Have we lost the simple
 art of placemaking?

The way we make, and improve, places is changing. The ever-growing circle of stakeholders involved in making better places – planners, designers, transport engineers, local community groups, elected officials, businesses, residents, investors – are finally acknowledging that collaboration beats competition, and that partnership working delivers.
Creating good places is simply too big, too messy and too complex a task for an elite few to tackle successfully. Despite current hard times, could it be that a planning system formerly obsessed with process and detail, and sceptical of the long-term value of creating really, really good places, is finally morphing into a framework that understands social worth?
There are positive signs, but progress is too slow and too patchy. The UK’s political and financial reality casts a long shadow over the few decision-making visionaries we have in the UK. Hundreds of thousands of policy papers, toolkits and strategic guides have been written and published. But, despite pockets of very good practice, something remains amiss. We have lost the simple art of placemaking, and if we are to move towards creating attractive, resilient, and equitable communities, then we need to get it back. We need to focus on creating places that we like, despite that fact that so much of what we actually do leads to the destruction of the qualities that we seek out in our favourite places – the sort of places we visit on holiday, for example.
Making good places is more about achieving  the right state of mind and equilibrium than applying specific design, planning or engineering skills. In most cases, we know what works and how to create it. The problem is being enabled, empowered and funded to deliver our visions.

The institutional context
In practice, the advent of the localism agenda is, theoretically, a step in the right direction. The weight given to place-making concerns and economic growth in planning decisions will be decided on a more regional basis, if not locally. Several Local Economic Partnerships are already demonstrating a greater focus on local priorities and local accountability for projects and expenditure, moving away from a centralised system of infrastructure decision-making and funding. Local areas, used to competing for national support for their project, are now sourcing their own funds  against uncertain future economic dividends. Manchester, for example, is planning to instigate a payment by results deal (‘earn back’).
It’s not pretty, and it will get worse before it gets better. Much of the planning guidance that shapes development locally is incomplete, or fails to align with targets, particularly for housing and growth, set out in national planning policy. Estimates of the numbers of councils whose plans are not up to date vary from around 70 per cent to 95 per cent. Regionally, following the abolition of the regional spatial strategies, most UK authorities and LEPs are still struggling to find the natural ‘functional’ areas, scales and alignments at which they can successfully operate.

Think about finances
The financial context remains a key determining factor. Relatively new funding streams such as the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) could support the funding of urban realm and ‘place-based’ regeneration, but there remains the challenge of accessing CIL income streams upfront, as funds will not materialise without development. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) schemes may provide a useful mechanism for capturing future income flows, but clarity on legislation and implementation in England and Wales is still required. It is likely, however, that one by‑product the preparation for so-called innovative funding schemes will be an increase in use of new tools and systems designed to highlight the ‘actual’ value of quality places, whether this be in monetary or social terms. There are already many such toolkits coming into use, but it remains clear that the argument for better articulating the potential value of good places – attractive, popular, and productive, accessible, secure and healthy – needs to be given a much higher priority in the evolving cycle of measuring, monitoring and evaluation.

Urban planner and consultant Julian Dobson, co-author of a Business, Innovation and Skills report into the much-reported demise of the high street, notes that: ‘It is ironic that government has withdrawn from serious investment in place-making at precisely the time when place-making skills are most needed.’ It is for this reason that ‘urbanism’, increasingly manifest in the better planning and transport authorities across the UK, has positioned itself as a form of public policy that seeks to steer regeneration, development and infrastructure investment towards policy‑shaped rather than market-led outcomes.

The economic, financial, institutional and policy context has changed radically in the last years, according to the Local Government Association (LGA). Councils recognise the importance of supporting local economic growth, yet due to significantly reduced resources, interventions need to be prioritised. Direction will come from councils working through new structures, including the LEPs, which themselves require new forms of partnership between the private sector and local councils. Local authorities will need to agree how to work across boundaries to share services and co-ordinate interventions.
Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, set out to transform funding via the Local Government Resource Review. “The current dependency of councils on central grant allocations makes planning difficult, weakens accountability, and stifles local innovation,” he said. “I am keen to move to a radically different system of funding and support for councils that is built on strong incentives, is driven by local decision-making and breaks this dependency.” Phase two of the review looks at community budgets. Alexandra Jones, chief executive of think tank Centre for Cities, welcomes government proposals to give local authorities greater control of decision-making and finance, particularly to retain more of the business rates they raise locally. 

Tax increment financing
Last year, the Government announced proposals to allow local authorities in England the power to raise finance against predicted growth in their locally raised business rates via Tax Increment Financing (TIF). TIF can offer a solution for regeneration projects which depend on the delivery of infrastructure for which funding cannot be found. TIF allows upfront money to be raised by committing revenues which would not have arisen but for the project going ahead to be used to repay that initial investment. The concept is tried and tested in the USA, and is simply based on the concept that a developed site creates more tax than an undeveloped site. But critics say the incentives can too easily ‘stray’ from their original mission and divert tax revenue from education and government services without much in the way of accountability. Yet if these issues can be resolved, TIF could no doubt provide much needed investment at a time when raising capital by conventional means is difficult.  
A recent report from local government think tank Localis and Lloyds Banking Group has suggested that TIF and Enterprise Zones could be sold to the private sector by local authorities to maximise the schemes’ value. According to SocInvest, a regeneration finance and funding organisation, this would be one way in which central government can encourage private investment in infrastructure. Selling the schemes would create upfront cash for capital investment and provide an additional localised stream, a move that would ensure there was genuine private sector demand for the development, by transferring more risk to the investors, says the report. ‘Local government should take a lead here, and argue for a bottom-up, locally led version of this mechanism – determined by LEPs and local authorities, not Whitehall.’

Value over cost
Value, rather than ‘cost’, should drive investment decisions. It is only by using innovative valuation tools that long-term value comes in to the equation. More than £8m was released by Transport for London, for example, at the initial stages of the Exhibition Road improvement project, as a result of using an early version of an urban realm valuation tool. The resulting scheme is clearly a success in both design and popularity terms – but which tools will become the ones that give real credibility, monitored over time, to land owners, investors and developers with a hard eye on the bottom line?

Taking it local
The neighbourhood planning framework sets out the details of the localism regime in practice, and the steps local groups must take to designate a neighbourhood area, establish a forum and draw up a neighbourhood plan and neighbourhood development orders (NDOs).The Royal Town Planning Institute welcomed ‘the flexible and light touch approach’ of the regulations. But it also called for clarification from ministers on whether local planning authorities will have extra funding to resource the new arrangements, and urged time limits for local planning authorities in making validation decisions on proposed neighbourhood plans or orders. The tools and mechanisms are there, but it remains to be seen how local groups will be able to resource themselves and work the system. Already there is controversy between neighbourhood plans that conflict with both local authority frameworks and with each other in a given locality.

Community buy-in
Top-down planning is no longer well tolerated: community participation in any kind of place-making, regeneration scheme or development plan is now the norm. The first step in successful place-making is to understand the place – something that many planning professionals need to learn how to do. This process is one to which the people who live and work in a place must contribute. It generally begins with the mantra ‘make the most of what you’ve got’.
Community asset mapping is one great way of identifying the places that matter and places with potential. The map serves a purpose; to help identify actions that can be taken, as a community, to improve the local environment and make better use of local assets for the benefit of local people. One of the key lessons derived from the many community engagement pilot projects that have sprung up as localist policies unwind is that councils have a crucial leadership role to play, including acting as ‘honest brokers’ between developer, business and resident interests, and providing an overarching strategic vision for delivering regeneration and growth.
Stirling Council engaged the community in summer 2009, by hosting a series of visioning workshops as part of the preparation of its new Local Development Plan (LDP).The aim of the workshops was to link community planning with spatial planning, leading to a Single Outcome Agreement (SOA), rooted in key outcomes from the visioning workshops, and based on common principles.

Accessibility and connectivity
The final piece of a very complex ‘good place’ puzzle is good accessibility and mobility. And that means for all, by all modes: car, bike, walking, tram, bus, train. Implementing such schemes is complex; they require integrated policy and extend well beyond the usual remits of urban and transport policy and planning. Increasingly, transport planning needs to be take place at the regional level; aspiring to link successful city regions with their less well-serviced and often poorly resourced peripheries. Only then can equitable growth take place.
To achieve all these things requires a mix of strategic and tactical interventions. Collaborative, visionary thinking from policy makers, decision-makers and place stakeholders needs to set the scene. Professionals, practitioners, academics and communities need to respond by delivering innovative interventions to the spatial structure and organisation of the built environment, and to how we move around it with comfort, ease and convenience.

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