THE BLOG

We All Must Own the Places We Live In

01/04/2014 13:04 BST | Updated 31/05/2014 10:59 BST

The architecture profession and the planning system must open up to all.

Just as much as the health of the economy and our public services, the quality of our built environment and the places we live in are some of the single biggest factors that influence our quality of life. Yet for too long, the subject has been viewed as the preserve of an elite. The architecture profession has tended to draw its members from a narrow social group whilst the planning process has been top-down, complex and unwelcoming for members of the public wishing to get involved.

In a new report published today, commissioned by the Department for Culture, I argue that we need to radically open up access to the built environment professions, and engage the public in the planning process more proactively than ever before. On a day-to-day level this will allow us to create better places to live which are more acceptable to communities; but it will also help us tackle some of the big questions of our time - how do we build enough homes and make the places we live in outstanding? How do we meet the challenge of climate change? And, topically, how do we design places less susceptible to the terrible floods that hit so much of the country this winter?

First of all, the architecture profession needs to get its own house in order. Professional education for architects is based on a model that is fifty years old and must be radically rethought to adapt and prepare much better for the future, and widen accessibility. Particularly in an age of tuition fees, the equation between cost of education and subsequent earnings for a career in architecture does not stack up unless the student has independent financial means. This lack of accessibility is unacceptable, and we need architects and design professionals who are able to relate to broader society. Everyone's house, street and school are designed by somebody, and we need designers and planners to understand the needs of all the diverse communities they are designing for and to be engaging with them more whilst studying. To widen accessibility, we need a diverse range of different courses and training routes to be made available including apprenticeships and sandwich courses.

The planning system needs to open up too. The proposed reforms to the system call for a new proactive approach to the planning. Anticipating needs and opportunities, not simply responding to proposals for new development. And looking at places in their entirety, rather than just at individual buildings and their design.

This requires a fundamental, philosophical rethink from everybody involved in the system - from architects and developers, to policy-makers and communities. There is no doubt that national and local government have an important role to play, but they are not the sole focus of this Review. Policies should be developed which are enabled by politicians but need to be led independently by the industry and the very communities themselves, with the focus of these policies being the core "places" of villages, towns and cities. The stewardship, long-term planning and identity of real places should be a fundamental part of built environment policies. I believe that the future lies in empowering cities and localities and the people that live in them.

Real change cannot happen unless the wider public start to expect and demand more of their built environment in the same way that attitudes to food and health have completely transformed in the last thirty years. The increasing public interest in the planning process is a start, but is too often negatively framed as campaigns against certain developments. There needs to be a positive agenda too, with people setting out what they do want from their communities and how they will provide for the housing, infrastructure and other needs in the future. We need to set out a better, clearer process which allows them to do so.

Irrespective of the area the Review looked at, top-down approaches are not the solution for today's complex world. Whether it is opening up the planning system or access to the profession it is clear that collaboration between Government, communities and the industry represents the only serious way forward. Most of all, we need to get people involved. The planning system needs to open up and become more proactive, whilst architecture can no longer be the preserve of a small group of mostly middle-class men. We need to radically open up the feeling of ownership over the built environment so we draw upon the skills, talents, insight and perspective of all in our diverse society.