Who Are They? Hatch's evening with the Policy Makers

DCFW Hatch member, Elan Wynne, reflects on Hatch's evening with the Policy Makers

...Who are these people that make the decisions on what can and can’t be built, and what guides their decision making? This is a question often asked by designers of all disciplines and their clients as they navigate the statutory requirements, the planning system and the impact of policy.

The most recent event organised by HATCH, presented an opportunity for designers working in the built environment to hear from ‘Them’; the experts who are driving, influencing, changing and upholding current planning policies. And guess what? They came across as being passionate about doing what was right for the community as a whole at a local, national and international level.

The evening covered the hierarchy of policy and planning through presentations from the following speakers:-

  • Gretel Leeb, the Deputy Director of the Environment and Sustainability Directorate at the Welsh Government on the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015
  • Stuart Ingram, Senior Planning Manager at Welsh Government on the Planning Act (Wales) 2015, and Planning Policy Wales
  • Judith Jones, Head of Planning at Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council on Local planning policy

The night was kicked off by Gretel Leeb’s heartfelt presentation on the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015 (FGW). We were introduced to this recent piece of legislation which aims to encourage ‘joined up thinking’, and is one of the first of its kind.  The FGW Act will call on public bodies in Wales to find ways to meet all of the 7 goals identified in the Act, working together toward a more prosperous, resilient, healthier, equitable country that has more cohesive communities, a vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language, and is globally responsible. Gretel viewed the role of designers, as specialists in problem solving and joined up thinking, as vital in helping to achieve the goals and positively influencing the construction industry. Gretel reminded us of our capacity to enthuse and educate people through the way that we design.

Stuart Ingram of the Welsh Government Planning Directorate, presented a very clear account of what national planning policy is, and how it works at a national level. His role includes briefing, advising and preparing information for Ministers, who when they speak on an item in public, may be seen to be making policy. Stuart is one of the team that helps shape, communicate and monitor policies that are made, ensuring that they are evidence based and made in the best interests of the people.

Policy making in this country is of course part of a democratic context, and if not perceived as the speediest of processes, provides time for anyone who is interested to be properly consulted, informed and involved. Inevitably, policies made will not please everyone, but through the careful practice of identifying a need, evidence gathering, developing, consulting, adapting, implementing and monitoring, it is now said that we have a good track record of evidence based policy making in Wales.

Decision makers undertake a balancing act to ensure that one policy doesn't clash with another. There may complexities that challenge good intentions. For instance, planning for the natural environment and local carbon reduction might not always be a harmonious match; wind turbine farms or photo voltaic arrays might be not always be appropriate to a local natural environment or its immediate community. As new challenges become apparent, new policies have to be made to address their effects. Like the editor of Vogue magazine, people like Stuart have the continual task of keeping on top of emerging trends, so that we can be safe in the knowledge that our country can cope with the latest land use issues.

Judith Jones discussed, what was, to me, the more familiar side of how local planning policy is utilised, and how it guides planning departments and designers alike in the parts they play in the continually developing built environment. Her references to Patsy Healey’s lecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University in 2011, Civic Capacity, Progressive Localism and the Role of Planning, addressed the responsibility of society to engage in the process, as well as planners’ roles in providing ‘explanations not just of how formal regulations work, but why it has evolved and what value it carries’.

Judith went on to discuss how emotional attachment to an area or building is often not considered as important as it should be, and that design and planning processes and policies can at times fail to address this fully. And yet emotion is still part of the decision making process at a certain level, where a planning applications can be decided or influenced by an officer’s preference. It is a difficult task that planners face, this balancing act; and alongside local policy which sets out the fundamentals, such things as ‘material considerations’ can also become grey areas. Weighing up considerations can often be influenced by the responses received from those that are consulted. This highlights the need for an early local voice, getting people in the community involved so that the community affected can be part of shaping their own environment. Whether the disillusioned voice of many is a good thing against the inspired thinking of a few is something we at HATCH have all discussed before and I’m sure will come up again. In this age of social media and global trends, an up to date local policy has an important role in regulating the evolution of the environment in which we live, which is happening at lightning speed.

As designers we have a responsibility to ensure and promote good design, and by the same token planners have a responsibility to avoid poor outcomes and use tools within planning policies to support them in saying ‘no’. From tonight’s illuminating talks, which helped us all gather a clearer picture of the legislative and policy environment within which we all work, it is evident there are bigger challenges ahead with which we may be able to help.  As designers we can play a key role in inspiring more people to become involved, in getting communities more interested in their built environment, in developing better understanding of the work of these professionals, juggling complex realities every day. Moving us all closer to collaborative, cohesive working practice for the future is the key to doing our bit for well designed places.

Elan Wynne is Principal Architect at Stiwdiowen and an active member of DCFW’s Hatch network for fresh-thinking shapers of the built environment in Wales.