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Engagement with communities assists sensitive planning applications

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Mapping evolution of a design decision during consultation is useful to demonstrate how the benefits have been thought through, says Stephen Smith

The last two winners of the Stirling Prize have certainly made a positive impact on the national psyche, bringing to the fore the merits of reworking and rethinking an existing site of historic importance. The approach shown at the Everyman Theatre, through demolition and rebuilding; and at Astley Castle, a ruin re-born, are both compelling narratives on sites that were susceptible to scrutiny from public and policy-makers alike.

When the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published in 2012 the clauses relating to the Historic Environment placed an emphasis on the balance of ‘harm’ versus ‘benefit’ (clause 132). How is this balance struck and how can it be framed in the preparation of planning documentation? Clause 137 challenges the architect to ‘better reveal the significance’. But how can significance be effectively defined?

To develop a successful case for change, the planning application can be structured in relation to the Conservation Principles published by English Heritage. The four ‘values’ within it - evidential, historical, aesthetic and communal - are very useful criteria for assessment. The first two are the traditional backbone of a thorough planning application: building evidence and mapping the history of change. Aesthetic value, less tangible perhaps, is the sensory impact - what does is feel like to be there? What is the character and how can it be enhanced or re-imagined? Reading between the lines, the fourth value, ‘communal’, is perhaps where English Heritage wants most emphasis to be placed during the design process. In fact, the descriptions of all four values put ‘people’ high on the agenda.

Dealing with complete ‘loss’, in planning terms, of an existing building through demolition, perhaps the Everyman Theatre is a good test of English Heritage’s people-focused principles. Listening to Steve Tompkins’ Stirling Prize acceptance speech, I was struck by how much the project resonates with the principle of ‘communal value’ - that this is a project about and for the people of Liverpool, born out of a deep engagement and consultation with the community. Re-use of existing fabric elements meant that associations and memory of the Everyman offered a rich layer of reference in the new build. In planning terms, the ‘harm’ caused by demolition of the existing theatre had to be justified in the face of opposition. The communal benefit to the people of Liverpool had to be carefully set out in the design process and proposal. It is clear that the community has participated throughout. Our practice’s experience of making a new home for Hull Truck Theatre was a similar case of rooting the new building in the context, going so far as shaping the auditorium directly on the half-thrust stage of its now demolished predecessor.

Will the acclaim of projects of this type give added validity to the merits of a highly engaged and consultative approach to design? What it makes clear is that community engagement can lead to a successful project. One dilemma is that consultation takes time. Can the programme always accommodate this time pressure and can the design team be flexible to the risk that the consultation might well throw up a change? Mapping the evolution of a particular design decision during consultation is a useful tool to demonstrate to planners how the benefits have been thought through or how a perceived harm has been mitigated.

English Heritage’s values can bring balance to the planning application; the participation aspect will benefit from research of the built form and context to describe the historical value and evidential value. Policy aside, the richer the design process is made in engaging and empowering the participants, the more relevant the project is likely to be.

Stephen Smith is a partner at Wright & Wright Architects

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