Different cities face different challenges and policy should reflect this.
Last week I attended the launch of the Farrell Review, commissioned last year by Ed Vaizey MP, Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Minister at DCMS.
Centre for Cities wants more homes and better city centres for people and businesses to live in and thrive, but we leave the aesthetics of the built environment in UK cities up to the experts. But on this occasion it would seem the urban economists and architects are calling for a something similar: a greater understanding of place.
Sir Terry Farrell and his panel of esteemed architects, thinkers and proponents of good design have put together a report that seeks to provide a new understanding of the built environment: bringing together planning, landscape, architecture, conservation and engineering, which elegantly come together to form the acronym ‘PLACE’.
The report contains a number of recommendations dealing with architects’ education and training, design quality and cultural heritage. But probably the most interesting for us was the focus on the economic benefits and policy challenges for the built environment. And a couple of broader themes in particular stood out: the need for a greater consideration of place in policymaking and more connectedness between government departments, institutions and agencies.
We continue to beat the drum that uniform, national policies often fail in meeting their objectives as they are not adapted to varied and distinct local needs. Nowhere is this clearer than in the built environment of our different cities.
Housing most often enters the debate as a cost of living issue, but we also need to think of the crisis as a quality of living issue. People living in Oxford, Cambridge, York, and of course London, are facing rising housing costs and the supply of new homes is not keeping up with demand. But in cities such as Burnley, Blackpool and Bolton, the number of empty homes is discouraging new residents and blighting local areas.
Put simply, different places face different challenges and policy should reflect this. So it was especially welcome that Sir Terry highlighted VAT relief on renovations as an urgent and important ask from central government.
A slide pulled up on the projector showed a jumble of lines and boxes with no clear pattern. This was an illustration of departmental responsibilities for the built environment across time. Which just goes to show the difficulties in assigning responsibilities at national scale for bringing together the various strands that make places and cities a success: from transport, infrastructure, housing to culture, education and more.
Cities across the country face a mounting challenge to deliver basic public services but also drive growth in their economy as core public funding dwindles. The built environment is one important aspect of this and we welcome the Farrell Review’s recognition that departmental silos and a lack of understanding of place in policy are a key part of the challenge.
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