City of Winchester Trust
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A plea for Visionary Planning

Terry Farrell, described by some as the Philosopher of Bricks & Mortar, gave the annual Sandys lecture at Portcullis House Westminster on 31st March. He started with a tribute to Lord Duncan Sandys, a visionary figure of the post war years, whose achievements included:

• The Clean Air Act of 1956, which transformed the quality of life in our cities
• The establishment of Conservation Areas
• The creation of Green Belts
• He also formed The Civic Trust ( now replaced by Civic Voice )

When Ed Vaizey was for a brief time Minister for Architecture in the last coalition government, he appointed Sir Terry to prepare The Farrell Review; a reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the planning system. Some two years on Sir Terry was revisiting his conclusions in this lecture.

He regretted that central government undervalued the built environment as, rather than being an important ministry in its own right, its function is fragmented into numerous different departments, so becomes a potential source of conflict between the Treasury, Culture Media and Sport, and Housing and Transport. Even Ed Vaizey’s status as Minister for Architecture only lasted a few days, before the post was lost in the oblivion of re-organisation. Not since the days of Duncan Sandys or Michael Heseltine has the status of the built environment been given any real priority within the corridors of power. The same has occurred in most local councils with the closure of their architects' departments and the disappearance of a design team or design leader in their planning offices.

Similarly it is almost invisible within our education system, but Sir Terry believes the built environment should be included in all schools across all subjects such as geography, art, science, history, and economics, so that the next generation grow up with a greater awareness of planning, architecture, landscape design, transport and sustainability.

Terry Farrell argued that municipal planning has been re-active and only rarely pro-active as most cities do not have a master plan or conceptual framework*. (David Mackay’s visionary blueprints for Plymouth and Barcelona being well known exceptions my words not his). The Thames Gateway has been the largest urban regeneration project in Europe, but it has had no master plan*.

So any building owner or developer may submit their application for whatever they want and the Council has to consider it; developers with deep pockets can argue and appeal, persisting until they win consent almost regardless of the local planning policies. The Shard in Southwark and the Piano Tower in Paddington were cited as examples of developers' proposals that were made with no regard for what the community really needed. The Shard was never in any local plan, but happens to have worked out fairly well; whereas Sir Terry pointed out that the Piano Tower would be alien to the conservation area of the Paddington basin, and the same accommodation could be constructed in blocks of no more than 8 stories within the same site area to blend with the surrounding properties rather than “shard style” high rise proportions which dominate the skyline.

So if local authorities could be persuaded to prepare their own master plans to include well considered solutions to planning, landscape, architecture, conservation and traffic engineering, it would become a pro-active tool. Sir Terry also hoped that design priority would be given to pedestrian and landscape issues, with cars relegated to the lowest importance so that the quality of spaces and quality of life became much improved.

If we were to apply these principles to Winchester, then major developments like Silver Hill, Station Approach or at Bar End could, and should, comfortably blend with the existing infrastructure, and much controversy might be avoided.

But masterplans must be flexible and open to review as the needs of the community change. Some very bad examples from the brave new world of the 1950s and 60s were quoted by Sir Terry as a warning: the urban motorways that cut through Newcastle city centre, the original Bullring redevelopment in Birmingham, or one might add the demolition of our 3 medieval Brooks streets as examples of the abuse of municipal power - which could be described as public vandalism.

Without a change in culture as suggested by Sir Terry, sadly the wrong solutions will continue to be built on the wrong sites. For example, with a well considered masterplan, would the extra care unit be built on the Chesil Street surface car park where the frail elderly residents won't easily access the town centre? Almost certainly not. It is only located there because the site was available at the time funding became possible, not because it was a sensible place to house vulnerable elderly folk with limited mobility. I suspect a conceptual framework would have foreseen the right place to locate an extra care unit , perhaps on the upper floors of the Silver Hill development with good lift access into the pedestrian High Street.

The challenge for the Trust is how to persuade WCC to adopt such an enlightened, far-sighted strategy in a time when Council resources are so strapped, and there is no suitably skilled officer responsible for design, or a Design Champion operating at a senior enough level to influence Cabinet.

Chris Higgins.

*There is often confusion in the use of these terms in planning so, for the sake of clarity, current definitions may be briefly summarised as follows:

Masterplan - specific proposals for a development area, generally (but not essentially) in single ownership and often by a single developer.
Design framework - principles and policies for the regeneration of an area likely to be in multiple ownership, not all of which may be developed at one time or at all.
Urban design framework - specifically within a town.
Conceptual framework - a looser term (possibly including open landscape) and implying greater flexibility.
(See The Councillor's Guide to Urban Design - CABE).