“Developers keep looking at me as if I’m a total nutter,” says Ione Braddick. “I’ve got into the habit of asking them if people would feel joy when walking around their developments. I ask them to think, ‘Is this going to be a joyous place?’”
Braddick is an urban design officer at Epping Forest council in Essex and her nuttiness is important. Her question is one that is rarely asked in the making of new places, when the forces of finance often trump any interest in the quality of the streets, buildings and spaces being created. And it is particularly crucial in this part of Essex, where a new “garden town” of 10,000 homes is currently being planned around Harlow – a scale of new development not seen there for a generation.
“Planners here are more used to dealing with applications for house extensions, but suddenly we’re facing masterplans for thousands of houses at once,” says Braddick. “There needs to be a shift from just talking about the impact on neighbours, to the needs of future residents – what will it feel like to walk down one of these new streets?”
Braddick arrived at Epping Forest district council last year, having left her job in an architecture firm, to join the first cohort of Public Practice, an initiative launched in October 2017 to inject design expertise into local authority planning departments. It is a service that has been sorely needed for years. In 1979, 49% of qualified architects in the UK worked in the public sector, designing schools, hospitals, parks and council housing, like the innovative schemes built throughout Camden in London under pioneering borough architect Sydney Cook. Following decades of cuts and outsourcing, that figure is now just 0.7%. Walk around any British town and the effects are all too visible in the kind of thoughtless developments that are happily waved through the system.
Public Practice is bucking the trend. So far, it has seen 54 associates, with backgrounds in architecture, landscape, sustainable urbanism and economic development, placed in 24 different authorities – initially for a year, although the majority are staying in. They have provided design advice on hundreds of planning applications, commissioned masterplans and facilitated conversations between different council departments, simply by asking the kinds of questions that only an innocent outsider would consider.
“I’ve come in with fresh eyes,” says Braddick, “so I’m asking naive questions about why things are done in a certain way – which sometimes makes people think of doing things differently.” In fact, her work has made such an impact that the council has decided to make her position permanent, and hire three more associates including a landscape architect and a sustainability expert. “We’ve had trouble recruiting people for these roles in the past, but Public Practice has attracted a whole cohort of people with these skills,” says Epping Forest’s assistant director of planning, Alison Blom-Cooper.
With its running costs covered by the Mayor of London and a range of private and third-sector partners, and salaries paid by the local council, Public Practice doesn’t charge the hefty retention fees that an agency would charge, and it brings the added benefit of being part of the collaborative network. Once a fortnight the associates meet to share their experiences and troubleshoot, and each will produce a practical guidance note by the end of their year-long placement. The first, by Rachel Hearn, is a guide to managing design-led pre-application discussions – which may sound like arcane jargon, but the no-nonsense checklist has already proved a boon to the east London borough Havering.
The Conservative-led borough hadn’t had an urban design officer until Hearn started there last year, with a broad remit to improve design quality. It proved a steep learning curve for both sides. “It took me about three months to figure out what I was supposed to be doing and who anyone was,” says Hearn. “It was quite hard to do anything, from getting software to organising projectors for meetings to even making tea – you have to bring your own mug and teabags. Everything is a challenge.”
Practical issues aside, she has carved out a role that ranges from running design training for elected council members to writing new procurement guidance and commissioning a masterplan for Romford. “I had a certain freedom, because no one knew what I was supposed to be doing,” she says. “I was a bit of a loose cannon, but I think that’s paid off.”
Her bosses agree. “Councils can be terrible silos,” says Mike Kiely, planning and development advisor. “Rachel brought design expertise that simply wasn’t there. Public Practice has opened up what seems to be a rich stream of people with placemaking skills – and an interest in working in local authorities, which we didn’t know existed. It’s been a fantastic surprise.”
For many associates, the planning department of a local council has been a culture shock, beyond the quest for teabags and stationery. One architect describes how she recently went for a drink with her council’s planning team, who were amazed she had come because she was from the regeneration department. “The two teams had never socialised before,” she says. “We introduced our bosses to each other, who had both worked at the council for 20 years but not spoken.”
Other surprises have been equally positive: many cite the refreshing diversity of ages, ethnicities and backgrounds of their new colleagues, compared to life in the predominantly white, middle class and male world of architecture. The salaries are competitive too, along with the added benefit of a healthier work ethic, without the expectation to work late nights and weekends that is familiar in the masochistic culture of private practice.
Tom Sykes joined Transport for London’s property team to help with the huge number of housing projects being planned for TfL sites (10,000 homes across 300 acres). “The biggest change was going into a place where design wasn’t thought about as a verb, but as a noun,” he says. “TfL talks a lot about its design heritage, but it has been quite difficult to persuade people that it’s a process, and that design can be used to create value. Proposals for a site needn’t be led by metrics, but the quality of the place. It’s very exciting when you start to see that shift in mindset.”
He describes working in the public sector as “liberating” compared to life in an architecture practice, where four days out of five you’re stuck at your desk. “If I come up against a problem, I’ll talk to someone who will recommend three people who might help, and a solution will evolve collaboratively. It’s less about having total certainty about how to solve something, and more about testing ideas. It feels open to innovation, which might not be what you’d expect.”
“None of the associates really knew their job description until they started,” says Finn Williams, who co-founded the initiative with Pooja Agrawal at the Greater London Authority. “They’ve ended up forging new connections, making conversations happen and effectively rewiring the internal structures of the councils in some cases.”
We might never return to the heady days when councils had their own in-house architects’ departments, but Public Practice is a step in the right direction, injecting fresh expertise and energy into local authorities, putting the quality of places at the centre of the planning process. With interest in expanding the network coming from councils across the country, and as far afield as Stockholm, New York and Sydney, it feels like it’s never been a more promising time for architects to serve the public good.
• Applications for the next Public Practice cohort are now open, deadline 3 June.