Good design is core to making the world a better place, writes Flora Samuel

Flora Samuel crop

The pandemic does not appear to have slowed down social value activity across the built environment sector. If anything, it has accelerated it.

As my research for the CACHE covid project shows, local authorities and governments have surprised themselves at their ability to change entrenched working practices, write and ratify new laws and policy in weeks rather than years and to make key adjustments to the fabric of our towns and cities just like that.

At the same time, they have not forgotten about the imperatives of the climate change emergency. There is a real determination to build back better.

A strong message from several of the interviewees I have spoken to over the past six months was that the government should not meddle with the planning system in an effort to get the economy moving. This was even before the publication of the Planning for the Future consultation paper for the planning system in England (deadline 29 October), which is reminiscent of the ill-fated kickstarter programme developed by the Labour government in 2008.

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Another unhelpful recent government planning initiative was Help to Buy, described by one volume housebuilder I spoke to as “Kerchingah!” (accompanied by the gleeful rubbing together of hands). If we are not careful, something similar will happen here.

Planning is much too important to be done fast and it has to be done holistically. If you want an example of “a planning system fit for the 21st century” you need look no farther than Wales, which has been developing place-based policy for some years. This is policy that has remained largely resilient to the pandemic as it is all about wellbeing.

Critical issues for planning in the future are not just about housing delivery. They also include sustainable and active travel, the requirement of basic levels of green amenity space, promoting local businesses and services and providing walkable neighbourhoods.

There is also the delivery of local healthcare provision, home working, food production, redundant office space and the future of the high street. Building more housing fast without proper consideration of these issues is only going to make things worse. 

Perhaps most importantly, planners have to find a way, in this age of digital connectivity, to ensure that communities get the homes and places they want and need. This is why it is so very important that there is a good response to the alarming proposals in the white paper which propose a reliance on the Local Development Plans for decision making.

This might be well and good if LDPs were based on deep consultation, including with hard to access members of the community, the latest in digital technology and ongoing data gathering on maximising social and environmental impact. But, again as our CACHE research is showing, the making of LDPs is on its knees.

Indeed, in some places, LDPs are very out of date owing to a lack of resource to make new ones. Placing reliance on such a threadbare system will leave, as one person I spoke to put it, “developers dancing in the gaps in the LDPs”.

Procurement is going to play a central role in all of this. If you have not been paying attention to what the Construction Innovation Hub is up to with the development of value-based procurement, it is time that you did so.

This remarkably joined-up initiative, led by the enlightened surveyor Anne Bentley, is putting together the measures and digital tools to dispense with our current archaic litigious building contracts, replacing them with a system that prioritises value – including social and environmental value – during both the construction phase and the project in use.

I am one of the 120 “experts” contributing to the development of these measures (working with the Chartered Institute of Building on “social and human capital”) and am pleased to report just how much wellbeing and sustainability seem set to be core to the whole endeavour, although as ever it will be down to the client to set the direction of travel. 

Imagine this, you unfortunate folk who spend weeks concocting social value statements for ill-starred project bids with dysfunctional assessment criteria: What is this thing called “quality”? How come “inclusion” only gets 10%?

There may come a time when the criteria are clear and fair, enabling architects at last to use the Social Value Toolkit for Architecture and other tools to demonstrate how design will be core to making the world a better place.