Delivery-focused planning will stay the emigration of Welsh design talent, writes Alan Francis
A couple of years of Welsh Government research and evidence-gathering led to the recent Draft Planning Bill and Consultation Document: Positive Planning. Consultation has just closed, with what seems to be a good response, and many have welcomed the positive approach to tackling culture change and achieving delivery-focused planning services that retain commitment to quality. Nobody is suggesting it will be easy, but there is a big effort from the professions and the policy-makers to get it right and to achieve well-designed development in the right place at the right time. Everyone involved has done a huge amount of work in looking at approaches from the UK and abroad, learning lessons and sharing experiences.
It’s very easy to bash planning when many difficulties and barriers can sit elsewhere. Land ownership, absentee landlords and funding and investment issues have made no small contribution to the problems of recent years.
Nowhere is this more true than in our town centres. We have a varied and interesting mix of these, and many are doing well, but the industrial heartlands in the south Wales coalfield and the northern coastal belt remain in a very difficult place. They are unloved by the national housebuilders, who don’t want to go ‘above the snow line’, while the heart and soul of these historic towns are being pulled out by inappropriate fringe development. Land ownership issues, combined with a lack of demand, are leaving these communities with empty high streets.
Yet there are real opportunities for those who think outside the usual box. It wasn’t that long ago that our state housing was provided by the state, and our private housing by a mix of major housebuilders, supplemented by smaller developers, local contractors and self-builders.
Everyone has been put off by difficult financing and a very uncertain market, and even the housebuilders have preferred land banking in Cardiff to construction in Cwmaman. But things are changing, and it’s not just the ripple effect from a buoyant English housing market.
The Welsh Government has been under pressure to help finance flow and is responding. Ministers are also proactively considering innovative, locally sourced, modular solutions to the urgent need for small homes.
Wales has more than doubled its usual allocation of RIBA awards over the past few years, and much of that has been focused on small schemes. It doesn’t take much to see that, with further self-belief and some creative thinking, we could be on the cusp of becoming a nation where design expertise and innovation helps drive the resurgence of our local towns, so that they might evolve into something slightly different and exciting as a result.
As for architects, urban designers and developers, there’s no denying that things are still uncertain in economic terms, so much so that much Welsh talent has tended to look outside our borders for future income. But delivery-focused planning will undoubtedly help turn this around.
The capital city has ambitious plans for its growth and an improving investment market to help deliver that, although there are challenges to deliver the highest design quality that Cardiff so desperately needs when the occupier and residential markets still operate off relatively low capital values. And yet Cardiff has evolved in the past few decades from a city whose architects’ offices were occupied solely by the local lads, to one where many major UK practices now have a presence.
Meanwhile, a combination of the government body, Design Commission for Wales, and membership organisations including the Royal Town Planning Institute Cymru, the Royal Society of Architects in Wales and the Welsh School of Architecture, is shaping a design community, tricky though that is. There is also a big idea. That idea once was, and still hopefully might be, the Severn Barrage. But, as that’s now been parked for the foreseeable future, a more localised vision has appeared, an integrated transport system or ‘Metro’, built around something more holistic – ‘city regions’.
None of this is likely to solve Rhyl’s town centre problems, nor create jobs and affordable housing in mid-Wales. But connectivity and working together under a shared simple vision may well lead to the sort of sustainable future a small country like ours needs.
- Alan Francis is chair of the Design Commission For Wales