Written by Rob Cowan

Article originally published in The Planner

‘Primarily funded, researched, written and organised by Farrells. Commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.’ Those words on the back cover of the Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment seem incongruous. If the government’s department commissioning the report was not sufficiently committed to the project to fund it, what was the point of Sir Terry Farrell, his team and 1,000 consultees in spending a year trying the answer the DCMS’s detailed brief?

Creative industries minister Ed Vaizey asked to Farrell to make recommendations to inform the DCMS’s approach to promoting high standards of design. His request came a few days after a round of job losses at Design Council CABE caused by that same department’s withdrawal of financial backing. The publication of the report a year later, on 31 March 2014, coincided with Design Council Cabe being quietly wound up. CABE had already lost its capitals: the name was no longer an acronym, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment having been abolished. Now it has been decided that in future the residual, minimal, cabe-ish activities will be carried out by the Design Council itself under the brand ‘Cabe at the Design Council’.

In the face of all the evidence that promoting high standards of design is not high on the government’s agenda, Farrell took on the task with impressive seriousness. Not having to answer to the DCMS as paymaster, he has taken the opportunity of giving the 200-page report a strong autobiographical element, and of highlighting some of his own company’s own work in promoting a wider interest in design.

Ed Vaizey said at the launch: ‘I hope this report is the beginning of a dialogue within the industry about how we can build on our successes and recognise the critical importance of architecture and design in all aspects of our lives.’ Some observers groaned. After a year’s intensive work, were we only at ‘the beginning of a dialogue’? Was that dialogue to be only ‘within the industry’? Was there no commitment by the DCMS – or, more relevantly, Eric Pickles’ Department of Communities and Local Government – to implement at least a few of the report’s 60 carefully considered recommendations?

The Farrell Review is not actually the beginning of anything. The issues that it highlights are ones that Terry Farrell himself has been campaigning on for at least 30 years. He was one of the early members of the Urban Design Group in the late 1970s; he helped found the Urban Design Alliance in the late 1990s; and he campaigned for what eventually in 1999 became CABE. It was Farrell who lobbied for the government’s intended ‘Commission for Architecture’ (CA) to be given an additional ‘BE’, on the grounds that it had to be about more than just architecture.

As Farrell’s report itself acknowledges, the review is a snapshot in time. Few of its ideas and proposals are new; many of them have a long and chequered history; and implementing them is not necessarily a job for government. Contrary to what is commonly assumed, governments rarely lead, and the built environment will be no exception.

Farrell has spoken of changes in attitudes being needed on the scale of those that have been seen in the UK in recent decades in relation to health and food. Governments have passed the necessary legislation in those fields, but the revolutionary changes in attitudes came from below. Dramatically different attitudes to standards of design and development will depend on educators; communities and neighbourhoods; the civic and environmental movements; developers and the property industry; and a wide range of professionals and their professional organisations. When those people succeed in making the political weather, politicians will take notice and start asking what they can do to make things happen. We are not there yet.

When the Farrell Review was commissioned, some commentators complained that the brief seemed to have an excessively architectural focus. Question 1 asked: ‘Britain has some of the best architects and designers in the world but that does not automatically mean that standards of architectural design in England are as good as they could be. Why is this?’ The answer seemed staggeringly obvious: a great deal of development is not designed by architects, let alone notably good ones; most clients are not interested in commissioning the best architects and designers; and the standards of development depend on much wider issues than just architecture.

Question 3 asked: ‘Would having a formal architecture policy (as some European countries do) help to achieve improved outcomes?’ It was not a question that anyone else seemed to be asking, and not even the RIBA’s evidence to the review favoured the government introducing such a policy. The Farrell Review wisely answered succinctly: in essence, ‘no’.

Farrell has successfully steered the review from architecture to the wider matters that shape the built environment. The report’s title is Our Future in Place, and place is the key. That short word is taken as summing up what needs to be addressed. ‘Quality of life’ might have set the remit even wider, but place has a physical, spatial dimension that urban designers, planners and architects tend to be comfortable with.

When thinking of the role of the built environment professions, the review suggests, we should regard them as each representing some of the core skills needed to make successful places. Think of PLACE as an acronym, Farrell says: P for planning, L for landscape, A for architecture, C for conservation and E for engineering. Actually, to include all the professional members of the now-defunct Urban Design Alliance we would have to add U for urban designers and S for surveyors. That would replace PLACE with CAPSULE, an acronym that would do little more than remind built environment professionals to keep taking the tablets.

Five cross-cutting themes run through the Farrell Review:

1. A new understanding of place-based planning and design.

2. A new level of connectedness between government departments, institutions, agencies, professions and the public.

3. A new level of public engagement through education and outreach in every village, town and city, and volunteering enabled by information and communications technology.

4. A commitment to making the ordinary better and to improving the everyday built environment.

5. A sustainable and low-carbon future.

How the professions relate to these themes is not clear. The professionals in Farrell’s P-L-A-C-E professions have valuable skills, but professionalism in the built environment these days is a flexible business. Individual professionals have a wide variety of competencies and experience, and many develop these in unexpected ways over their careers. Increasingly they may be members of more than one professional body, or change allegiance as they progress.

Attempts by professionals to organise themselves in ways that promote placemaking go back to the creation in 1978 of Architects in Planning, which in a few weeks changed its name to the Urban Design Group. In 1997, with the active support of Terry Farrell, the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL) was formed by a group of professional and campaigning bodies who identified a common interest in improving the quality of life through urban design, particularly through collaboration between professionals and their institutes. It took the initials UDAL rather than UDA to distinguish it from the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association.

Urban design’s time seemed to have come. Richard Rogers’ 1999 Urban Task Force report Towards an Urban Renaissance, urging the importance of high standards of design in urban regeneration, caught the mood of the New Labour government which had commissioned it. The creation of CABE in the same year seemed to offer hopes of everything that the urban design movement had dreamed of: the establishment of urban design thinking in professional practice and at all levels of government.

A report by a government Urban Design Skills Working Group followed in 2001. By 2004 the government’s urban-design-related buzzword was ‘sustainable communities’. Sir John Egan’s review Skills for Sustainable Communities was published in that year. The following year deputy prime minister John Prescott announced the creation of the Academy for Sustainable Communities to help develop those skills.

In 2011 the process seemed to stop: the dramatic scaling-down of CABE seemed to reflect the coalition government’s lack of conviction about the value of urban design, and certainly about any significant local or central government role in promoting it. In that year the Bishop Review reported to the government on ‘how good architectural, landscape and urban design can be achieved’, but it had little effect beyond providing its chairman, Peter Bishop, with useful experience for his later role as a member of the Farrell Review’s expert panel.

Seen in that context, the Farrell Review is one more attempt to get to grips with the complexities of placemaking in a history rich in expectations and disappointments. Frustrating as the present situation is, the urban design movement needs to keep working on strategies to lift it out of its government-induced slough of despond.

The Farrell Review’s proposals range from the general to the specific. The report calls for the built environment professions to be guided by a common pursuit of place quality, and to educate their members through a common foundation year in further education. It wants ‘place reviews’, with panels representing all the place professions, to replace design review. Every town that does not have an architecture and planning centre should have an ‘urban room’, actual or online, to focus interest and debate. The government should have chief place advisors and a chief architect, and it should be advised by a Place Leadership Council with representatives of the private and public sectors.

Above all, the review says, planning needs to become more proactive. ‘Our planning system has become too reactive and relies on development control, which forces local authority planners to spend their time firefighting rather than thinking creatively about the future shape and form of villages, towns and cities,’ it says. ‘Proactive planning would free up valuable time for local authority planners to develop masterplans and design codes which are supported by local communities, while reinvigorating the planning profession and its public perception.’

Who is going to make it happen? Not this government, which does not see the value of providing the necessary resources. Not the Urban Design Alliance, which no longer exists. Not ‘Cabe at the Design Council’, which does not have the capacity. Not the professional institutes, which have yet to learn how to collaborate with one another, or to focus effectively on place rather than on narrower concerns. The urban design movement needs to rethink and regroup. The Farrell Review does not provide a blueprint for making that happen, but its deep thinking may be of considerable value in supporting the process.

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