The legislative enshrinement of ‘localism’ proves that architecture can be a metaphor for society’s fears and desires, writes Paul Finch
The RIBA was extraordinarily busy at its ‘Late Tuesday’ event last week. Publisher Blurb sponsors these events, and all power to its elbow, with the audience a good mix of old and young. Portland Place felt like a real architecture centre, especially since the architecture gallery was also open; despite its awkward plan, interrupted by unhelpful columns, it can still stage an interesting exhibition.
However, the main event of the evening, part of the London Festival of Architecture, was a debate about community architecture. This was held in memory of Charles Knevitt, the journalist who coined the phrase in a magazine article in 1975. I had the pleasure of chairing the event, and of introducing Rod Hackney, who designed the Black Road housing estate in Macclesfield that triggered the Knevitt article.
Subsequent histories of the community architecture movement have tended to focus on the role of the Prince of Wales, and the relationship between various organisations, which sometimes competed for princely attention or financial endorsement.
Community planning began to prompt ideas about how people could become clients and influencers of architecture rather than just passive recipients
However, a more interesting story, given subsequent outcomes, relates how the idea of community engagement spread from architecture to other areas, and beyond the world of design. Few would have predicted, even if asked, that it would become enshrined in law that communities should be given first choice to buy properties that could be regarded as ‘community assets’, rather than that being a matter for the market alone.
Who would have guessed that it would be possibly for committed communities to demand referendums on key planning issues if enough people signed a petition? And who would have thought that this would result from the policies of a Conservative government, so often portrayed as capitalist exploiters?
If proof were needed that architecture can become a metaphor for society’s fears and desires, this is it. Having seen what an alliance of the development industry, mass housebuilders and unthinking local-authority planning departments had done to the country in the previous two decades, people decided they had suffered enough.
In London, the open revolt against comprehensive development of Covent Garden and Piccadilly Circus marked the moment when community planning began to prompt ideas about how people could become clients and influencers of architecture, rather than just passive recipients. In Black Road, it was the threat of compulsory demolition of well-liked homes that prompted creation of an alternative, based on listening architects and determined residents.
It is tempting to see the recent Brexit vote as a parallel: people on the ground experiencing consequences of the decisions and policies of a remote elite (a combination of big business and corporatist and unaccountable governance) take matters into their own hands electorally. Another sort of parallel would be the way in which the idea of Non-Plan, from Cedric Price, Peter Hall and Paul Barker, mutated into the idea of enterprise zones, backed by the Bow Group and becoming law under a subsequent Conservative government.
This time round community activism was rewarded in ‘localism’ legislation giving certain property and planning rights to ‘ordinary’ people, but with a catch: localist attitudes could not be harnessed to oppose the ‘growth agenda’, thus exposing the deep fault line in British attitudes towards development, best described as Nimbyism.
Meanwhile architects have had to react, chameleon-like, to the planning implications of ever-more consultation and engagement. It is a Darwinian process and people who aren’t good at it need to hire people who are, or restrict themselves to the dirigiste end of the market.
One of last week’s debate speakers, Sarah Wigglesworth, made a strong case for why professionals ignored people at their peril, taking a scalpel taken to Pevsner’s snooty distinction between bicycle sheds (buildings) and Lincoln Cathedral (architecture). People are often wiser than elites imagine.