MDAG proposes new London Place Agency

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Image: Agnese Sanvito

The Mayor’s Design Advisory Group is hoping it can help raise the quality of planning in the capital by plugging a skills gap through a new London Place Agency.

The measure figured as one of a series of recommendations in Shaping London, the last of MDAG’s four ‘Good Growth’ reports launched at NLA this morning and is intended to match place shaping professionals to local authorities who need it most. MDAG chairman Daniel Moylan said it was aimed at smoothing a ‘lumpiness in the system’, on a ‘knotty issue’, allowing the public sector and professions to step up and offer the resource that is needed to get the right answer to London’s rapid growth.

MDAG member Joyce Bridges said London’s growth demanded a proportionate strengthening of London’s placeshaping capability, especially given that 91% of boroughs said they needed more such skills in their departments.

The London Place Agency could help to plug the widening skills gap between the public and private sector, said Bridges, with a pilot recommended for 12 months building up a cadre of talented staff. But procurement also needed improving, said Bridges, with barriers in the process and risk averse attitudes meaning younger and smaller practices were often excluded from the process. MDAG recommends that a new mayor draws up a new quality procurement charter in partnership with the boroughs. ‘We’d like to see room for smaller and more creative teams to have a fair crack of the whip’, said Bridges. The group also recommends design review to be used more, and always above a certain threshold on schemes, or where they are mayorally funded.

Two-thirds of applicants would happily pay more for planning in return for a better service, said Finn Williams, north west area manager regeneration at the GLA. ‘Interestingly, it was the private sector saying we need more planning, not less’, he said. The Agency would offer local authorities access to ‘exceptional planners and designers at cost for fixed term placement of one year’, and this would be designers with at least three years of postgraduate experience. Some 16 boroughs have already expressed an interest in offering placements, 30 organizations have pledged funding or in kind support and 30 planners and designers have said they’d like to be involved.

Executive director – Place at LB Croydon Jo Negrini said there was a differential between the wealthier inner London authorities and the less blessed outer, with pressure from government cuts likely to only get more acute for the latter. Croydon is setting up a design review process and it was important to get practicing designers involved to provide knowledge of what schemes cost, said Negrini. But London’s growth was not a ‘business as usual’ situation, she said, with Croydon’s own planning fees having gone ‘through the roof in the last 12 months’. ‘A lot of authorities are cottoning on to the fact that planners are good for business’, said Negrini.‘ Planners will be absolutely key for most authorities, across the board.

Farrells partner Max Farrell said we need to think completely differently given that London is adding the equivalent of the population of Scotland by 2050, when the capital’s numbers will likely swell to 13 million. The adversarial relationship between the public and private needs to end, he said, but the MDAG data clearly showed how the system prioritizes development control over planning. Design Review, said Farrell, needs to be broader and review places rather than designs, and there was a big communications job to be done on what planners and architects do.

Finally, British Property Federation chief executive Melanie Leech said it was right to recognize the talent that is already in local authorities but the key was to avoid creating another ‘tick box culture’.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

The Shaping London report can be downloaded at:

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