BUCKINGHAM VISION AND DESIGN STATEMENT

We are most grateful to Carolyn Cumming, Vice-Chairman of the Buckingham Society, for providing the following script of her talk to ANTAS on 21 April 2001 about her experience in leading the successful exercise in drawing up and obtaining official agreement to the Buckingham Vision and Design Statement. Introducing Carolyn's talk, Anthony Wethered, the ANTAS Hon. Secretary, said:

"Carolyn was very much involved in the production of the Buckingham Vision and Design Statement - an exceptionally valuable guide to best practice which should become a model for all local amenity societies. Her work with the project, from the idea stage right through to the beautifully finished product, will be the subject of her talk."

Principle of Design Statements

It will not have escaped your notice that the process began life as

VILLAGE DESIGN STATEMENTS.

Without wishing to be cynical, I have increasingly come to suspect that Government - and the Department of the Environment - did not want to upset the developers' apple cart too much.  So, while dipping their toes into the unknown waters of local planning guidance for villages, they didn't produce any such early initiative for our rapidly growing towns.

Villages, with a few exceptions, are not subject to the same pressures of development as towns are.  If this was true in 1994/95, it is even more pertinent today with a much greater emphasis on developing around those centres which already offer a "sustainable infrastructure" - i.e. our market towns.

Nonetheless, it WAS a bold initiative and it has been a success story with growing numbers of communities - large and small - all wanting to have a Design Statement of their own.

The Village Design Statement (VDS) has come of age - the time is now ripe for an explosion of Town Design Statements.

Both the Civic Trust and the Countryside Agency (CA) have been and are at the forefront of this new era for Design Statements.  We ourselves were one of five pilot studies run by the Civic Trust.  The CA are currently looking at four towns of between 10,000 and 25,000 to test the feasibility of adapting the VDS concept to market towns.

So we do have today a climate that recognises the importance of "a sense of place".

Without it, a sense of belonging and that sense of pride necessary to successful communities will not be sustained.

Such feelings are enhanced by the pattern of history and continuity but are alienated by the imposition of uniformity.  Recognition of the familiar is an important element in our daily lives.  There is, therefore a natural inclination to resent change, especially when that change blots out the familiar and changes the character of that place with an insulting disregard for local distinctiveness.

Because local distinctiveness matters.  It is what should - and can - influence change.

The best guide I have come across to the sometimes elusive nature of local distinctiveness, is a booklet published by Common Ground, entitled Local Distinctiveness: Place, Particularity and Identity.  The cover alone is worth study. [Price £5.95 - visit the Common Ground web site to find how to obtain it.–Ed.]

The Design Statement starts with the principle of managing change, not preventing it.

However, you proceed and whatever areas you choose to highlight, the three elements fundamental to the Design Statement are:

            #          managing change not preventing it

            #          involving the whole community

            #          working with the existing planning system

The second principle means extensive and inclusive consultation within your community because a great deal of the Design Guidelines' effectiveness will be directly related to the process of the consultation undertaken.

This aspect of the work is probably the most daunting one faced by towns, whose communities are both larger and more diverse than the average village.        It will take longer - much longer.  Don't believe those who may try to tell you that a week/ a month/ a year even will suffice, and it will involve imaginative and innovative ways of reaching those parts that "other beers do not reach".

The key objective is to provide opportunities for participation, rather than aim for 100% response rate.

The third principle means working closely with your local authority.

Your objective is to gain SUPPLEMENTARY PLANNING GUIDANCE (SPG) for your parish, which will be considered as "Material Considerations" in the arguments for and against planning applications.

This means an early acceptance by them of the role SPG can play within the local plan policies.  As far as design matters are concerned, there is far more precise direction from Government today on the importance of character and local distinctiveness (see PPG1) and there is growing recognition that new development will be far more acceptable to the community if it does not come in standard packages.

The Civic Trust, as part of the Vision & Design pilot set out to explore just how successful closer liaison between civic societies and local government officers could be.

There were five pilots in all and I have to tell you that results were very mixed.  There is still a lot of suspicion between "them" and "us".  Our planning system - it seems to me - has openly encouraged conflict between the two camps and inevitably there is a degree of suspicion about each other's attitudes and activities.  Working together on a Design Statement is one of the positive ways in which you can help build confidence in one another.

In the hope that you will all be inspired to go back home and immediately begin preparations on your Design Statements, I am going to tell you something of our experience:

It is a personal experience - yours will be different - but I do recommend that you glean little bits of information from whoever and whenever you can.  Seminars can be very useful.  The Countryside Agency organise relevant events from time to time.  It is always worth while sharing experiences - at whatever stage you are at.

Like all good stories, the process of a Vision & Design Statement has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The beginning is exciting.  The middle is very hard work, and the end is a bit of a cliff hanger.

BEGINNINGS     In our case, it all began with frustration.  The frustration of seeing a particularly sensitive area developed, not only in the face of overwhelming local objections but in a manner which bore no relationship with the existing town.

This frustration resulted in discussions with the District Council as to how to prevent the imposition of a style of development that had nothing to do with Buckingham.

Here, as elsewhere, personalities are critical.  The task will be impossible without a forward thinking, flexible and reasonably high ranking officer on your side.  Some District Councils have a dedicated Design Statement Project Officer.

If you know of other Design Statements in your district, ask the organisers who they dealt with.  The CA may also be able to help - they will be producing some Best Practice Packs following their pilots.  The contact there is Sally King.  Her Email address is:       sally.king@countryside.gov.uk  

Your elected Councillors may be able to help, depending on how prominent a role they play.  In our case, the chairmen (there were two) of Strategic, Planning & Development (SP&D) were very keen to see Design Statements being prepared in this District.

Having established that there was some encouragement from the district council, our next task was to draw up a list of suitable members to form a Steering Group.

You can see from the back of our document who was involved.  By and large, the larger the community, the more interests you will have to try and accommodate.  In saying this, I am assuming that you The Civic Society are going to take the lead.  Whether or not you choose to advance the project, you must have the Town Council committed to the Group.

At your early meetings, your principal aims will be to establish:

            1.         means of communicating with the whole community

            2.         fund raising.  What will it cost?

            3.         method for town appraisal or audit

Don't expect everyone to come to every meeting. - That's not the point.  Although you will need to establish a core group - i.e. those who WILL come to every meeting and direct the agenda.  You should expect at least half a dozen others who will pick up specific roles as and when they come along.

For example, a teacher to liaise with schools.  Remember all ages should be given a way to respond, or someone from the business community who will prod local businesses into either giving or participating..

There will be doubters and discouragement.  You should therefore ensure that your steering group members possess stamina, patience, tact, humour, imagination - as well as having good contacts and no political axe to grind.  If you can bring all these together, it will be plain sailing - you will succeed!

You may also consider having a facilitator within the group.  We did and, given the level of ignorance we were starting from - there were no precedents for Town Design Statements in the country, and no Village Design Statements in the District - we were incredibly lucky and grateful to have David Williams an experienced Civic Trust consultant.  Someone from outside used to talking council/planning jargon can be a godsend but it will put your costs up.

So what will it cost?  This will perhaps be uppermost in most peoples' minds at this stage.  In round figures, ours has, to date, cost about £14,000.  We started out with an initial "guestimate" of around £8000.

Our professional costs for David Williams accounted for a fifth and we chose to use a top graphic designer to make the document as visually arresting as possible.  This ate up a quarter of the costs but we thought it important that it should have immediate impact as a document so that people might wish to explore further.  I think this aspect is probably more appropriate for towns, whereas villages can get away with a much simpler format.

You may well choose to prioritise different areas, but don't underestimate the printing, the publicity and the sheer volume of office administration - photocopying and the like.

Grants   Some grants - like ours from the Civic Trust - will require matching funding.  This can be in kind.  For example, a professional from the Camera Club took lots of photographs for us and gave his time in kind.  Your local council may be able to help and they can put you in touch with grant-funding bodies, but you should reckon to raise at least half from local sources.

 

Gathering initial information - Town Appraisal/Audit

Only you will be able to arrive at the correct format for doing this.  Interestingly, we found that our professional's check list wasn't actually very helpful in this respect.

After trial and error we devised a form and asked different individuals to undertake an appraisal of each street.  Two things we do recommend are:

            #          a trial or dummy run

            #          lots and lots of photographs/sketches

One of the advantages of our method was that it immediately got people involved who might not necessarily have come forward.

One of the disadvantages was that you got a varied degree of content - some were excellent, others lacking any meaningful content.

You have to draw a balance between giving a framework within which relevant information will be forthcoming but NOT trying to second guess what different people and different tastes will find important.

Villages, by the way, did this sort of work in a day!

We allowed a six week timetable for forms to be completed.  We then did an analysis of all the findings and held an evening event for all participants to debate the conclusions - with wine.  Never underestimate the drawing power of free nibbles and drinks!

So much for the beginnings.  The initial excitement is over; a programme has been outlined - you now have to enter the hard work phase when it is important to keep up the momentum without skimping on the necessity of being thorough and inclusive.

The diary on pages 6 & 7 of our document lists the activities we undertook.  All require careful planning and most important PUBLICITY.  And you must - by the way - keep an accurate diary of every event - whatever size.  This will be crucial when you are asked months - perhaps years - later to prove that you had taken account of local views.

You should remember that the very words "DESIGN STATEMENT", "SUPPLEMENTARY PLANNING GUIDANCE", etc. will cause peoples eyes to glaze over.  Try to find some way of appealing to the different tastes and ages of your community.

Three methods of people participation which we thought worked particularly well were:

            #          Quiz in Local Paper

            #          Photo Quiz

            #          Art Exhibitions

 

The local paper was a great support.  They ran the first quiz for us free of charge for two weeks.  You will need their backing throughout but you cannot expect them to provide you with free advertising for any length of time.

We could always rely on press coverage but, in this day and age of fast changing images, you also need upfront, more glamorous coverage.  On a small budget, this is difficult.

Our publicity budget was constantly being revised upwards.  It started as a mere £500 and in the end accounted for some £2300.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and you always think of better ways of doing things after the event but I think one element I would have added to the steering group would have been someone with professional PR skills.

Five positive things to say about the photo quiz

Firstly it appeals to a wide range of people

Secondly, by using small details in the photographs (some tricky, some easy), you get people to really look at what's around them

Thirdly, by some careful questioning you can get instant opinions.    E.g. under "Character Appraisal" and using quotes from the street audit we were able to introduce an Agree or Disagree tick option.  In this way, you can use the information you receive after each event to build up a more and more comprehensive picture.

Fourthly, it gave us an opportunity to give advance warning of the workshop

and       Fifthly, by getting prizes from local shops, there was seen to be a lot of local support.

We promoted two exhibitions - one for school pupils and one for adults.

The schools art exhibition required good teacher liaison.  And given the heavy demands of the school curriculum, it is essential that early warning is given.  But, on the whole, it was a good way of getting contributions from the young, who cannot be expected to fill in forms.

The adult art exhibition got lots of entries and at the "opening" night we had people spilling on to the street.  They weren't very good at filling in forms either but it was all relevant publicity.

Workshops - A word or two about workshops.

They are likely to be - and indeed I cannot see how it could have been otherwise - the culmination of the preceding months of information gathering.

The workshop is probably the most public face of the exercise. You must make the most of it.  It should be:

#            centrally placed

#            times and day chosen to suit as many people as possible (we held one   on a Saturday and one midweek to coincide with the annual Town forum)

#            friendly and unintimidating

#            exceptionally well publicised

#            provision of alternative reasons for attending!  E.g.  Film show/ Exhibition/ Music

The first was held some 9 months after the initial event.  We were particularly grateful at this point for the guidance of our professional helper.  His experience in simplifying and categorising the vast amounts of information and comments we had received was invaluable.

On arrival, everyone was given a "welcome" explanatory leaflet, and they had to sign a visitors' book.

We created a series of display panels with:

#            lots of photographs,

#            some provocative text,

#            some quotes from local people,

#            some ideas and examples of design guidelines

and we attempted to encourage more ideas and comments on a suggestion form at the end of the display.  In essence it constituted a mini SWOT analysis. (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.)

Once again teas and coffee, cakes and biscuits must appear on the menu!

The whole business was a steep learning curve and other comparisons with the "village" style workshop were not applicable.

Looking back though, I think this was a particularly successful highpoint.  We had about 150 forms filled in and about 400 signed visitors.  At the evening meeting, lots of "officialdom" saw what we were achieving - an important point this!

We had originally planned a day.  This was not nearly enough.  We quickly planned another but three or four, perhaps consecutively, would have been better.  This means lots and lots of early preparation.  All in all, I would say look towards having an extended weekend six/eight/ten months down the line and plan accordingly.

One thing I personally had not appreciated about the strength of the workshop was the willingness of people to participate when they are allowed time for reflection and do not need to feel embarrassed about standing up and speaking out at meetings, etc.

This really sounds obvious when I say it now but it is very easy to plan talks, presentations, etc. and yet miss the golden opportunities for reflective participation.

 

The workshops - for us - marked the end of the active community consultation and the end of the "middle" period.

Elated by their success, we entered into the next phase, which was to present our design guidelines - based on the accumulated comments - as a first draft to the relevant planning officers.

Quite a high powered meeting was arranged and we gave a blow by blow account of the consultation process,  highlighting the areas we felt were of critical importance               and interpreting them as suggestions for planning guidance.  Our five suggested categories for Design Guidelines were:

            #          Materials

            #          Scale

            #          Spatial Layout

            #          Landscape

            #          Elevation & Roofline

The meeting was a bit scary.  We had lived and worked with the project for 18 months or so by this stage and, with the exception of the Head Forward Plans officer, I think this was the first time some of them had ever seen a design guideline, let alone conceived of the idea that they might become part of the planning law.

There were certainly some blank faces at the meeting.  However, we did in due course receive some extremely helpful advice from two of the officers, which concentrated our minds and enabled us to tighten up the wording, making them - as far as possible - specific to Buckingham.

I must say that I have a far greater respect for those whose task it is to write PPGs and the like.  It is a fine line between somewhat meaningless generalisation and being so dogmatic as to stifle originality and innovation.

Do take the time to read through as many Design Guidelines as you can and you will get a flavour of this dilemma.  It is not easy and inevitably perhaps there are several which fall into the "woolly" category.  But the better documents, taken and read as a whole, do manage to convey a sense of specific locality.  It may only refer to one or two minor points but pay attention to the insignificant.  It is often this aspect that gives life to the whole.

For example,

In Buckingham, I would cite the combination of brick and stone in buildings; the convergence of roads into a river crossing or the arched entrances to courtyard spaces - a throwback to the many inns and pubs which characterised our streets.

In Wargrave: the Loddon Lily, slipways to the river

In Cottenham: orchards, yellow brick, silhouettes of villas in the predominant flat horizons

Despite the difficulties, we now inched our way to the production of a draft document.  It went through many drafts, the contents of which were closely scanned by ourselves, David Williams and the head of Forward Plans.

We held a launch evening at the end of March 2000 to promote the final draft and had Mike Gwilliam (then Director of the Civic Trust) as a guest speaker to put the case for the national significance of our work.  Heady stuff.

We seemed pretty close to completion but it was far too premature - not to say innocent - of us to think in terms of the finish line.

The District Council now formally enters the arena.  Up to this point, progress had largely been in our hands but local government has a quite different pace.  There was to be :

#            A Report to the members of Strategic Planning & Development committee

which, if approved, would be followed by:

#            A formal six week Consultation Period (similar to that allocated for Local Plan documents)

which in turn would be followed by:

#            A further report to both Strategic, Planning & Development and Development Control committees

Steps one and two were accomplished by the end of July but the results of the consultation and subsequent report for stage 3 did not materialise.

What was happening?

Two abnormal events did conspire against us.  Firstly, the ill health and subsequent absence of our chief Council Officer.  This was totally unexpected.  And secondly, the Local Plan Inquiry - expected but under-estimated in terms of the time it would occupy.

The removal of our chief contact was to prove a serious blow.  It meant renewing and establishing contacts with different personalities some of whom were clearly lukewarm about the whole project and others simply unaware of what had gone before.  My very strong recommendation is that you have at least two officers both willing to work WITH you, and ready and able to be kept up to date with the proceedings.  And I would further suggest that if at all possible you should have a foot in each of the relevant departments.  I.e. Forward Plans and Development Control.

The latter were, we suspect, reluctant to get involved and when asked to do so at the first meeting between us, failed to take up the challenge.  During the formal consultation period, we had responses from the Archaeological officer, the Landscape Architect and the Disabled Awareness officer (as well as very supportive comments from Buckingham people) but noticeably no response from Development control.  We assumed they were satisfied with the guidelines but this was not the case and it was further delay stage three outlined above.

Not until the 11th hour, - December 2000 to be precise - did Development Control enter the negotiations, registering their criticism of the guidelines.  Having thought we were home and dry, they now informed us that they were not happy with several of the guidelines and wished to alter the wording of others.  They wanted to dilute some, omit some and, worst of all, restrict them to Conservation Areas.  Having been so tantalisingly close, it now seemed that our hard won, all important guidelines were to be virtually ignored when it came to facing up to the big boys - i.e. the David Wilson Weasels and Beazer Bullies of this world.

As I said at the outset, the Design Statement concept is potentially a very effective, possibly the only effective, weapon in the local community's armoury against the powerful corporate face of national developers.

Here we have a way in which our councils, in collaboration with their local communities, can truly make a difference to the genetically modified designs imposed on us by greedy, uncaring developers.

If local government is to work democratically, it must be seen to work with us and for us and NOT collapse in the face of tricky and difficult negotiations with these arrogant barons of the building world.

I touch on the extremely complex but inter-related world of politics and the power of the purse.  The threat of expensive litigation, which the barons can afford and the councils cannot, always seems to hang over the way decisions are made.  Throughout these last minute meetings with the District Council, we were given the impression that it was appeals by developers which would jeopardise the whole document.  This is the reality of the world we live in and we have to work with it.  But, as the banners issued by the Countryside Alliance proclaimed:

            "Never underestimate a minority"

I urge you to take up the Design Statement challenge on behalf of the minorities that each community represents.  I think, in a way, that this was the real agenda behind the Civic Trust's Vision & Design pilot.

For it is ultimately only by working with our District Council officers that we shall gain sufficient confidence in one another to realise that local government, ALLIED to the power of the community, can restrict the power of greed and its subsequent negative impact.

But we do have to learn to have a bit more trust in each other.  Difficult to achieve in the short-term of course and I think our story demonstrates that what trust you do build up can so easily be swept away by one spoke in the wheel.

Nonetheless, despite these last minute nerves by Development Control, we managed with the help of Council members and several officers to reach acceptable compromises.

By expanding the General Principle column to state desirable OBJECTIVES, but restricting the adoption of the guidelines to our five primary areas, we were able to agree on the content for supplementary planning guidance.

I am delighted to say that, with these agreed amendments, the report to the two relevant committees recommended acceptance and supplementary planning guidance for Buckingham was formally adopted on the 5th April this year.

 

Carolyn Cumming
25 April 2001