
The public will be encouraged to submit their own planning applications, and more developments will be designated as permitted development – stripping away bread-and-butter work for small practices and sole practitioners.

2) Unpaid work for architects
Under the new bill, councils will have a duty to adopt Neighbourhood Plans for their area which will be decided on by public referendum. Community groups will also have increased power in reviewing and deciding on planning applications. Should architects elect be involved in these processes, their consultation is unlikely to be paid.

As I spoke to developers, planning consultants and community leaders this week, their advice to architects was that Localism is here, and they had better get used to it, and fast.

In this new paradigm, architects no longer have just one client to satisfy, but a whole parish or neighbourhood. They will need to engage in community consultations at several stages to ensure their scheme has been adequately anointed.

Community consultations are not new, but they are often an unloved aspect of the design process. Yes, it can be a drag to explain architecture to the plebs, but architects who do it effectively are those that will succeed in the Big Society. The profession must find a way to harness and promote the Grand Designs factor – every architect must become a Kevin McCloud, making architecture accessible and exciting. 

Large-scale projects will need to develop a public relations strategy at the earliest stages of design, working on behalf of the client from the outset to gain public backing. Communities must be involved at the doodling stage, to ward off negative knee-jerk reactions to renderings and fly-throughs. And renderings will need to sell more than the architecture, showcasing playgrounds, extra parking and traffic calming, aka: crowd-pleasers. Promotional material for an advertising campaign for a scheme in a contested area could become part of the paid service an architect provides. 

In many ways, Localism PR is already here. Take Chelsea Barracks – the initial slick renderings featured glass towers with hard shadows and a manufactured landscape, while the revised masterplan is a watercolour-like, soft focus drawing that has been successfully promoted to thousands of punters at town hall meetings. Richard Rogers might have shrugged off Prince Charles had a more public-friendly rendering and PR strategy been part of the original brief. In the Big Society, ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns will become standard issue.

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