The Farrell Review: Chief Architect or Chief Surveyor

A problem for the built environment in the UK is that both the masterplanners and thought leaders are architects. I don’t think it is possible to stop architects being thought leaders and my world would be a duller place without them. But who is taking the lead from their thoughts? The idea that a Chief Architect to centralise that which must be local is extraordinary. This role is not comparable with the scientific role of chief medical or veterinary officers. I find it hard to believe that Sir Terry could believe it is. The central role needed is for a fully engaged Heseltine style Secretary of State.

There is though something wrong with the patient and perhaps that is the implication. No amount of architectural alchemy will cure them.  The masterplanner or brief setter needs to be the client and there isn’t one. If architects are truly to be thought leaders they would throw their commissions back at government (ho ho) and advise them to get on and provide some leadership and govern. There should be no hiding place for our politicians who seek power and then realise that in respect of the built environment they neither want it as it loses votes nor wish to delegate it, as it loses them power.

Calls for ‘better’ planning and place making are interpreted wrongly as calls for better buildings and development. Yet, there is no shortage of outstanding architects and engineers.

Calls for ‘better’ use of land and new development need to be understood as calls for the conditions to allow this ‘better’ world. To allow designers the scope to provide the last piece in the jigsaw, land needs to be available at the right price for the development sought. There needs to be the connectivity to enable the economic and social interaction that define success and make ‘place’.  Therefore it is active asset management, pre-planned land assembly and strategic infrastructure provision that Sir Terry should be leading with. What architects always need are ‘better’ clients.

It may sit uneasily with all those who design new buildings and places for a living but place is ultimately about the say 98% of buildings that are not ‘development’. VAT reduction / removal on building works have always been a first requirement for a better environment.

The need is for strategic stewardship of the built environment. It has to be delivered nationally across functional economic areas ie right sized LEP’s by employees of statutorily defined bodies, tangential to Local Authorities: not by single purpose location skewing UDC’s. Active asset management obligations and ring fenced funding outside of political timescales is the requirement. Land and property obligations are a constant, a basic utility of society. We have ignored this for too long.
If a profession is to provide a client it should be the RICS. The missing client is an asset manager. Therefore not a Chief Architect but a Borough Surveyor. Or in modern guise, with substantial urban catchments and a need to fund the infrastructure for Amazon type distribution as well as High Street, the LEP Surveyor. The RICS should grant Lord Heseltine an honourary fellowship. He seems to have the right skill set ! Where are his successors?

Jonathan Naughton
Urban Futures and Chair RICS Land Use & Infrastructure Policy Panel

(all views are those of the author)

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