Are We Delivering Great Places?

John Walls discusses a recent talk to the RTPI West of Scotland Chapter by Steven Tolson

The RTPI West of Scotland Chapter received a great talk by Steven Tolson at their February meeting. It started off philosophically with a quote from the recently deceased Pete Seeger – ‘The world will be solved by millions of small things’ (1919 – 2014) which set the tone for Steven’s thought provoking presentation.

Getting quickly into the meat of the subject of delivering great places, Steven outlined 10 issues to be addressed. These included economic performance, the consumer, investment, etc. Importantly he observed that the present level of housing supply was not meeting people’s needs and current approaches were stifled by rigidity, adversarial relationships and lack of innovation. These factors add up to a lack of people skills and entrepreneurial leadership preventing great places from being delivered.

Moving towards improved delivery, Steven then gave us 10 things to consider starting with the state acting as the ‘prime mover’. A theme close to this writer’s heart having seen the country’s blind reliance on market forces to deliver housing fail for the last three decades. Amongst the delivery factors Steven included partnership investment vehicles, delivery brokers, cooperative models, training and employment, finance and, last but not least, long term investment. The last being especially important for good stewardship and management.

Steven, having set the scene with respect to delivery issues and factors, then turned to talk about place. He succinctly observed that ‘Place is a Public Good’. As such it isn’t the developer who makes place but the investor. Importantly Steven doesn’t define the investor narrowly in terms of who gives the developer the money to develop but those who invest in the ‘place’; ie the residents and those who have wider maintenance and management responsibilities. That is the citizen, the owner occupier or tenant, the landlord, the public sector and the community as well as external investors eg retailers, transport providers, etc.

Moving on Steven raised the game again by comparing the political influences on planning and development. He offered two alternatives – socialist or market based. He illustrated this by comparing the UK post 80 approach; ie free market delivery where the market provides for housing needs or the North European approach; where a mixed market approach is the norm; ie a balance between public and private development. In the latter where the public sector often takes the lead especially with respect to the provision of infrastructure.

Steven then amplified his points by showing the nature and quality of developments which were being achieved in the Netherlands and Germany. He also noted how European national politics differed from the UK as these mixed market strategies were often led by centre-right rather than centre-left governments. He showed images from Ijberg, Netherlands and Tubingen, Germany to emphasise his points. From Steven’s perspective, the continental approach has benefited from the state taking the lead position.

In the Netherlands, the government set national housing targets which were then implemented at the regional level. The municipalities play a major role in determining the shape of their cities and providing infrastructure – water, drainage and transport to meet future development needs. However, the residents and communities get a bigger say in shaping their neighbourhoods at a local level.

The manner in which land is leased out or sold off in Europe means that the municipalities do monitor implementation, will remedy mistakes, unintended or otherwise, and maintain a long term management interest. In the opinion of this writer, a level of stewardship almost not seen in the UK except in places such as the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor Estates in London and Poundbury developed by the Princes Foundation.

What were the positives that Steven found on his European travels?
• The quality of design and specification was higher (in Germany the average house/ flat floorspace is 100 sq metres, in Netherlands 116 sq metres as against the UK’s 76 sq metres.)
• The community created the ‘place’ – a place where the community has a good socio-economic as well as age mix and grows together
• Neighbourhood layouts had a greater mix of development (house types and tenure) with provision for pedestrians and cyclists and integrated landscaping.
• The neighbourhoods created had little ‘municipal graffiti’; ie little intrusive signage, safety rails, bollards, etc
• Owner occupied housing costs could be 15-20% cheaper than equivalent speculative developer housing.
• The houses had a good resale value

Translating these positives into lessons Steven summed up by observing that the Germans and Dutch are no different from us. They like spacious accommodation and, despite appearances, just as likely to aspire to a detached house. However, they are pragmatic and prepared to live in denser housing forms to get a spacious house or flat. More significantly Steven found in his investigations that the people trusted their leaders and the leaders trusted the people – a self-reinforcing trust which makes it far easier to deliver great places. In addition the Dutch and Germans value good places and look after them, characteristics often sadly lacking in the UK.

The overarching lesson from the places Steven visited was that the state can contribute significantly to the delivery of great places. The continental examples showed that the state could be visionary, could provide leadership, have a long term view and provide quality stewardship. From the planners point of view, Steven had demonstrated that the planners have a key role in delivery and have a major influence at the top table. From the development perspective the approach stimulates wide participation from individuals, cooperatives and small to medium builders. This means not only that the quality of developments are better but that the economy also benefits by the finer grain of house providers in contrast to the big housebuilders who dominate in the UK.

Steven’s talk demonstrated that we need not fear the State as the ‘prime mover’. This country would benefit greatly if the State assumed a leadership role and worked with the development sector and communities to deliver development. The approach generates wider participation and opportunities for smaller players which is beneficial for local employment and higher quality developments. Finally, and topically, the approach favours long term Sustainable Investment.

‘It’s a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with.’ was Steven’s closing quote (Pete Seeger again). A tacit admission to the fact that many elements in the thrust of Steven’s talk don’t currently fit into the grain of national thinking.

For this writer, Steven’s talk was outstanding. It was an iteration of a theme Steven has been working on for some time now in collaboration with others including Professor David Adams, University of Glasgow. At a time where the country is lacking direction and development is slow to materialise because of a reliance on the market sector, it is refreshing to see the delivery and creating places issues which currently confront us, flagged up so clearly and coherently. In my view, if these issues fail to be addressed, indeed, continue to fail to be addressed, the country’s housing and economic needs will struggle to be met. A State led housing policy designed to meet the country’s housing needs is in everyone’s interests. Crucially, but is being overlooked, it would increase the nation’s GDP significantly.

Steven was then joined by Diarmaid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at of Architecture & Design Scotland, and Andrew Burrell, architect and developer and founder of The Burrell Company, for an open discussion around aspects of improving the delivery of better places in Scotland. There was a lively wide ranging discussion too long to be covered here. However, Diarmaid made one point that stood out to me and it related to the Irish property bubble. He observed that the developers were asking the question ‘why can’t we sell?’ The answer is that they had created no value! The real issue is how to create value. In this regard the development sector needs help to get development in the right place. No doubt a simplification for the purposes of the discussion but a valuable contribution to the debate.

The West of Scotland Chapter is to be complimented in arranging this event which coincided with its annual AGM. The venue, generously provided by GVA James Barr, was an excellent setting for the occasion.

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