In my new role as President of the RTPI I started a year of visits with a trip to North Wales. This was familiar territory for me, having spent many a childhood holiday on the beaches of the North Wales coast, in the mountains of Snowdonia, and the rural landscapes of the Vale of Clywd. My first engagement was the RTPI Cymru Spring Conference, held in Llandudno. Llandudno itself is a perfect example of a Victorian seaside resort, conserved with its vertical white lines of hotels along the promenade, and its wrought iron arcades in the adjacent shopping streets.
Against the setting of the sweep of the bay, the North Wales conference was about regeneration in Wales. Wales is currently undergoing a change in its planning legislation with a planning bill going through the Welsh Assembly, and the conference heard from two planners about the ideas being proposed and the likely direction of the bill into law. There will be a new development plan structure including a national development framework, and local development plans. There are numerous details that RTPI Cymru has been responding to, and is hoping to influence the eventual outcomes. One issue is how the Welsh bill compares to English planning law and policy? When it was published in 2004, the Wales Spatial Plan received plaudits for its vision – will the new national development framework be forward thinking and exemplary?
Furthermore, a question mark hangs over the organisation of local government in Wales, with the new minister considering ways in which the number of authorities – 22 unitary authorities and three national parks – can be reduced through mergers. Unitary authorities give opportunities for more strategic planning and larger authorities will allow for that too, but the remainder of the conference awakened the delegates to the many local initiatives for regeneration in Wales, along with some innovative solutions for new housing and community activities.
To start the debate, two guest speakers urged us to learn from other countries where good solutions had been implemented for a liveable city - Melbourne and Utrecht for example. In the latter, a local group had invited residents to bring recyclable building materials, old wooden doors, windows, to a skip handily placed in the street, and from that, a local group built a temporary and recycled kiosk for local use, including library. This inspirational project contrasted widely with the corporate approach taken in Melbourne to restore and plan the public realm so that the city centre became a place for local people to enjoy, in partnership with various private sector interests, but not to the detriment of achieving the city’s aims. As a result, Melbourne (below) has been repeatedly voted as the ‘most liveable city’ in the world.
So how can these examples apply to Wales? It was agreed that there is a lot to learn from other places and we can all apply this to our own projects. And there were some really interesting projects being done in Wales, and which act as case studies for us all. The theme running through the projects was local effort and community engagement – in a new local school, beautifully designed; an artist collaborating with a planner to create public art to regenerate a small town; a new toolkit to assist rural communities to measure vibrancy; housing and health facilities.
The conference was about the importance of place, people and culture and the need for planners and decision makers to recognise and value this. What we learnt was that people are working together in Wales to regenerate urban and rural areas. And the changes for the new legislative framework for Wales must make room for such innovation and collaboration to continue.
You can read RTPI Cymru briefings on the planning bill here.