Creating Amazing Places: Councils Can Learn From The Private Sector

As the public realm is re-designed and re-shaped across the UK, it is fundamental that public sector organisations not only deliver much-needed housing, but that they invest in a collective vision for communities through effective place making techniques – which includes thoughtful and intelligent hiring of leaders in these organisations.

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“I want us to balance social and commercial value…”

“It’s essential the project fits in with the character and heritage of the area…”

“The way to ensure political and resident buy-in is not just through delivering housing…”

It’s fair to say all the public sector clients I have met with recently are singing from the same hymn sheet - creating and shaping great public spaces is not achieved through simply building housing. Community, creativity and diversity are equally important elements that must be invited to participate in the process. These must become more than just buzzwords to create truly sustainable places and cities in the future. To quote Jane Jacobs, an urban writer and activist who championed new, community-based approaches to planning, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”.

Developers such as British Land and Argent have led the way in recent times, ensuring wellbeing and community vision is embedded into the masterplans for their key projects, such as Kings Cross, Paddington Central etc. Grey, disconnected landscapes have been transformed into vibrant, mixed- use neighbourhoods which have boosted health, happiness and productivity. But the active involvement of the local council stakeholders has been fundamental to that. Meridian Water, London Borough of Enfield’s flagship project, has gone a step further and put real emphasis on what it labels “creative manufacturing uses”, devising an employment and fashion Hub to train London’s fashion manufacturers, a film production hub, a community workshop with Building BloQs and even hosting a number of leisure events including the Field Day Festival. Such a rich range of uses would have been unheard of until very recently.

Observing this kind of approach has been both refreshing and exciting and although such positive examples of placemaking are not quite the panacea, they should be learned from by those public sector organisations who are about to embark on delivering their own developments. The pressure has never been greater from Homes England on local authorities and housing associations to deliver housing and rightly so. However, the temptation is to rush the process, procure a JV partner and steam ahead, unlocking land and delivering whatever affordable housing they can in a (usually) unrealistic timescale. Or alternatively setting up an in-house housing delivery vehicle, as has been the trend across the sector over the last couple of years. Often any utopian notion of placemaking and what can be created is the afterthought rather than the driver - this is where things often go wrong.

We are at a critical juncture and as the public sector continues to accelerate housing delivery, it needs to make sure the considerable resources - including people - they have at their disposal are utilised. From my perspective, I believe this is where I think the consultants from the private sector developers can add significant value. Not because consultants from the public sector can’t but because private sector experts from the ranks of top tier developers have already been through the trial and error of what works and what doesn’t, what is practical and what will always remain a vision.

The best examples of placemaking have been created over a long period through experimentation and the private sector have all the scars and tales of woe to prove it. I’m working closely with several clients who have already realised the benefits of doing this. Joint venture development partners would certainly claim that they can achieve great placemaking without external input and maybe they can. Clients would always need to question though whether they have balanced social value vs commercial benefit and how you can correctly evaluate that.

These consultants are trusted advisors, not just development partners but an in-house specialist who as a flexible resource, can make sure vision is being delivered. This is not to say that the traditional “place director” function within local government structures is now irrelevant. However, with the direction and trajectory at which the sector is moving, they are less likely to possess the skills to manage large mixed-use programmes and deliver great urban places with the necessary services (except in a few rare instances).

There is a significant opportunity here for the public sector to take control of their own destiny, but they need to start with the right vision and resources, working backwards from the desired result. It’s clear to see the pride of place that exists amongst urban residents where entire regions have been reinvented and where a balance between sustainability and liveability have been achieved. This powerful spirit now needs to be replicated. Economic necessity aside, that is what the sector needs to focus on.

Have you had any success in outside sector hiring? Please do get in touch if you would be interested to discuss this – or any hiring challenges in your sector. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

If you would like to discuss how to ensure out-of-sector hiring is a success in your organisation, join us at our panel discussion on this, in April. 

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