Ask architects to list their most pressing concerns and most, if not all, will include ‘planning’ as one of their top answers. Problems exist within areas of both national planning policy and the quality of service that practices are receiving from under-resourced planning departments. Consequently, widely perceived breakdowns in productive communication are often reported.
But RIBA North West regional chair (and Director at HPA Architects) Richard Wooldridge is reporting that RIBA efforts at branch and regional level to open dialogue with local planners and build bridges with departments have met with great success, so much so that he thinks there are other branches and groups nationwide that could usefully follow the North West’s lead.
However, it’s not confrontation or the issuing of formal complaints that seem to be getting results, he says, but a less adversarial approach that has helped to break down barriers.
What examples of good engagement are there?
Richard Wooldridge reports that in Liverpool local architects and local planners had noticed a breakdown in communications. The North West regional team stepped in and through building a relationship with the planning department, were able to facilitate a series of meetings, beginning with a ‘clear the air’ session.
“By the second and third meetings, everybody realised that we are all trying to do the same thing and improve the built environment and the sustainability of our buildings,” says Richard. “We realised we are all in the construction industry for the same reasons, but we’re just coming at it from a different viewpoint.”
The relationship between city council and the region has been developing ever since. And, such was the improvement in relations, when city planners were looking to develop a design guide and other policies, they turned to local architects and regarded the region as a key consultee.
How to get involved with local planning departments… and vice versa
In Lancaster, Richard’s own practice base, similar clear-the-air overtures were made and both architects and planners ended up having quite a fun day with speed dating-style meetings, and design exercises.
This resulted in such a positive outcome that when the planning department identified a gap in their urban design expertise, they asked the Lancaster and Westmorland Society of Architects (LAWSA) for advice and were introduced to some useful contacts at another local planning authority. There have been lectures too for planning staff on garden villages and landscaping.
LAWSA has been talking to the Lake District National Park for some time and has had joint design workshops where local architects explained to an audience of planning officers and committee members how they go about design and how they try to respond to a site. There have been building tours and design discussion sessions too.
“The sessions are helping to grow mutual respect and they also cultivate trust. It’s great that when the Lake District felt that some officers wanted to learn more about design process, they came to their local RIBA branch,” Richard adds.
With the new Liverpool relationship chalked up as a success, the RIBA North West team has opened up a dialogue about the possibility of doing something similar with two more major metropolitan authorities.
Why reaching out to your local RIBA branch or regional group might help
Richard thinks there are key takeaways from their experiences that could be used by other branches and regions around the country, some of which already employ similar approaches.
It’s worth noting that local planning authorities have been decimated since before the Covid pandemic. This means many are under-funded, under-staffed and using agency staff members to fill in the gaps. It’s often the case that planning departments know that they’re up against a backlog and are also feeling the effects.
However, despite these backlogs – which can lead to project hold-ups – it is worth architects considering the reasons this might be the case. An awareness of a local planning authority’s situation can help with an empathetic or sympathetic approach when engagement is needed.
Architects hoping to improve their local planning relationships could also reach out to their local RIBA branch or regional groups to help formulate a plan of engagement, Richard suggests. He expects that the local planning authority will turn out to be willing to talk, as they do recognise that architects are key stakeholders in their area.
Find out more about your own local RIBA region and how you can get involved.
“If you go in as an individual saying I have an issue about the way you’re doing things, local planners tend not to listen because they’re under pressure,” Richard adds. “Get three or four people from a branch or group together, formulate an approach, and asking ‘can we meet and have a discussion’ is often the best way start a successful dialogue.”
Members can call on their regional branch or group chairs, who might be able to help with access, and they can seek advice at regional level if they need it.
Just don’t go in with an adversarial manner, Richard advises. Even if two sides are entrenched, the idea is to meet for a coffee, not a confrontation.
Thanks to Richard Wooldridge, Director, HPA Architects.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas
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