Following two events today, it struck me just how essential the role is of civic society organisations, and how under-resourced they are in the face of corporate developers with very deep pockets
The Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge hosts a series of weekly seminars in Cambridge – the City Seminar series. I went along to a talk given by Mark Walton of the London-based firm Shared Assets. The theme was ‘Commoning the city’. For those of you interested in the detail, see their report Planning for the Common Good.
“This talk will explore established and emerging examples of urban land being managed for the common good, and the opportunities and challenges presented by current approaches to the planning, development and management of urban spaces.”
Mr Walton didn’t hold back on the problems with the current system and the impact that it is having – though I thought he could have ‘gone in for the kill’ in laying the blame at the feet of politicians and political parties that allow themselves to have their planning policies written for them by very well paid vested interests – the sort I experienced first hand when working in housing policy over a decade ago.
My live-tweets from the event either mention Mark Walton’s Twitter here on 07 Nov 2017, or Shared Assets here. It’s worth having a look around their website – esp those of you interested in sustainable planning.
The one thing that was crystal clear from Mr Walton’s presentation was the importance of civic society organisations not only being the eyes and ears of communities in the face of huge cuts to local government and the state generally, but also as sources of ideas, innovation and activity. He also noted that these cannot happen in a vacuum, and that all too often it’s only affluent areas that have the people with the time, passion, skills and qualifications to take on the likes of big developers. Yet even then, they can only make pinpricks into the thick armour plate made up of lawyers and consultants that big financial interests cover themselves with.
The most striking thing he said was that the planning system was designed to be opaque. The dragon identified who was responsible.
Advisers advise, ministers decide – and all that. (For the record, Mark didn’t state who was to blame. Puffles on the other hand…)
Note the recommendations from Mr Walton above.
The most significant recommendation from Mr Walton was that community organisations and small scale developments should have a more streamlined route through the planning system, and that larger developments especially where those domiciled far from where the developments are taking place, should face far more critical scrutiny from planning authorities. Which would be great if George Osborne and Eric Pickles hadn’t wielded the huge axe to local government and their planning and building control functions in the coalition years.
“What about all of those architecture & engineering students?”
When asked, less than half indicated they were following the developments of all things planning and transport in and around Cambridge. Which was disappointing but perhaps understandable – especially if you were from a foreign country on a one year post-graduate course where area you are researching is a long way from Cambridge. Short term intense courses don’t make for encouraging people to put down roots.
I also encouraged people to look at the work Smarter Cambridge Transport do to get an overview of the issues, and also of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Not least because during the Q&A, a number of students mentioned what they were covering in their research (eg smart cities and smart transport) that have some application in Cambridge. For me, it’s essential that Cambridge the city can bring to bear the scrutiny that full time researchers can bring to bear – in particular early career researchers as they can help balance the otherwise lack of participation in these things from students and young adults.
Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s scrutiny in action
Members raised issues with the proposals for a new hotel at Cambridge North Station
For this meeting alone, the public documents pack has 190 pages alone. The report on the case the Cycling Campaign has objected to is 54 pages, and all of the planning and background documents for the case…there are 142 of them. (If that link doesn’t work, go to http://plan.scambs.gov.uk/swiftlg/apas/run/wphappcriteria.display and search by the reference number S/2372/17/FL ).
The people who scrutinise these applications on the whole are volunteers. Fortunately members have been able to raise enough money to employ a full time campaigns officer – Roxanne de Beaux who works and cycles her socks off for our city, but is inevitably fire-fighting to stop irresponsible developers putting profits before a sustainable and happy city.
The other organisation that regularly scrutinises and challenges planning applications is Cambridge Past, Present & Future – formerly the Cambridge Preservation Society. Interested in how that society has shaped Cambridge over the past 100 years? Watch this video.
I filmed this at the Cambridgeshire Association of Local History. For those of you interested in our local history, see http://www.calh.org.uk/ and on FB at https://www.facebook.com/groups/cambshistory/.
The reason why their efforts, and those of local residents associations matter, is that we end up losing important pieces of our civic history – as I featured in my Lost Cambridge blog at https://lostcambridge.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/some-of-my-favourite-lost-buildings-of-cambridge/. Those volunteers who engage proactively in local democracy to make our towns & cities a better place get a bad rap. Especially those who do it without seeking public adulation, but just focus on the detail and the outcomes.
How do we fund and support our civic organisations?
With me I invite donations to cover my costs (hint hint…) and commissions from community groups – for which I am incredibly grateful for. But when it comes to looking at structures, systems and processes, communities, villages, towns and cities should not have to rely on donations and the work of often over-worked volunteers (who may not be qualified/experienced in the necessary fields) to carry out the essential function of community scrutiny of planning. That’s why Mr Walton’s point about the planning system being opaque (and designed as such) is ever so damning.
The other thing that Mr Walton mentioned was accountability. Given the deliberate cutting back of the state, what is the new model of ownership of community and public goods if it is not a democratically elected and accountable local government? For me, how to improve local government so as to make it less dependent on Whitehall for finances and initiative, has for decades been put in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile by a series of ministers & governments.
It is a big can of worms once you head down the route of state support for non-state organisations. First of all not everyone will accept the principle of state support for non-state actors in the planning process – least of all developers who will say this is an additional cost on business and means fewer homes. There are enough politicians who would be swayed by those headline arguments alone.
But assuming the principle was accepted, what would be the best way of providing that support? Let local councils decide? Have a single national provider of support? How long would such contracts to provide support last? How should such support be distributed? A flat rate for councils or a rate dependent on number and/or scale of planning applications? Would that mean more support for more affluent areas? How should it be paid for? General taxation? (“High taxes – boo!). Levy on planning applications? (“Additional cost for business – boo!”).
The problem is not the architects – it’s the politicians
In conversation with Theo and Rachel mentioned below, it struck me that architects as a profession feel they are already speaking out in defence of their profession in the face of (in particular locally) some extremely… ‘controversial’ developments. And it’s not just private developments – The Mother of Modern Cambridge, Florence Ada Keynes had to deal with got it in the neck over the design of the guildhall in Market Square, Cambridge.
…as satirised by the Cambridge Daily News in 1935 – from the Cambridgeshire Collection.
(If you don’t want your Twitter acct clogged up by Puffles, I run the @ACarpenDigital too)
The planning system is put in place by ministers under legislation passed by Parliament. If lots of communities are having similar issues with the planning system, the problem is political. If developments are being built that are not meeting the basic needs of communities – eg constructing underused luxury apartments instead of much-needed social housing, the problem is political.
The problem then is that when you suggest that people ‘get involved in politics’, their response is in the negative – quite understandably given the recent revelations of sexual harassment in politics. Yet at the same time, the people who are passionate about their local communities but who do not want to go into ‘politics’ are likely to be precisely the people you need involved in politics and local democracy: people who want to serve their communities.
But then if you present someone new to politics with a list of 142 files of multi-page documents on a big planning application as a starting point, they will run like the wind. So we come back to first principles: Assuming community involvement in politics, planning and local democracy is a good thing, what are the best ways to inspire people to get involved?