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Malcolm Fraser objects to Planners

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24 Jun 2008

Planning Objection Are planners supplanting the role of architects? Award winning architect Malcolm Fraser argues they are. And in this response to our special report, Edinburgh is Changing, published in our last issue, he goes further by suggesting the whole design process is in danger of being nationalised.

Planning Objection Are planners supplanting the role of architects? Award winning architect Malcolm Fraser argues they are. And in this response to our special report, Edinburgh is Changing, published in our last issue, he goes further by suggesting the whole design process is in danger of being nationalised.

Reading Prospect's Edinburgh issue was a strange experience. I see some very different "challenges" to those outlined, with the big underlying issues facing Edinburgh missed or obliquely-referenced.

For me the first big challenge is the centralised and privatised character of our state. Britain lacks commitment to the truth, now widely-acknowledged, that traditional City-regions are our economic-drivers - and that a bullish Edinburgh is of huge importance to national prosperity. We are the most centralised major economy in Europe, 96% of taxes being raised by a Westminster who then control the flow to us parochials: dictates policy, demands "innovation", ties our hands then jeers at underperformance. It's hard to be mature and dynamic when you are treated as children. Control and initiative are largely "reserved" matters, and our limited devolved power should not blind us to this. Two of Terry Farrell's big "challenges" must be understood in this context:

The Waterfront: Edinburgh and Hamburg shared the same derelict-industrial-waterfront-in-a-growing-economy challenge, but Hamburg understood the potential that investment would unlock. They enjoyed the benefit of un-privatised docks, but also quietly bought adjacent land dirt-cheap before announcing the grand "HafenCity" regeneration programme, led by new transport infrastructure.

The land rocketed in value, the profit winning a rail line and other infrastructure for its citizens for free. Today the area is full of life and starting to pump taxes into the local coffers.

In contrast centralised, Thatcherite Britain loathes a healthy local polis. Edinburgh, with patchy-ownership of waterfront sites and encouraged to invest in spin rather than land, announced regeneration led by Sydney-Opera-Guggenheim-Ghery icons.

Ever since we have suffered from "blight-by-spin", where the scrappies and metal-bashers sit-tight on their land, and we realise that we can get nothing of any value by the water until there is some decent transport infrastructure. So we are now being taxed extra hard to pay for a tram - which, remarkably, consists only of two spurs to the Waterfront, without the short link needed to complete an effective loop.

Princes Street: Our run-down, main shopping street, in a breathtaking location at the heart of a buoyant city, is testament to a spectacular breakdown in stewardship.

Cities like Edinburgh try to get round the ban on investing on behalf of their citizens by creating "arms-length" companies. Unfortunately Edinburgh's EDI suffered a rush of blood to the head, their Princes Street proposals leaving the knackered above-ground buildings behind and attempting an underground shopping corridor. I outlined, for the City, an achievable alternative where the small number of institutional investors that own the street's buildings were gifted development plans (with informal sign-offs that we had already won from the Heritage and Development communities) to give them confidence that mutual-cooperation in redevelopment would win them vastly more valuable sites.

We passed the first draft of the development plans to the Council, and another "arms-lengther" (City Centre Management Co.) then engaged a commercial practice and has since mis-handled at every opportunity.

First, to satisfy privatisation ideology and avoid investing public money (a sum of maybe 10% of what EDI had paid its underground shopping-alley consultants would have completed the exercise) a developer was engaged as partner, when we had advised that this would frustrate the institutional owners, who believe it is their right and their interest to appoint their own developers.

Second, the "blight-by-spin" route was pursued with stories about "oil-rich-sheiks" buying up the whole street placed in the local press - achieving the double own-goal of frustrating the owners and inflating their view of their selling-price. Then, there is the daft idea that empty upper floors above shops at the west end of the street would make a great "arts quarter" (the eternal urban-initiative of the clueless).

All Britain's cities suffer from our centralising and privatising ideologies. Edinburgh needs to understand this better to learn how to invest the small sums it does have, more wisely; while on a national level we need to understand how privatisation and centralisation limits initiative and wealth-creation.

The second big, underlying issue I call the design leadership circus. It is not unique to Edinburgh but has been pursued here to an unprecedented level with the creation of parallel, freestanding institutions, each tending to assert their pre-eminence in city stewardship. In the past stewardship and strategy were the role of the traditional Planning system, historically based on the concept of "amenity". Usually traditional Planners get poor press; but my recent experience of them in Edinburgh, picking their way sure-footedly through the maelstrom of the "Caltongate" process, has left me with great respect for what they can achieve when they are properly-resourced and concentrate on their statutory role. However, where traditional amenity planning should lead, there is now a perception that it is only one of a four-headed monster, made up of often conflicting design leaders.

First, there is the Heritage Lobby: a diverse bunch, ranging from an increasingly-surefooted Historic Scotland through to the toxic wing, led by a desurgent Cockburn Association. There are significant sections of the lobby that forget that it is architects and master-masons and not them that have led the conception and adornment of this breathtaking city, and believe that design leadership is now somehow theirs.

Then there are our "Design Planners". It's a nice co-incidence that the "Edinburgh Issue" also contains an interview with Scottish Government Chief Planner Jim MacKinnon. Quietly, by stealth, he appears to be nationalising architectural creativity, removing our lead role from us and passing it to a new profession of "Design Planners" and, through them, imposing a "New Urbanism" agenda on Scotland.

New Urbanism is a very different disciple from traditional amenity planning. For all its faults the amenity agenda can be bent to support the things that I care about in building happy communities: sunshine, view, fresh air, gathering places etc. Though there is much that is good in New Urbanism, the positives of what Leon Krier calls "the city of short distances" - shops, transport etc nearby - are usually paid only lip-service (or actively attacked, as in the closure of Post Offices). The practical New Urbanist agenda is "what a city looks like", not how we live in it. The concern then is for the scenic aspects of urban form, and the urban form New Urbanists seek to impose is a reheated Victorian/Beaux-Arts one, with grand axes, and an urban grid of superblocks with the occasional gratuitous Jencksian-twiddle as a bit of high-concept art-tart.

The new Dundee waterfront is a New Urbanist "utopia", with its "joined-up" urbanist blocks a solid wall of mediocrity blocking most of the city from the sun glinting off the silty, silvery Tay.

The 'New-urb' discipline does not sit happily with amenity planning. My practice has been supplanted on one Edinburgh job because of this dichotomy. Our concerns matched the Planning Brief and community consultation, respecting amenity issues like light and views and avoiding claustrophobic back courts; but the Design Planner asserted (here and on other issues of design) that he was design leader, and that he required our open profile replaced by the "good urbanism" of a superblock. Given his power to frustrate my client's progress we had no alternative but to resign, recognising that he had supplanted us as the project's architects.

I am concerned that these measures effectively nationalise architects' creative urban role. Though they have been - casually - confirmed to the RIAS and to me, this is happening without public or professional discussion and without government legislation.

Mackinnon states that we should accept change as this is the system in some admirable parts of Europe. But if he means the Netherlands, I believe their form of positive, creative and empowering central-coordination to be diametrically different to the dead hand of Planner-design we suffer.

We are told, incessantly, that "excellence" is what Scotland wants. But what policies like these achieve is a civil service culture of state-sponsored mediocrity, best delivered by large, lobotomised, commercial architecture practices.

Edinburgh - as Glasgow and much of Scotland - possesses local practices of exceptional quality, who are effectively being barred from being part of the renewal of their nation by their tendency to think. Instead dull English corporates are moving north to join our home-grown ones, happy to work as technicians to the Design Planners. My practice has won the Edinburgh Architectural Association's "Building of the Year" five times in the last ten years and I lecture on the city, on behalf of the city, frequently. On what basis am I to understand that some architect who has - let's say Ð built a couple of hospitals abroad, taken a Planning course and been appointed as an Edinburgh Design Planner, should lord-it over me, secure in his superiority?

All over Scotland good, necessary development is being stalled by Planners anxious to flex their design-superiority by fiddling in matters not their business. This has long been the case, but the enobling of the Planner with a "Design Leader" tag will make things much worse. Scotland's Chief Planner needs to concentrate on doing the ordinary Planning job better (a far-too unusual occurrence) before making proposals to take-over ours.

Next there is the Design Champion, a role that is applied in different ways across Scotland. In my experience Ð both as an architect and as one-time leader of Design Review at Arcitecture+Design Scotland - Glasgow has got it right. Gerry Grams is stitched-into the Planning Department, with a sleeves-up design and "fixer" role that enables and unblocks development. In contrast, Terry Farrell in Edinburgh has accepted a role with no connection to Planning and no power. It seems naive, but I can only assume that he believed that he would sketch-out his exemplar masterplans and Edinburgh's Planners, traffic engineers, site owners, developers and architects would see the greater public good shining out of them and change their plans to suit. As this doesn't happen in the real world the result has been a sort-of displacement activity, absorbing the energy of Edinburgh's creative architects into a game of fantasy-masterplanning while the corporates get on with business-as-usual.

The Planning Department has not the resources to do its own job (resources having been diverted into doing ours), and where Farrell might have stepped-in they have, instead, outsourced the critical task of compiling Planning Briefs to the private sector - to large sites' owners. Small surprise then that that we get, rolled-out all across the north of Edinburgh, from Robert Adam to RMJM, "New Urbanist" masterplans of stultifying aridity, based on private, short-term gain rather than long-term, public benefit.

Without power or a defined role Farrell and his deputy, Riccardo Marini, resort to grandstanding their Design Leadership status, adding to our confusion and leaving practices like mine unable to point to a single positive outcome from the first Design Champion term.

The last big issue is how the Council procures its own work. My practice regularly wins work from other authorities but has not, to date, been able to from our own city. Scotland's three Stirling finalists reside in Edinburgh, but we three have submitted maybe forty times for work and have never even been shortlisted. (On a project like the Grassmarket, which I was instrumental in initiating, and even raised finance for, the "reason" I was given for not making the OJEU second stage being the truly-numbing "...that we lacked experience in the historic built-environment of the Old Town".)

These are all reasons for Edinburgh to change its behaviour; but there are also reasons to believe that this might happen. What I would like to see (at both local and national level) is our Heads of Planning concentrating on doing their own job a bit better, and getting their tanks off our lawn.

We also need to rid ourselves of our planning obsession with what things look like, and care instead about how they work - concentrating on getting our infrastructure right before we start to think about how to form buildings and space to suit our aspirations, rather than making re-heated Victoriana our starting point.

And somebody needs to audit the performance of Design Champions and identify the best model while, in Edinburgh, Farrell and Marini need to learn how to be useful. (I note that Council Leader, Jenny Dawe, has asked for better links to Planning in FarrellÕs second term, but I believe that much more work is needed to cement that relationship).

The best news is that we have a new Director of City Development, Dave Anderson, and are soon to get a new Head of Planning, and we have to believe that they will bring a fresh perspective to bear: re-assert and resource traditional Planning, utilise our creative talent, bring the Design Champion into useful play, invest small sums wisely and create the framework necessary to reinvigorate our city.

Malcolm Fraser

Princes Street, Edinburgh
Princes Street, Edinburgh

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