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The value of controlled public realm

Our planning and 'Building beautiful, building better' panel discussion at our September forum included urban master-planning design partner at David Lock Associates Simon Pugh, who specialises in master-planning for strategic growth studies including Milton Keynes.

Also on the panel was Sharon Strutt - the Head of Regeneration at the London Borough of Redbridge, in charge of Redbridge Living, the council's wholly owned development company, and also the economic development team, Ben Grubb, Director of New Settlement Policy at the Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government, a department which is working with councils to deliver more beautiful places, and Dominic Eaton, Director and residential expert at Stride Treglown Architects.

When asked whether 'beautiful' was a good word or too nebulous, Ben Grubb said: 'Too often we just look at beauty in terms of heritage so it's important to drive for beauty across new build developments. Our garden communities’ team is now working on 48 schemes across the country supporting local authorities in delivering many more homes - each project typically has more than 1,500 - where the focus is on making high quality spaces. The scale and the extra money from land value capture means that there is more to invest in creating beautiful places.’

Dominic Eaton commented: 'The reason why I am so interested in the (Building Beautiful) Commission is simply to try to make things better. Lots of places are too awful, and the design falls short of beauty. Modern Methods of Construction is a useful tool for developers but reliance on these presents a challenge as so many (new developments) constructed this way are identical and repetitive. How do we get more variety and quality? Shortage of construction skills is a problem, and when I talk to developers, MMC looks like a solution. However, there is a disconnect between the production line, car factory model of creating new homes and the traditional model.’

Simon Pugh of David Lock Associates then responded to a question about role of master-planning in creating beautiful places: 'You have to get the big scale to work as well as the micro level of housing detail. On master-planning across the Oxford-MK-Cambridge corridor there is lots of focus on the car but at a local city level rapid mass transit is at the core of getting those places to grow in right way with public sector taking a lead. Public-private partnerships will be very important in the connection of new housing to employment centres.'

Drilling down to the local examples of planning in action in Ilford and creating 'beautiful places', Sharon Strutt said: 'Public realm interventions are at the heart of what we are doing in Ilford to help kick start the catalyst for regeneration. We are fortunate to have a Crossrail station so there is a great connection between rail infrastructure and neighbourhood improvements. We have invested in the public realm and we are moving away from a traditional model of people just coming in to shop then out again, towards making a much more liveable town centre. It must have performance spaces, and we have brought in a new market operator who can help make a more flexible set of shopping and social experiences. We are laying the groundwork for a cultural place.

'Ilford does not feel beautiful at the moment, as there is the problem of rough sleeping and anti-social behaviour, which detracts from the economic life blood, as people do not dwell in the centre. We do have open and accessible space but it doesn't work hard enough. Curating the space to attract people to spend time in the centre is crucial. It can't be a place that shuts at 6 pm.'

Answering criticism that there are too many aged planners working in councils, and not enough young voices, Sharon explained: 'We took a decision on a delivery prospectus rather than opting for a formal plan in a traditional way. We hold the vision but how it gets there will evolve along the way with a flexible plan allowing innovation as councils do not have ownership of all good ideas. We are part of the wider East London community, and being well-connected is a good thing so having four Crossrail stations across the borough is helpful. We need to make the most of the growth narrative that is common to all the East London boroughs.’

On the issue of better communications around planned developments both David Lock Associates and Stride Treglown were asked what they wanted from conversations. Simon Pugh said: 'Communication is at the heart of achieving good development, between developers, councils, planners, and architects. Sometimes local authorities are not funded well enough for planning discussions on large developments and this can be frustrating for planners trying to deliver schemes.'

Stride Treglown's Dominic Eaton described why flexibility in discussions on planning and design is vital: 'What's more important is collaboration and a shared vision. At the core it's about negotiation and as a practice we like to find out what the council vision is and then try and align that with our client's view. If you go in and you are all in different corners it will end in tears.'

The Ministry of Housing's Ben Grubb commented: 'We have a planning delivery fund for LAs which will help with master-planning. We can assist financially when councils have really big schemes.'

Infrastructure Planning Manager at Tower Hamlets, Matthew Pullen spoke from the audience: ‘The role of the public sector is changing and needs to change. More younger people have joined but they can be held back. We have brought in more private sector architecture skills but there is more to be done.’

Sharon Strutt agreed that the public sector needed to co-operate more with the private sector generating ideas for regeneration: ‘The design review process is very good for looking at quality so there are number of opportunities for making better relationships in order to achieve the vision for regeneration in the borough. The public sector is constrained and we can’t do it all by ourselves so it is important how we build relationships with the private sector.’

The necessary powers to reject poor quality development was remarked on by Simon Pugh: ‘Whether design review panels are regional and local, it is the independence of a panel that is important for giving confidence on (councils) refusing a scheme where the design is not good enough, rather than the scheme going through on appeal.’

The spaces between buildings remain vital in creation of beautiful, liveable places and Nik Hoggarth of Stride Treglown asked (from the audience) about the role of controlled curation of public realm, as put in place at King's Cross St. Pancras - and whether that might happen in Ilford. Sharon Strutt responded that the local business improvement district team (BID) had an important role to play, and commented that the Sydney Barangaroo model that Ivan Harbour had described earlier where the private developer had set high standards for the public spaces and independent restaurants and retail was very interesting.

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