June 17th, 2015

Peter Bill: “They would say that wouldn’t they?”

Bile first, balm later for the Design Commission.

This group of parliamentarians has “called for evidence” asking the open question: “Does the built environment affect the behaviour of individuals or communities?” Well, yes, probably. But what can a group of MPs and peers do to improve ‘the built environment’?

If they fail to learn from past experience, the answer has to be “not much”: This woolly question will bring fluffy answers from intelligent, well-meaning respondents, mostly operating inside the design-world bubble. The Dean of the Bartlett, Alan Penn, will spin out a report with the help of think tank Policy Connect in time for Christmas. The intelligent, well-meaning ideas will be forgotten by Easter.


Firstly, when assessing reports produced by lobbyists, however earnest, civil servants submit them to the to the acidic Mandy Rice-Davies test: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Secondly, money: idealistic notions that cost the Treasury an extra farthing or crimp developers’ profits are resisted to the death.

A brief trip back in time to 1985 and the Utopia on Trial academic study, by geographer Dr. Alice Coleman.  Dr Coleman reported on the “observable forms of social malaise” at 4,050 multi-storey blocks on council estates in Southwark and Oxford. Her findings were comprehensive and evidence-backed: The amount of litter, graffiti and worse was recorded in minute detail. While the modernist faction of architects turned up its nose, her report accidentally proved to be the final swing of the demolition ball, shattering the Corbusian vision of communities holding cocktail parties on streets in the sky.

Overhead walkways came down on various council estates around London under the £50 million Design Improvement Controlled Experiment (DICE) set up in 1991. In 1997 Price Waterhouse were asked to measure the benefits. They concluded Coleman’s ideas had “moderate impact, but only enough to break even on redevelopment costs.”

In the same year Tony Blair came to power and asked Richard Rogers to head up an “Urban Task Force”. This powerful and eminent group contained as many developers as architects and makes the Design Commission team look like parish councillors in comparison. A fat yellow-jacketed document containing  a list, sadly made up of ten “if the government would only..’’ ideas, was published in 1999.

Here is the one relevant to the Design Commission: “Prioritise across government the fundamental importance of improved public space to people’s quality of life by better targeting of resources, stronger local authority management powers that strengthens a sense of neighbourhood.”

“HOW!?”, you want to scream. Steady, it’s time to calm down and apply the balm.

Coleman helped kill a dying Corbusian cult. The Urban Task Force influenced Labour’s thinking on planning and directly informed Ken Livingstone’s Big Idea – to allow growth to surge up and around transport nodes. To use the modern parlance, both Dr Coleman and Lord Rogers helped ‘nudge’ policy along.

Lord Rogers has admirably lent his voice to the Design Commission debate, “designed to stimulate new thinking in planning policy across central and local government.” But the relative light-weight and restrictive nature of this inquiry will make it hard to even nudge policy. Especially if the report fails to go beyond the usual, “if the government would only…’ wish lists.

Perhaps the Commission could come up with at least one ‘how and how much’ proposal’? Something along these lines:  “Each unitary authority will add one-acre of publicly-owned parkland for every 100 new homes accommodated in the local plan. Initial costs to be paid for using the Community Infrastructure Levy. Running costs to be borne by council revenues.” No?


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