Finding the beauty in bureaucracy: public service and planning

23 Aug 2018

How will we find the public planning experts of tomorrow? Finn Williams, Regeneration Area Manager at the Greater London Authority, addresses the skills gap

This essay is one of a collection of articles created by Lendlease and the Centre For London, written by a selection of built environment experts. These thought-provoking commentaries explore the great power and great responsibility that comes with placemaking – and how to create a city space that enhances the wellbeing of everyone who experiences it. You can read the other articles in the series here.

My corporate induction at Croydon Council was also my introduction to the meaning of public service. For the icebreaker activity, one of my new colleagues asked what I’d been doing before, and I explained that I’d been working for an architecture practice. “It must be hard being an architect in a recession,” she replied, as if to say “...he can’t be a very good architect if he’s ended up at Croydon Council”. When she asked where I commuted from, I answered Hackney. Her look of commiseration turned to pity. I could tell she was thinking “...he couldn’t even get a job at Hackney Council”. 

That was when I realised that public service had gone from being seen as a privilege, to a last resort. It was somehow unthinkable to my colleague that I’d chosen to work for Croydon Council above anywhere else. Or that I had given up working for some of the best architecture practices in Europe because I was more interested in some idealistic notion of the public good. That moment made me wonder why the public sector no longer seemed to attract the most talented and ambitious architects, planners and urban designers; what impact this was having on the built environment; and how to turn public service into something to be proud of again.

Decline and fall of the public planner 

It wasn’t always the case. From the foundation of the London County Council (LCC) in 1889 until the decision was taken to dissolve the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1983, many of London’s leading architects and planners worked for the public, often under the wing of less well-known but influential civil servants. Thomas Blashill, the first Superintending Architect of the LCC, brought in a group of architects in their 20s straight from the Architectural Association, including Owen Fleming, who went on to design the Boundary Estate. According to Fleming, this group were driven by the belief that “architecture should not be for the rich alone” and showed “an indifference to fatigue when the public interests were involved”.

The same motivations were shared by a generation of architects and planners who joined the public sector after the Second World War. Sydney Cook, Camden’s first Borough Architect, created the conditions for young architects – including Gordon Benson, Alan Forsyth, Neave Brown and Peter Tabori – to build bold and innovative social housing in the late 1960s and early 70s. 

At the same time Ted Hollamby, who had worked at the LCC under Leslie Martin, built a team of over 750 architects, planners and construction workers at the London Borough of Lambeth, including exceptional designers like George Finch and Kate Mackintosh. Like Fleming, Hollamby believed “architecture should be for the people, ordinary people”. But already by 1974, he was noticing the tendency for architects “to work for business and lucrative contracts rather than local government”.

The experiments of these public works departments did not always succeed. And when they failed, they failed on a large scale. The higher-profile problems were often the result of cheap and quick construction methods, underinvestment in management and maintenance, or socioeconomic factors beyond the control of designers – but they brought confidence in public planning down with them. It is only with the distance of time that the legacy of these public architects and planners is starting to be re-evaluated by writers like Owen Hatherley and John Grindrod, films like Utopia London, blogs such as Municipal Dreams, and even estate agents like The Modern House.

In 2012, the architect Rem Koolhaas gave over a room at the Venice Architecture Biennale to exhibit the “refreshingly modern and innovative” achievements of the “faceless bureaucrats” who worked as public servants in the 1960s and 70s. The catalogue laments that “In the age of the ‘starchitect’, the idea of suspending the pursuit of a private practice in favour of a shared ideology seems remote and untenable.”

40 years ago, a top architecture or planning graduate would have been as likely to go into public service as private practice. In 1976, 49 per cent of all architects in the UK worked for the public sector. Today it is 0.9 per cent, and only 0.2 per cent in London.

Of course, this is only one measure of the public sector’s capacity, but it is a telling indicator of a paradigm shift away from public sector delivery towards an increasing reliance on commissioning the private sector. As a result, working in local government lost the attraction of hands-on experience, experimentation and learning from doing. It became less important for public servants to come up with new ideas if others would be delivering them.

Over the same period the powerful and wide-ranging roles of the Architect-Planner, Borough Architect and Chief Planner gradually sub-divided into silos in the cause of professionalisation and efficiency. The agency that used to be afforded to the Town Planner is now fragmented between of officers specialising in Development Management, Planning Policy, Placemaking, Conservation, Regeneration, Housing, Sustainability, Building Control and Enforcement. This process has mirrored a wider disciplinary drift, where fields that were previously integrated such as planning, surveying, architecture, landscape and urban design have drifted not only apart but into conflict with each other. 

The more prescriptive job descriptions that make up a local authority planning department today are each vital in their own right, but ultimately limiting if the description is the only thing you do. They inevitably result in each specialist taking a more blinkered approach, which makes thinking holistically and planning proactively an extraordinarily complex task of coordination. In this context it’s not surprising that almost 1 in 5 public sector planners are planning to leave the profession in the next 12 months (almost double the proportion in the private sector); the most common reasons are “dissatisfaction with the nature of the job” and “excessive workloads”.

It would be easy to blame the deep and widening skills gap in planning on a lack of resources as a result of austerity measures – and easy to see increasing planning fees as the solution. But the reasons run deeper. A skills gap has been flagged up in reports since the mid-90s, and even in 2008 the Communities and Local Government Committee concluded that “Perhaps the most surprising, and frustrating, point to arise repeatedly from this inquiry is the fact that labour and skills shortages in planning are so unsurprising. They have been evident for well over a decade but review after review, report after report, recommendation after recommendation have not resulted in their reduction. This must change.” It will only change by rethinking the nature of the job, and even the role of the public sector in planning. 

A systemic skills gap 

The skills gap may be longstanding, but the twin pressures of an increasing need to deliver homes at a time of decreasing local government resources have taken it to new extremes. In the last five years, net local authority spending on planning and development in London has fallen from £259m to £148m, a reduction of nearly 60 per cent.  That’s more than any other council service. 

At the same time, we need to be delivering more than double the number of homes we were building five years ago. A lack of planning capacity is now seriously constraining delivery of both the quantity and quality of homes and growth. 

Interestingly, the loudest calls for more investment in public planning are coming from the private sector. A recent survey of housebuilders identified providing additional resources to local authority planning departments as the single most important policy measure to boost housing supply. 93 per cent of planning consultants strongly agree or agree that a lack of council resources is preventing good planning.

And there is strong evidence that developers are willing to pay more to build local authority capacity if it helps improve the planning process. The narrative supporting deregulation of the planning system has presented it as a barrier to growth. But these developers are calling for more planning, not less. 

Local authorities recognise that delivering economic growth demands a proportionate growth of their planning capacity. 96 per cent of London boroughs say they require more delivery skills in their planning departments – particularly in-house design skills. But a lack of funding and uncertainty over budgets is preventing strategic resource planning. Even where they do have the funding to recruit additional staff, many councils struggle with one-size-fits-all recruitment processes, and are having problems finding talented planners. 

By far the biggest barrier to London boroughs meeting their capacity needs is the difficulty in attracting appropriately qualified or skilled candidates. Beyond London, the situation is arguably worse. Local authorities in the East of England region spent approximately £700,000 advertising for planning staff last year, and still have over 100 planning vacancies.

Given the difficulties of building permanent in-house capacity, skills gaps in planning departments are often patched up using a series of short-term measures. These range from fixed-term contracts funded through Planning Performance Agreements, to an increasing reliance on external consultants and agency staff, and an expansion of Design Review as an alternative to in-house urban design expertise. 

These are necessary and urgent solutions, but over the longer term they will only exacerbate the problem. The net result is a gradual erosion of local skills, knowledge, accountability, and sense of public service. 

The assumption behind each of these measures is that the reputation of public sector planning is damaged beyond repair – that attracting the right people relies on the job not being ‘public sector’, or not being ‘planning’. There is a danger that this reinforces the misconception that public planning is somehow boring, and that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps the answer isn’t to move further away from the original idea of planning, but to rediscover and redefine it. 

Ask some of the leading planners working in local government, and they say that with the right conditions the job is more interesting and challenging than anything they came across in private practice. Sripriya Sudhakar, who worked for a number of high-profile planning consultancies before choosing to join the public sector, told us: “I’ve honestly not had a single boring day in the seven years I’ve been at Tower Hamlets.”

According to Vincent Lacovara, a Team Leader in Croydon Council’s Spatial Planning Service: “It’s easy to write off planning conditions or procurement exercises as bureaucracy, but in the right context, none of this is boring. A good planner will see crafting a S106 clause as a crucial part of designing a better place.” Rather than denying these aspects of the job, we need to be attracting people who can find the beauty in bureaucracy. 

A new generation of public servants 

There are signs that a new generation of architects, urban designers, planners – and practitioners who don’t fit comfortably into any of these categories – are more receptive to the idea of public service. Young practices like Assemble, DK-CM and We Made That are at the head of a field of cross-disciplinary designers who are interested in doing socially engaged projects for the public good. 

The architecture and planning students I teach are attracted by the idea of more ethical work, but also frustrated by their experiences of profit-driven development in private practice. Joseph Zeal-Henry, a recent graduate of Cass Cities at London Metropolitan University, comments: “As an architect I sleep better at night if I have a job where I can contribute positively to the city I was born in and live in. This generation is already working its way into local government, and finding a natural fit with progressive councils that recognise the public sector has to take a more proactive and entrepreneurial approach to planning. Tobias Goevert is the head of the new Regeneration Unit at Harrow Council, which has brought in extraordinarily talented staff, mainly from the private sector. He explains that the drivers for establishing the unit were partly political will to intervene directly where the market is failing to deliver, and partly a recognition of “the need to generate more stable revenue income in the context of the sea change in government funding... Harrow Regeneration Unit brings regeneration, planning, design, development, construction and delivery under one roof. We’re not so much Borough Architects as Borough Developers.”

Croydon Council has created the first new in-house architects department in decades to support their wholly owned development company, Brick by Brick, to build over 1,000 homes on sites across the borough. The team is led by Chloe Phelps, who was shortlisted for Emerging Woman Architect of the Year.

“The Design & Feasibility Team was set up to really embed creativity, quality and innovation at the heart of our new projects... The ethos is similar to the previous generation of council architects departments in that we seek to create open-minded, technologically savvy, socially relevant architecture. It will be different in the way that we intend to stay small, nimble and efficient.”

The new generation isn’t only young people. In 2016, Ken Rorrison retired from award-winning architects Henley Halebrown Rorrison after 21 years as a director, to explore the profession from another perspective. He decided to rejoin Hackney Council as Design Manager across their housing and regeneration programmes, 34 years after working for Hackney Council Architects Department as a year-out job.

There was a romantic side to my career coming full circle, but I was also attracted by joining a motivated team, doing good work, with strong political support... There’s a mindset that there’s more freedom in the private sector, which isn’t true. But it’s going to take council-led work winning awards and being published to rebuild the cachet of working for the public sector as something people want to do.

Redefining public planning

The new administration at City Hall sees good public planning as essential to create the conditions for good growth. The team brings direct experience of leading exemplary council-led delivery programmes, and understands the crucial role borough officers have to engage communities, coordinate investment, shape development and strengthen the character of places.

That is why Jules Pipe is chairing an advisory group to help establish a new initiative to build local authority planning capacity: Public Practice. Membership of the advisory group crosses sectors and disciplines, and includes representation from the wider South East. It is overseeing production of a business plan, co-funded by the GLA, Local Government Association (LGA) and East of England LGA, to create a ‘Teach First for planning’.

Public Practice will offer local authorities hand-picked, exceptionally talented planning practitioners for year-long placements at affordable rates. The practitioners will be given the opportunity to work in strategic roles within authorities under flexible conditions, alongside a prestigious programme of collective research and learning. This programme will be cross-subsidised by public- and private-sector supporters interested in investing in public-sector planning capacity, and improving the certainty, quality and speed of development.

Tony Pidgley, a member of the advisory group, sees it as “a great opportunity to change the culture of planning from a regulatory function to something that makes things happen and makes a difference”. For Lord Kerslake, also on the advisory group, “This is not about resurrecting old models of public practice, but reinvigorating what it is to be a planner.”

London already has a wealth of talent in the built environment: it is just not evenly distributed. This is holding the whole industry back from creating better places. The Public Practice initiative will not be able to close the skills gap alone, but it’s one practical way of harnessing London’s talent and starting to make an immediate difference.

This article was written by [Finn Williams] (“Author”) (independent of Lendlease) and originally published by the [Centre for London]. The opinions, views and representations expressed in the article are those of the Author. Lendlease has not independently verified any of the information in the article nor sought to confirm any underlying assumptions relied upon therein by the Author. Unless otherwise indicated, information contained in the article is current only as at the date it was originally published. Neither Lendlease, nor any member of the Lendlease Group, accepts any liability for any loss or damage suffered, howsoever arising, as a result of the use of any information in the article.