With the launch of the Lyons Inquiry into Local Government, ‘place-shaping’ is now – we are told – the primary objective of local government services. Michael Lyons argues: “though some economic and sociological analyses have challenged the importance of place and the importance of the local in modern society and economics, place remains relevant”.
This is especially good to hear for someone like myself for whom planning has always been (first and foremost) about real places, and about the real difference that can be made through intervention in localities. For his part, Lyons agrees, suggesting that “Land use planning is an important aspect of place-shaping, perhaps the most immediate tool which authorities can use to influence the physical shape of localities”. He includes within his notion of place-shaping:
- Building and shaping local identity
- Representing the community
- Regulating harmful and disruptive behaviours
- Maintaining the cohesiveness of the community and supporting debate within it, ensuring smaller voices are heard
- Helping to resolve disagreements
- Working to make the local economy more successful whilst being sensitive to pressures on the environment
- Understanding local needs and preferences and making sure that the right services are provided to local people
- Working with other bodies in response to complex challenges such as natural disasters and other emergencies.
For most planners, much of this might already be viewed as the bread and butter job of planning. But, as one would expect from an inquiry into local government, what follows in the report represents a specifically governance-focussed view of place, with a strong faith placed in the ability of governance solutions to shape place qualities. For my part, I can’t help feeling that this is borrowing much of the place-based language of planning and urban design, without the place-based content, in other words, without a real sense of what makes good places on the ground.
In this sense, shaping real places is not simply about how local services are organised and delivered. Indeed many would argue that the constant tinkering with our local government arrangements over successive administrations (of both persuasions) has not got us far, and instead we need to concentrate much more on the content of what they are trying to do.
This should begin from an in-depth understanding of the locality that local services hope to influence; understanding the nature of place in all its glorious and baffling complexity. This understanding should inform a vision (or visions) about the nature of that place and what it wants to be. Services can then be marshalled on the basis of the vision and their part in its on-going delivery, at least until such time that the process starts again. To my mind (and call me old fashioned) it is not the lack of locally-focussed governance that is the problem, or indeed the desire of those responsible to do the best for those localities, it is instead the lack of a strong vision (or often any vision) that will allow public services to be delivered in a manner that adds up to more than the sum of the numerous parts.
A related concern has long been the lack of any real sense in many of those charged with shaping the urban environment that place is actually situated in space. Hence our genius for creating ‘non-places’ that few would remember, much less identify with, whilst real places have often been left to wither on the vine.
The result is that we try to make up for our failure with a baffling array of mind-bogglingly generic and unambitious local strategies, and a seemingly inexhaustible range of unaccountable (and locally invisible) partnerships, quangos and governance arrangements designed to fill the gap. In such circumstances, is it really surprising that so many no longer bother to vote in local elections?
Place-shaping, therefore, may be the latest concept to catch Ministers’ attention, but it could learn a lesson or two from another concept that was all the rage not so long ago – urban renaissance. That actively tried to make the link between governance and the four pillars of society, economy, environment and design. To succeed, it was argued, we need to seek solutions that deliver on all five fronts. Place-shaping surely will need the same.
For planners, if the RTPI’s own strap-line ‘Mediation of space, making of place’ is to be believed, then they are the people to deliver and shouldn’t be afraid to stand up and say so. Where else will the vision come from? How else will notions of place be given that all-important space dimension?
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL