11 January 2011

You're not from round here.

Centralisation has failed to deliver a sustainable and fairer society. Therefore, in the spirit of democracy a conservative led coalition delivered a bill to empower the people and to conveniently save the exchequer billions. With the new Localism Bill to become law later this year, have we cause to embrace or fear the general public’s ability to differentiate between good and bad architecture

Castleford Bridge. Part of the Castleford 
regeneration project which was led by the community.

The idea of localism and the big society should be a cause for optimism in the architectural profession however, its positive impact on our built environment and the society it is intended to benefit hinges on the right level of information, education and guidance being given to people to allow them to realise the potential of their communities. The government have placed the onus on each local authority to guide and support the creation of the necessary local development and neighbourhood plans. Unfortunately it is these same authorities who face further reduction in the resource needed to meet the needs of the planning process. Without a subjective input, localism has the potential to merely give weight to the voice of the minority who wish to advance their own personal goals.

The Bill will extend community Right to Build across England. This will mean that if a suitable site is identified, a group with the appropriate finances, neighbourhood plan and public support can develop. With this in mind the optimist in me sees this bill as an opportunity for the architectural profession to lead and to offer stewardship for these community-led developments. These are skills which will be in demand because the limited experience of many community groups will have in designing and at delivering complex social projects.

Localism will spark a profound shift in the way England is governed and whilst recognising that it presents real challenges for all those involved in designing and planning new development, the RIBA president Ruth Reed, has urged architects to get involved with the creation of neighbourhood plans. However, as the voice of the profession the RIBA should be doing far more to promote itself to local authorities and communities rather than simply urging its members to get stuck in. But this is hardly surprising as dealing with the general public at a community level has not always sat comfortably with the professions elite.

 One thing is certain; we need to ensure the bill is not detrimental to design. This is certainly not straightforward as the neighbourhood plans put design issues in the hands of local people who might not have the skills necessary to deliver design rich sustainable developments. What a community led design should bring is an enthusiasm and motivation to enhance and enrich people’s immediate context. Surely we are well placed to harness this potential and help in the delivery of quality local architecture.

The risks for architects in this new flexible planning system lie in not getting involved. If communities need guidance and experience in order to ensure they can deliver their vision then what steps should the profession be taking?

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