Planning is – or should be – about more than saying yay or nay to individual buildings. Councillors and officers need to be design literate to be able to engage knowledgeably and confidently in place-making. A ‘Councillors’ Briefing’ next week at Urban Design London will explore what this means, says Chris Naylor.
Across the country local councillors have the great responsibility of deciding on development applications in their area. Proposals which may change the profile or feel of their area for years to come – and can be critical to jobs and homes. Hundreds, thousands of applications every year – some clear and straightforward, and handled by delegated authority by expert officers; but many complex or challenging, and requiring consideration and decision by councillors on the Planning or Development Control Committee.
When I was a councillor myself, in Camden, getting on ‘Planning’ – as we called it – was seen as by far the best option among the different committees we were drafted on to. The downside was that for each meeting – every three weeks or so – a 500 page dossier would crash in our pigeonholes, a week before, to wade through and digest. And perhaps another 100 pages of supplementary papers too, the day before the meeting. But the upside was that Planning had real power. The committee had power to decide as it wished on the night and, because each member was expected to form their own independent view, and of rules against pre-determination, outcomes were never certain until the final vote.
More importantly though, the decisions of the committee were not about, for instance, changes in back-office process or budget adjustments with little perceptible effect – they were decisions which could materially affected residents lives day by day. Whether agreeing on a contested extension, or change of use for a pub, or the regeneration of a housing estate, or the redevelopment of the railway lands behind Kings Cross these were decisions which would change people’s homes, work places, and the built environment more generally for decades to come.
But despite the thrill – and the challenge – of being on Planning, I often felt frustrated that I wasn’t contributing as well as I might. I wanted to help shape the townscape in which my constituents lived and worked – but I had never sat down and thought through what really made the difference between a successful residential street or shopping centre, and a bad one. I and fellow councillors I’m sure knew the difference when we saw it; but had we articulated our thinking, and perhaps more importantly, did we know what to look for in a 100 page proposal? Did we know what questions to ask? Were we confident in the right vocabulary to discuss pros and cons with architects, developers, planners? And this frustration – no criticism of officers or colleagues – was something I felt across the whole range of our deliberations, whether discussing ‘verticality’, ‘densification’, ‘legibility’, ‘viability’ of a small infill development or a much bigger scheme.
And I guess my frustration was not just personal, about my own contribution; it was about how effective I was being as a ward councillor in bringing my detailed knowledge of my ward to bear, and doing the best for my constituents on such an important issue. And, thinking council-wide, a frustration that we as a committee might be failing to convey our genuine concern about good design and appropriate development to architects and developers, in order to win their respect and secure the best for the borough.
It seems I’m not alone in this! and indeed if councillors are frustrated then planning officers and others are of course frustrated too. So I’m pleased to say there’s now work to build a new Design Literate Leadership initiative – as recommended by the Farrell Review – which is looking at developing pilot training for councillors to help them explore these issues and develop understanding and skills. I am chairing a ‘Councillors Briefing’ for Urban Design London on Tuesday 7th July to discuss – for more details see here or get in touch. If you have comments about what you might find useful – or what successful (or unsuccessful!) training schemes you’ve experienced, as a councillor or as a planner – please let me know: email@example.com
Chris Naylor is the LGiU’s partnerships lead and a former councillor at LB Camden.