Why all politicians need a designer around …

From “Prospect” magazine 2008

I was elected to the City Council in October 2001 at a bye-election, half way or more through the life of that Council.  All the councillors were happily ensconced in their roles but someone wanted off the Planning Committee and on I went instead.  A normal state of affairs, with a politician expected to turn his hand to almost anything, the key political questions being much the same whatever the field. The political question which struck me fairly soon was – why do members of this Committee often find themselves approving developments which many know are really not good enough?

The other question which came to intrigue me later was why so many politicians, when they are first elected and often for many years thereafter, don’t know what they want.  Ask the question – what do you want your city to be like, next year, in ten years?  Some few know the answer very well and are trying to get there. Others seem almost surprised by the question.

I think the reason, and it comes from Greg Clark, that whirlwind thinker about cities, is this.  A local authority does three kinds of things – it provides services (from schools to street cleaning), it regulates (trading standards to licensing) and it does what I call ‘city-making’, developing a successful city.  Local services affect local voters head on; they are also demand-led, sucking up budget and, for both those reasons, they command full political attention.  Regulation is important to the day-to-day life of local business and local voters and so has its share of attention too.  City-making is long-term and involves outsiders, sometimes from across the world, often more than locals.  Elections are short-term and outsiders don’t vote – so here attention wavers.

Perhaps that is why the members of the planning committee sometimes went along with what they knew wasn’t good enough.  With insufficient attention, the political tools weren’t available. Politics is the art of the possible – so what we needed to do was to expand what was possible!

A group of us thought about it and Edinburgh’s Design Initiative was conceived.  It was, I believe, the first in the country.

What I think it has now begun to do is to give politicians and others a sense that, actually, we can shape the city, we can do better, we can expand our influence beyond what we previously thought what was possible (those limits so often fortified by some who advised us).

Of course, not everyone wanted to play.  Politicians beginning to think a little always puts some people off.  The Design Initiative, as it began to get established, was of concern to those less-than-good architects who knew they fell into that worrisome category.  It was a pleasure to see some of those names less often – and others, more competent, more concerned with the nature of the place within which they were proposing to build, start to appear.

One set of people who really found (and find) it hard were the large-scale house-builders. Almost all of them have the capacity to build good places; they’ve all done it.  But so often they don’t. The victory for the Committee in the appeal by Wimpey over our decision, against officer advice, to refuse their development at Shrub Place on design grounds, was a pivotal moment in the battle to do better.  The disdain coming from both the developer and his counsel for us politicians, who dared to know better than them on just a tenth of their salary, was palpable and often expressed. The importance to this politician of having a designer around was critical to getting the result we did, providing the intellectual framework to think about the surrounding city, the lives people lived, the way Wimpey’s proposal ought to enhance both, but didn’t, and the way in which, with ease, it could be done so much better.

The others who were reluctant to play the game were the traffic engineers.  Again not all of them by any means.  But it was a lesson to me that employees of the elected Council could simply ignore the policy agreed by that elected Council and go their own way, usually quoting the ‘rule-book’ (something I was never allowed to see but which, because the ‘rules’ quoted varied so much, I suspect didn’t exactly say what I was told it said).  Perhaps things are changing.  I hope so. Making places, cities, is a long-term collaborative venture which good urban design should focus and lead.  Transport engineers are a necessary part of the team, but not the driver-and-ticket-inspector rolled into one which some seem to want to be.

The Design Initiative had and has a miniscule budget.  But it has one mammoth asset and that is the Design Champion himself, both in the role and in the person who has so far filled it, Sir Terry Farrell.   For me and for others, with gentle and simple language, Terry stretched out to immense horizons what design meant and what it could achieve.  But the nature of the role is also important. The Design Champion is an insider for the City – but an outsider to the Council.  And that outside, independent position has been crucial.  He has no salary, no one is his line manager and no one other than he can decide what he will say, what advice or warning he will give, and when.  It was beautiful, on occasion, to watch senior officials suddenly become more open to a previously resisted point of view if they thought Terry might speak publicly in its favour.

If politics is the art of persuasion, then the external nature of the Design Champion’s role, is a considerable element in that art.  It is why proposals will, in due course, be made to internalise such an appointment, to ‘bring it in-house’ and why such proposals should always be resisted.

Design is a difficult word.  It has a somewhat cissy, water-feature, garden makeover feel to it.  At a meeting, expect a room of men in black (and regrettably few women).

But the tools that urban design gives to politicians are many and indispensable. It enables them to shape social interactions, to promote fair use of all that a place offers, to control carbon emissions, to encourage tolerance, promote prosperity and much more. In fact, to shape their own answer to Nye Bevan’s fundamental political question – “who benefits?”

For most democratic politicians the ideal answer to his question is a variant on “all of us”.  And that is why design can so strengthen the political hand ; it is not a tool or a discipline which relies on or serves one interest – a developer or profession – but rather it narrates what a whole place can be like for everyone who uses it, next year, in ten years.  Its reach can be wide; it can be used to shape a whole city as well as a single neighbourhood.

The city region plan will be the next ‘shock of the new’ to arrive at Planning Committee.  The ‘finger plan’ concept for Edinburgh city region’s future development, which drew full cross-party support in Edinburgh when it was presented, showed how design thinking could help in the consideration of a large-scale long-term future. I hope it will form the basis of the City Region Plan.

That, however, is now in the hands of other, some newly elected, councillors.  I wish them courage.