‘Be nice to planners,’ Public Practice chief urges architects
Speaking at an AJ100 Club lunch in King’s Cross last Thursday (4 May), Pooja Agrawal, who heads the social enterprise that places architects in local planning departments, called for an end to the ‘toxic relationship’ between the two professions.
Agrawal pointed the finger at David Cameron for fuelling the ‘negative’ rhetoric of planners as being ‘slow, incompetent, bureaucratic’ when he described them as ‘enemies of enterprise’ in 2011.
And she condemned a culture of blaming planners for almost all public issues, ‘whether it’s housing, whether it’s the number of places in schools, whether it’s social infrastructure’.
Agrawal cited the Antepavilion installation as an example of architects taunting planners. ‘The entire brief was written to provoke Hackney Council,’ she said, adding that it gave young architects ‘a starting point of fighting against the planners’.
Last year, following a ruling by a planning inspector that partially upheld an enforcement notice issued by the local authority, Antepavilion organisers said it did ‘not make sense to go ahead’ with the competition for the first time in six years and indefinitely cancelled the programme.
Agrawal, a qualified architect, warned that an abusive culture surrounding planning had escalated ‘to a whole new level’ in recent years, with planners being increasingly ‘targeted’ by abusers on social media when a controversial project was determined.
Drawing on her own experience at Public Practice, Agrawal said as well as online hatred, planners were facing other huge issues such as a lack of in-house architectural skills, recruitment issues and huge funding problems.
‘There’s a tiny, tiny, tiny budget that’s actually allocated to planning services,’ she said, adding that local authority net expenditure on planning ‘has fallen by 43 per cent’ in the last 10 years.
And while she acknowledged the planning system’s imperfections, she called on architects to work on ‘building empathy’ between the two professions, urging her audience to consider the different ‘social, environmental and economic’ considerations planners have to face.
‘Most planners actually really became planners because they wanted to make a positive impact on places and their communities, and [they are] actually really socially driven,’ she said.
During a round of questions, one architect in the audience blamed the political nature and ‘inertia’ of planning committees, rather than planners themselves, for creating barriers to projects.
Agreeing that the real decision-making often takes place at planning committee level, Agrawal said the architectural profession needed to consider ‘how do we better advocate for what architects do to planning committees’, urging architects to consider becoming more involved with local politics.
She said architects could also make a difference by supporting Public Practice, attending events that bring the public and private sector together ‘to talk to each other’, and by ‘using our social media platforms to actually celebrate positive things that local authorities have done’. She gave the example of Camden Council’s largely unheralded role in the celebrated regeneration of King’s Cross.
In a final rallying cry, the Public Practice boss called on those present to ‘think outside the silos of our professions’ and build a less tense and more empathetic culture between architects and planners, as she launched the hashtag #benicetoplanners.
Last month, Public Practice announced it had received £1 million from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), which it said would allow its next round of placements to open to all regions of England for the first time.