Best Laid Plans

The Mayor of London-sponsored social enterprise Public Practice claims to be bringing social planning back to the capital. Do their claims stack up?

London Mayor Sadiq Khan on a tour of East Croydon with Public Practice in 2018.

One windy morning last May, I found myself framing up images of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, as he went on a press walkabout in East Croydon. Surrounded by a huddle of news reporters wielding cameras and microphones, Khan moved through a cityscape half-flattened in anticipation of new construction and chatted with a small group of young planners about their role in remaking the physical environment of London and the South-East. We were all there for the launch of a new social enterprise called Public Practice. Backed by the mayor, it was self-described as a “broker” that took architects and designers and placed them in the public sector as planners. Local authorities around London lacked the skilled planning staff to deliver on the mayor’s London Plan and these new planners would help hit his targets. Backed by an inspiring series of manifesto statements – the foremost being “Plan for the Public Good” – the organisation was fronted by the engaging duo of CEO Finn Williams, and co-founder Pooja Agrawal. The Mayor sat beside his regeneration chief Jules Pipe and the neophyte planners grouped facing them in a half-circle. Khan kicked off proceedings by telling them “There’s no pressure on you, but you guys will make or break this project.” 

Unlike the journalists present, I wasn’t there to ask questions. I had been hired by Public Practice to make a film record of their first year. I was enthusiastic about the idea of rebuilding the public sector’s design skills – in 2010 I had made a film, Utopia London, celebrating London’s past local authority architects and the estates they designed. Standing at the other end of the room were two figures from the private sector, who I was to discover were central to the project of Public Practice. One was a young Texan called Sarah Cary. Three months earlier she’d been a senior executive at the vast real estate investment trust British Land that in 2017 managed assets totalling £18.2bn; now she was Enfield Council’s director of regeneration. The other was a solidly built man in his early 70s – Tony Pidgley. Pidgley was the chairman of Berkeley Homes, a developer infamous for clearing council estates to build housing for private sale, and renowned for playing hardball with local planners to minimise any obligation to build affordable homes. Both Berkeley and British Land were major funders of Public Practice – Cary was on the Public Practice board. The mayor told the assembled planners to “work with developers like Tony”, before Pidgley told them “If we can help you, come and talk to us, it’s what we do, it’s what we love.” It was a weird invitation to new entrants to the profession that was meant to regulate his industry.  

The first group of Public Practice architects as pictured by The Architects’ Journal in 2018.

Prior to that day I had no idea of the centrality of these corporate interests to Public Practice, or the mayor’s closeness to figures like Pidgley. As I filmed over the next 7 months, I would be increasingly struck by the apparent contradictions between this project and the organisation’s bold slogans.  

Welfare State Chic

The last decade has seen a reappraisal of the 1945-76 welfare state’s architecture, in particular its housing. A carefully controlled iconography drawing from this more egalitarian past is maintained across Public Practice’s visual representation in its videos, photos, and graphics. They give the feeling they’ve been looted from a 1970s local authority stationary cupboard. And the founders’ language evokes something similar: As Finn Williams told me: “You look on the one hand at a crisis in the affordability, the availability of housing. On the other hand, deep levels of inequality spatially in our places across the country. And those are things that the public sector can address. That’s what Public Practice are about.” 

A million or so Londoners still live on council estates, spending the last two decades facing the threat that their homes will be demolished, their communities broken up, and that many will end up living far away from the place they now call home. They may even be forced to relocate outside London. This is in considerable contrast with the way council housing was conceived by one of its major architects, Neave Brown: “the fundamental proposition was that everyone was entitled to an equal benefit from a coordinated society”. It was in the context of this clear vision of public good that the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act laid the foundations of the modern planning system. It compelled each local authority to plan all land use within its boundaries, while placing all development under the control of democratically accountable planning officers. Profits from increased land value produced by development (known as “betterment”) were taxed at 100%, itself a prelude to planned total land nationalisation. This represented a fundamental shift of power away from the property rights of landowners towards a vision of the needs of the community as articulated by the local authority and its officers.

Developer Tony Pidgley addresses the Public Practice planners.

In spite of shifts in emphasis between Labour and Tory governments, especially over property speculation, the fundamentals of the post-WW2 planning apparatus continued without significant challenge until 1979; delivering economic growth, and increased living standards with new housing provision. The election of the Thatcher government heralded a new social and political order, one where market forces took the place of public good; citizens’ needs were to be expressed through how they spent their cash. Democratic local government was stripped of power, and in London, the elected GLC was abolished. Today’s concept of regeneration originates from those fraught times. The essential idea was to use the state’s planning powers to assemble sites for private companies to develop. Public money paid for essential infrastructure – mainly new roads and public transport – but the private sector took all the profits. Any residual sense of the broader public good was served solely by clawing back some of the developers’ windfall through tax.

New Labour developed a new iteration of urban regeneration that grafted its essentially Thatcherite economic conception onto the old Labour interventionist tradition. In council estates, the result was to hand them over to developers and housing associations to be “fixed”. Often this meant demolition and rebuilding with a new tenure mix replacing many of the secure tenure homes for council rent with those for private sale.  This policy created new tradable assets for a banking industry that had shifted dramatically from offering business loans to the domestic mortgage market. Those negatively affected were not just residents of council estates, but also those living in the private rented sector, made poorer or priced out altogether by increased market rents. This is the status quo that Public Practice’s rhetoric claims to break with.

Planning for the Public Good?

Official public policy insists that private capital drives partnerships with the state to remake the city. Over the last 20 years, regeneration has become the new career buzzword in local government. Local government regeneration mixes the skills of estate agency with town planning, as the land package must be put together cheaply enough, and the final sale price after regeneration inflated high enough, to cover the cost of the work plus a healthy profit for the private investors. This land value differential determines the viability of the project. At the heart of this model is the need for property prices to continue to rise above the rate of inflation. If that bubble ever bursts, then the scheme will be unbankable. This highly financialised model of urban development has created a conflict with more traditional public sector planners who have a different vision of how the planning process should operate. A 2018 research project “Working in the Public Interest” ran a series of focus groups across the UK with planners to explore their relationship with the public interest – it found a broad concern that the financial and time resources available to developers were outgunning the voices and needs of the general public. 

The Public Practice business plan reveals that the idea for the organisation originated in the GLA’s Regeneration Team, as a way of improving planning capacity to deliver “homes and growth”. Both Williams and Agrawal worked in this team while the business plan was drawn up. The same plan claims “strong evidence that developers are willing to subsidise additional local authority capacity if it helps to de-risk the planning process and accelerate timescales”. Funding from developers inevitably brings this process’ impartiality into doubt. And while the desire to “de-risk” planning makes total sense for the developer, it is harder to see how this benefits broader society; ultimately a planning system that wishes to retain the confidence of the public must show that it is willing and able to sometimes say no, even to the most powerful of private interests.

Waterloo Road, Havering. An estate regeneration faciliated by the Public Practice programme.

The Public Practice associates are employees of their host local authority, in a field where in recent years planning departments have suffered severe funding cutbacks. Recent changes in the fees local authority planning departments are allowed to charge for their services have led to councils offering developers a pre-application review of their design – known as a “pre-app”. Here the developer gets to buy exclusive access to the planning officer who will decide the fate of their scheme. One associate raised an interesting question at a Public Practice training day about pre-apps “If they are paying, how can we say no?”. Another associate told me “Yes, this is definitely a neoliberal planning model, developers are my clients”. Given that the associates predominantly have private sector architecture backgrounds, this raises interesting questions about how prior employment culture based on satisfying client needs can transfer into their new public sector role. Under its Chair, London’s deputy mayor for regeneration Jules Pipe,  Public Practice are essentially rolling out a new regeneration led paradigm of how planning should operate, subordinating its regulatory function to the councils’ in-house regeneration team and their private sector partners. Yet that old-fashioned regulatory tradition remains the only public mechanism that can contain the ambitions of private capital in the urban environment.

But then despite the impression given by its name and advertising, Public Practice isn’t really a public sector organisation – it’s a private body where the bulk of its funding comes from a mix of private sector organisations. Along with British Land and Berkeley Homes, another major source of funding for Public Practice is the massive Housing Association Peabody. Housing Associations’ popular image is as philanthropic providers of low-cost social housing, but this does not entirely encompass their recent activities. The G15 umbrella group for social housing providers admit in their 2016 report that on the 35 regeneration schemes underway with their members, there will be a 17% reduction in units for social or affordable rent. In Peabody’s redevelopment of the GLC’s Thamesmead estate, for example, 65% of the housing is for market rent or sale, and the residual ‘affordable’ element includes part buy part sale (aimed at middle income households), while the small remaining social rental element will almost all be significantly more expensive than an equivalent council rent. And although Housing Associations benefit from the tax exemptions derived from their charitable status, they have become a key component of Britain’s financialised economy, funding their developments by issuing bonds to debt investors. Peabody for example, is planning to issue a further £1 billion of these over the next three years. Effectively they provide low-risk assets with stable returns for the investment of global accumulations of capital. Because housing associations have borrowed against the value of their property holdings, any fall in house prices threatens their existence as it could make them insolvent – locking them into pursuing policies that ensure prices rise or at least do not fall. But why would these hard-nosed business people part with their cash to fund Public Practice? 

The Power of Numbers

Despite the intriguingly diverse loyalties and motivations produced by Public Practice’s complex funding structure, it owes its existence to London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who greenlighted its creation with Mayoral Decision 2144 in July 2017. What is driving the mayor’s housing policy? In his bid to be selected Labour’s mayoral candidate in 2016, he received significant donations from property developers. Khan’s draft London Plan includes much increased housing targets, with a focus on the outer boroughs to deliver them. The Plan scraps previous housing density controls in the hope that this will increase housing delivery in the limited development areas available. But this will drive land price escalation, pushing market prices up and making housing still less affordable, while allowing developers to reduce their social housing obligation because they will claim the extra land costs have destroyed the economic viability of providing lower cost housing.

The self-described “council estate boy who’ll solve the housing crisis” has spoken of reviving council building, and has brought in regulations that mandate ballots of council estate residents on regeneration schemes – although this came immediately after signing off 35 ‘estate regeneration’ schemes without ballots. Certainly, given that a significant proportion of London’s population need homes for low rent with secure tenancies, it is odd that so much of current planning policy has been directed to get rid of the council homes which provide that. The fastest way to increase council stock, rather than making deals with developers, would be to return to the 1970s policy of municipalisation – where councils used government funds to buy up private rented flats and turned them into council housing. 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan tours East Croydon with Public Practice founders Finn Williams and Pooja Agrawal.

What the mayor’s targets do achieve is to encourage further estate regeneration within the outer London boroughs, as these schemes present low hanging fruit for authorities desperate to show some movement towards targets that are widely regarded as unattainable. These schemes will free up land for the kind of regeneration that Public Practice’s funders specialise in. And it is in these boroughs that the bulk of Public Practice’s cohort of associates are placed. In its business plan Public Practice even offers its funders the chance to second their staff to Local Authority planning offices. In every placement the Public Practice associates were involved in some way in enabling processes that drove an increase in land values in the areas they served: from the “pre-app” process that smoothed planning approval for developers, to a public realm project in Croydon specifically designed to draw in investment capital to the local property market, to planners working out how new transport links will create land value uplift. It’s a model justified to a sceptical public by the idea that the increase in land values will drive civic improvement, and in particular that more house building will solve London’s housing crisis. But this is a fallacy– because as we have seen, each increase in land values makes housing less affordable.

Even where the Public Practice associates were unsure of the social benefits of their schemes, they found they were powerless to affect real change. Despite the Public Practice slogan ”The Rules Can Be Designed”, on the ground the associates had little say in the social impact of the interventions they administered. One associate told me as we walked around a council estate slated for demolition where she was overseeing regeneration: “All of the financial parts of it have been agreed before it comes to planning. So I’m really working to optimise the design quality but I can’t actually change anything to do with the [tenure] mix”.  

More than a decade ago the Marxist geographer Doreen Massey argued for an activist regional policy that aimed to rebalance London’s overheated economy with the rest of the UK. This could ensure that population pressures on London would decline and the country as a whole would benefit from increased economic activity. The wholesale destruction of London’s communities – as witnessed by the demolition of council estates to be replaced by new schemes of predominantly market priced apartments – could stop. An influx of younger architects and planners into the public sector – which is what Public Practice appears to be to the untrained eye – could be part of this project. But as it exists, Public Practice fits into a larger industry of valuers, developers, financiers, marketeers, architects, and construction firms who all earn a living from delivering mayoral and national policies that drive inequality. What makes Public Practice stand out from this crowd is mainly the chasm between its public image and reality. So far, Public Practice has assisted powerful private interests to capture the public sector’s planning capacity. In this they are enabled by a press that has gladly read Public Practice’s propaganda at face value, and recycles it without even bothering to ask the organisation that simplest of questions: “Where does your funding come from?”