Opinion: The Farrell Review

It is 20 years since John Gummer’s path-finding initiative Quality in Town and Country was launched, and 14 years since Richard Rogers produced Towards an Urban Renaissance. The Farrell Review, published in April, has focused thinking once again on how we design and plan our built environment. What have we achieved after 20 years of such thinking? Is any of it relevant to those at the coal face of planning, community and environmental decision making? And how should Hertfordshire respond?

As Farrell’s report itself acknowledges, the review is a snapshot in time. Most of its ideas and proposals are not new and implementing them is not necessarily seen as a job for central government. 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.

“Place” is seen as the unifying factor for the review’s 34 conclusions and 60 recommendations. He uses the acronym PLACE to cover what he calls the key public activities of planning: Politics, Life, Advocacy, Community and the Environment. PLACE is also used as an acronym to highlight the core skill sets required to shape the environment, Planning, Landscape, Architecture, Conservation and Engineering. As others have pointed out urban design and surveying should be there as well but did not fit the acronym.

Planning, the review says, needs to become more proactive and one way of achieving this is to expand the role of design review. Design review panels should change their focus to that of ‘place review’, looking at the context into which schemes are considered with broader multi-disciplinary panels. He also suggested that Place Review should be supported by ‘urban rooms’ that bring together the information on the locality where the past, present and future of that place can be inspected. (Frederick Gibberd proposed something very similar for Harlow.) “Every public body should have access to an independent PLACE Review Panel, with their results published online, and they should operate at a more strategic level.

Training is also a concern. Local planning authorities should formalise the role of architecture and built environment centres and PLACE Review Panels in skilling-up decision makers, including planning committee members and traffic engineers. This would follow the successful model of Urban Design London in skilling-up planning committee members from London Councils. PLACE institutions could publish an end-of-year report on publicly funded built environment projects, highlighting successes and failures. “Places will only become great if there is civic leadership”.

Hertfordshire has many of the recommendations already in place. The Building Futures initiative supports a multidisciplinary design review panel. The awards last year were attended by civic leaders from across the county. The web site is becoming a focus for training. Do a little more and Hertfordshire can take the lead in championing design decision making. We have achieved a lot in the last 20 years but many feel the quality of much of what we build still falls short of what we should be achieving. The Farrell Review alone cannot make things happen, but its careful thinking can be of considerable value in supporting planners and planning in Hertfordshire.

Give us your thoughts on the Farrell Review and what it means for Hertfordshire via our LinkedIn group, and on Twitter using #FarrellReviewHerts To read the Farrell Review visit www.farrellreview.co.uk  

Barry Shaw is director of Barry Shaw Associates, a specialist consultancy providing regeneration, urban design and enabling services.