Viewpoint: Building Better Places, a national call to action

wooden houses, church and trees portraying community

In February the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment completed nine months of evidence gathering and deliberations and released their report Building Better Places. Matthew Carmona sees an opportunity to create better places for us to live.

I was fortunate enough to be appointed Specialist Advisor to the committee and so witnessed this fascinating work first hand. Whilst I began the process somewhat dubious about what might be achieved, I ended it profoundly impressed by the whole process. If taken seriously by government, the report offers great potential to significantly reshape our national built environment policy landscape and in a manner that properly raises places and people to the top of the agenda.

Proposed by two Labour piers, Baroness Whitaker and Baroness Andrews, and Chaired by the Conservative Baroness O’Cathain, this was the first time the built environment had formed the primary subject for a parliamentary select committee. Membership consisted of 12 cross-political piers largely from non-cognate backgrounds; factors, that if anything, make the recommendations all the more powerful!

An overarching narrative

Perhaps more important than the specific recommendations is the overarching narrative of the report that argues for a much stronger focus on the built environment nationally (and locally) and for positive leadership from government. Putting my own spin on things, that is quite different to the way we have typically done things in England where our aspirations for the built environment have historically been low, poorly defined and short-termist. This lack of foresight is apparent as we lurch from one crisis to the next that have variously manifested themselves (over the years) in sub-standard infrastructure, inner urban decline, unsustainable sprawl, housing ghettoization, neglect of green and public spaces, declining high streets, creation of obesogenic environments, flooding, and of course the current housing crisis. By contrast Building Better Places, sets out a blueprint for moving to a place centred approach to national policy for the built environment.

This begins with government needing to be aware of its own limitations (it can not control everything from the centre), and also of the limitations of the private sector and what it can and can’t achieve on its own. For example, during its visits to Birmingham and Southwark the committee saw first hand what a powerful actor good local government can be when, through outstanding local leadership, it brings its multiple responsibilities and resources to bear.

Witnesses that we heard from (both public and private) almost always supported the idea of an aspirational, confident and empowered local government. But this will require a clear, stable, well-coordinated and supportive national policy framework, which enables local initiative and leadership to flourish and facilitates the proactive shaping of local places for the better. Summarising greatly, the report makes four key arguments:

  • First, we need to do better, to collectively aim higher in our ambitions for the built environment
  • Second, quality of place should be at the heart of this concern, as well as a concern for the impact of place (and development) on local populations
  • Third, national government needs to step up to the mark, and to set the tone by being more ambitious in its aspirations for the built environment
  • Finally, national government needs to trust and empower local government to deliver alongside its public and private partners

To deliver this the report makes 66 detailed recommendations which can be viewed here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldselectCldbuilt/100/100.pdf

What next, a new vision

Next, the government are required to make a formal response and there will be a debate in Parliament. Ultimately, whilst much of what the committee recommended seems very topical and of direct relevance to debates swirling around about the Housing and Planning Bill and other initiatives of government, in fact underpinning the report is a new vision for how we might move to better shape the built environment in England in a manner that puts people and places first.

Building better places

This is a long-term agenda and one that we need to keep on reminding government is important. Few are likely to agree with everything the select committee has to say, but, having personally read the many thousands of pages of evidence received and sat through the hours of testimony that it heard, I can confirm that the overwhelming thrust of its recommendations are very widely supported, both across the sector and across political divides. Lets get behind it and encourage government and others to do so to!

Supporting information from Place Alliance – PiP and cordinating code

Matthew Carmona is Professor of Planning & Urban Design at Bartlett School of Planning, UCL

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