An Urban Legacy
by Ben Rogers
A series of recent visits, readings and conversations have got me thinking about the legacy of the New Labour years for England’s built environment.
This year I attended, for the first, time, all three of the main party conferences – Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative. Attending three party conferences is a mixed blessing at best, but it did at least provide me with chance to spend a bit of time wandering around some of our major cities – Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester – taking stock of their built transformation or ‘urban renaissance’.
Since then, and partly occasioned by these visits, I have had a number of conversations with architects and designers discussing and in some cases arguing about whether urban design has improved or declined in the last decade.
Then last week saw the publication of the Bishop Review, which looks at ‘how good architectural, landscape and urban design can be achieved’ in a dramatically changed economic and political environment. As someone heavily involved in the last official review of design policy resulting in the 2009 government strategy, World Class Places, I read Peter Bishop’s review with interest.
New Labour’s urban legacy hasn’t on the whole had a good press from architects and designers. Much is made of the shoddy, poorly designed quality of much of what has gone up. And there is no doubt that – inevitably – our national track record is mixed at best. The design quality of new homes, to mention just one example, leaves a lot to be desired.
At the risk of seeming terribly naïve and unsophisticated, however, I have to say that what I saw in Birminghham, Liverpool and Manchester – and much of what I see going up around London – impresses me. To the visitor these cities look and feel a lot more alluring than they did a decade or so ago, when their city centres were a by-word for urban decline. And when I have pressed my architectural friends and interlocutors, they have been ready to concede that government policies and initiatives haven’t been so bad after all. The creation of a beefed-up design watch-dog in the form of CABE, new design standards and guides, investment in training and professional support, made it at the very least a bit harder to get away with really stupid, anti-social designs. Among other things, we got better at designing and managing the public realm, investing in pedestrian friendly streetscapes, and containing out of town development.
But what of the future? The Bishop Review rightly argues that CABE’s successor, in the form of the expanded Design Council, needs to adopt a less centralised, and more facilitating and coordinating role – conducting, not dictating to the country (though, to be fair, the old CABE did a lot of conducting too). And he also rightly recognises that there are real limits to what any national or even regional design body can do. The best way of ensuring well-designed villages, towns and cities is to raise the standing of local planning authorities and promote the capacity of local planning officials and councillors. Bishop takes for granted that local authority planning departments have declined in quality over recent years. I am not so sure. But they certainly need to be strengthened.
Where the resources to strengthen the planning departments will come from, however, in an age of austerity is far from clear.
PS: Two recent publications have attempted to take the measure of Labour’s urban renaissance – Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso 2010) and John Punter’s edited collection Urban Design and the British Urban Renaissance (Routledge 2010). Hatherley’s polemical travelogue is the better written and more lively work, and has been well received by the critics. But Punter’s more academic collection, which presents Labour’s record as complex and uneven, but broadly positive, is probably a more reliable guide. Punter in particular reminds us of how much development varies from place to place, with the quality of the results depending crucially on the quality of local leadership.