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.


Nominations open for Building Futures Awards 2013

Nominations are now open for the 2013 Building Futures Awards.

 2013 logo web

You can download the Application Pack here. Remember that the Nominations close 27 September so don’t leave it too late.


We are looking for projects that have been completed between 16 September 2011 and 16 September 2013. If you’ve worked on a project, or know of a building or development in your area that you would like to nominate, this is a great opportunity to give your project the recognition it deserves.


The application pack includes all of the information you will need to submit your entry, including full judging criteria, details of the new Retrofit for the Future award category, as well as the judges’ biographies. The application pack is easy to use and quick to fill out – all you need to do is give a description of the scheme and explain how the project meets the judging criteria.


Visit the Building Futures website now to download the application pack and find out more on the Awards – www.hertslink.org/buildinfutures.

History of the Spirella Building

Some history on the venue for the 2013 Building Futures Awards

The Spirella Building was created for the Spirella Corset Company after the American entrepreneur William Wallace Kincaid invented a flexible corset for his wife.
In 1912, the architect Cecil Hignett was appointed to construct the Spirella Building in Letchworth. This was seen as an appropriate place to make an innovative product as the town which was the first of its kind was considered a modern and revolutionary form of town planning and design. The design of the building reflects the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The First World War delayed construction however the building was completed in 1920 and eventually gained 2000 workers.
Spirella grew a reputation for excellent workers privileges including baths and showers, gymnastics classes, a library, free eye tests and bicycle repairs. This was years ahead of its time and revolutionised the relationship between the workforce and the company. There was however a ban on alcohol which was not revoked until 1958.
The springy design of the Spirella corsets was more flexible and much easier to tighten; before, the inflexible designs would often break leading to embarrassing situations such as the one suffered by the wife of the inventor who demanded that he do something about it.
The corsets soon had a reputation and with the help of the dedicated team of sales women Spirella become a thriving business. The cost of a made to measure corset was typically one or two week’s wages however there was demand for the products and the business thrived.
After the war, the factory continued making corsets until the 1950s when the demand for corsets declined. This was due to the increasing use of synthetic fabrics and changing fashions. The company attempted to reverse the decline by making lingerie however the decline continued into the 1960s and 70s.
On 7 September 1979, the Spirella building was awarded Grade II* listed status reserved for buildings of historical and architectural significance. The building fell into disrepair and closed in the 80’s.
In 1995, the Spirella building was acquired by the Letchworth Garden City foundation and restoration began two years later at a cost of £11 million. In 1999, the building was reopened.
The businesses that now operate in the building are high tech industries, which is appropriate for the renewed purpose the building has. There is 80,000 sq ft of office space which accommodates over 20 businesses.