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Forget about chief architects – where are all the chief planners?

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Andrew Rogers, chairman of the Association of Consultant Architects’ Planning Action Group, reports on the 2018 convention of the Royal Town Planning Institute

Older architects will remember that many years ago in a long-lost golden age, most local authorities had chief architects and chief planning officers who dealt with design and development in a logical and successful way for their local areas.

Over many years this sensible arrangement has gradually been eroded by the rise of corporate management teams ruled by procedure and funding regimes that have little regard for vision and long-term spatial planning.

The best planning department is always one that has a good experienced leader at its head

Not only are there now no chief architects, but at the recent annual Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) convention, the institute launched preliminary research which has found that only 23 per cent of the local authorities surveyed had a head of planning reporting directly to the chief executive, while 9 per cent had no top-level individual responsible for planning at all. 

The reinstatement of senior posts – both architects and planners – could influence development positively and support more effective growth. The best planning department is always one that has a good experienced leader at its head.

Introducing the convention, John Acres, the current RTPI president, noted that the draft revised National Planning Policy Framework was launched by Theresa May. So planning is no longer the enemy of enterprise, but rather a catalyst for change. This more positive stance might well be underlined by (yet another) new planning minister, Kit Malthouse, who is a strong advocate of local control over planning matters.

Other issues up for discussion included the usual plea for better resourcing of planning departments and greater attention to spatial planning. Although the message from the Planning Inspectorate (still well behind its targets for timely appeal decisions) is that, as more senior and experienced planners are engaged by the Inspectorate, fewer remain to help improve the failing local planning authorities.

Clearly evident was a continuing emphasis on housing for rent (and indeed on renting for life) and the Right to Build, with Richard Bacon MP pointing out that the provision of land and encouragement of self-builders are duties that most local councils seem to ignore. Massive subsidies for affordable housing (and increasingly complex definitions of it) have been slow to tackle shortages, while the convention pointed to an increasing number of local authorities that are turning back to building housing themselves and even a new emphasis on Build to Rent over Buy to Let.

Historically, chief architects and planners knew that local planning worked much better than national policy for housing provision and focused on place-making in preference to revenue-raising.

One of last year’s buzzwords was resilience and this convention’s title – ‘Resilient planning for our future’ – suggests that planning might now be, as the dictionary definition goes, ‘returning to its original form or position after being bent, compressed, or stretched’. For more on this theme I recommend a look at Nicholas Raynsford’s ‘Planning 2020’ interim report for the Town & Country Planning Association.

In the ‘chief planners’ session at the convention, Steve Quartermain noted that many of the Housing White Paper’s proposals are still to be fully enacted by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but they will emphasise good design and faster delivery. Initiatives such as Neighbourhood Planning suggest big changes are in hand as planning is transferred from central government to local councils and communities.

Bob Kerslake

Bob Kerslake

Source: RTPI/Kate Darkins

Bob Kerslake speaking at the 2018 Royal Town Planning Institute convention

In his keynote address, Lord Kerslake (pictured) pointed out that there have over many years been more government reviews of the planning system than there have been managers of the English football team – let alone planning and housing ministers. Local authorities, he said, must be allowed to borrow and build, with the priority being quality, not quantity. Whether this can happen in the current climate might well depend on the resurgent influence of chief architects and chief planning officers.

The author, Andrew Rogers, is a former partner at Manser Associates and chairs the Association of Consultant Architects’ Planning Action Group. The ACA is the national professional body representing architects in private practice in the UK. Membership for eligible practices is free, please visit www.acarchitects.co.uk.

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