Whose job is it to get the villages right?

The housing minister, Gavin Barwell, said the development of the new Garden Villages would be locally led by communities rather than central government. “New communities not only deliver homes, they also bring new jobs and facilities and a big boost to local economies”

I care deeply about where I live. It’s only Tooting but there’s so many things about it that make it wonderful. We are not likely to have a new garden village but if and when development comes, as it may do with Crossrail, I want to be sure it will deliver for my community.

tooting market

I know that making great places can make all our lives better. Right now kids on their way to school run the gauntlet of hostile traffic and the shops and cafes struggle to survive. I’d want something to be done about that. It’s true that great places can strengthen local economies. They can also anchor us to home.[1] Development led by communities does present new opportunities. And new ways to improve people’s lives, through making better places, is one of these opportunities.

If you’re a local councillor or council leader, whether the new garden villages affect you or whether you are trying to get more homes built for local people, you will already be thinking about accountability and about the public. You’ll be acting to ensure that you properly represent what local people really want and need, now and in the future.

Your responsibility to shape, build and provide great places has to be set alongside pressure to meet housing targets, budgetary constraints, the complexities of partnering with the private sector and the new force behind devolution. Local authority life certainly has its challenges as well as opportunities.

All devolution deals so far include public land commissions or joint asset boards, most allow spatial strategies and many allow Mayoral Development Corporations to be set up. Very often, a successful new place results from a common set of forces. Including specific additional powers in devolution agreements will help to promote them, but in all cases, to secure places as good as the best, the same forces need to be brought together.

Recognised as one of the best, Cambridge demonstrates many of the characteristics of successful transformation:

  • A clear understanding of the need for change and the problem to solve. This is then translated into a coherent and holistic vision and strategy for place, that addresses quality as well as quantity.
  • Leadership is critical. Planners and councillors are crucial in leading and delivering change. Lead players, providing a mix of personalities, background and expertise become the custodians of place.
  • A well-managed and executed approach to engagement and funding with the community, business and developers.

In Closer to Home, IPPR talks about a new devolution deal for housing and how local areas should be given additional powers to help meet national targets, including “powers to set design code standards……to de-risk planning and improve the quality of the built environment.”

Arguing convincingly that new sites could be unlocked by allowing Mayoral Development Corporations to offer masterplanning and other activities, IPPR says: ‘Buying up a new site would enable the combined authority to have an increased say on the design, tenure mix and size of new developments to ensure they meet the objectives of their overarching planning strategy.’

Having an increased say over design may be a prerequisite, but it is no guarantee that a successful place will result. And returning to our key criterion, power has to be wielded wisely and well. Even assuming an authority is ambitious, early promise is difficult to translate into a coherent vision and strategy, one that is embraced by local people. It is even more difficult to deliver. We know that effective council policies need to provide support for urban design at every level, from the strategic to the local and we know too that confidence and skills are needed to evaluate proposals and demand quality.

Everyone wants their pound of flesh from devolution. Acknowledging huge funding cuts, Places to Be maintains nonetheless that local authorities should see themselves as ‘custodians of place’. Money well spent suggests Pride of Place, finding that attachment to where you live comes as much from place as from people and that ‘our open spaces provide a crucial community ballast where we can reverse the long term trend towards individualism and isolation.’

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It does all come down to political leadership- certainly from the leaders of devolved authorities-to understand what is needed and to demand sufficient powers to be able to deliver it. It is a new kind of leadership for our times, one that shows its accountability by being closer to people, working in partnership with communities, making the structures we have work better- the neighbourhood plans, LEPs, Health and Wellbeing Boards and thousands of existing local groups- to help people get for themselves the things they care about.

But I’d like to understand it from your viewpoint if you’re leading a local authority. What do you need to do to engage community and developers with your plans? What do you need to do to become the custodians of place? How are you developing and agreeing a long-term vision and strategy for place?

If you would like to discuss the content of this hypothesis or begin to answer the questions for your own authority, we’d be only too delighted to meet with you.

[1] http://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Pride-of-Place.pdf