What the appointment of Joanna Averley as chief planner means for the sector

The housing ministry has announced the appointment of the first female chief planner. Commentators say Joanna Averley’s arrival suggests the government is keen to show that it is concerned with upholding design quality standards, though there is some debate about how influential she could be over ministers.

The new chief planner, Joanna Averley
The new chief planner, Joanna Averley

June’s announcement by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) that it had appointed Joanna Averley as the new chief planner has been widely welcomed. Averley, currently head of design at High Speed Two Ltd, replaces Steve Quartermain after he stepped down from the role earlier this year after 12 years.

Averley will be the first female chief planner when she starts the job in September and brings a strong design track record, having formerly been deputy chief executive of the now-defunct design quango the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) prior to its merger with charity the Design Council. Her appointment comes at a challenging time, as the ministry is considering far-reaching changes to the planning system, as well as introducing new measures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Royal Town Planning Institute chief executive Victoria Hills said Averley, a chartered town planner by training had “exceptional experience”, while former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects Ben Derbyshire described her appointment as “very good news”. Housing minister Chris Pincher said she would bring “experience and fresh thinking”, while Catriona Riddell, the Planning Officers Society’s strategic planning specialist, said: “Having someone at the helm who understands the different issues, from design to infrastructure planning and delivery, who has operated at a national level and with partners at a local level, and who has worked with the public and private sector, will help enormously.”

Julia Thrift, director of healthier place-making at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), who worked alongside Averley at CABE, described her as “very knowledgeable, very tough, very nice, and used to working in a political environment”. 

The chief planner is the most senior qualified planner in the government, jointly running the MHCLG’s planning function with the director of planning, Simon Gallagher. As such, Averley will manage the planning appeals casework while advising on policy, heading the planning profession in government and directly running the MHCLG design unit. This advisory role gives the chief planner a degree of independence to challenge the ideas coming down from ministers and special advisors, say observers. However, it is unclear how much say ministers had over her getting the job. 

The reception to Averley’s appointment has been particularly warm from those worried about the impact of some proposed government reforms – such as the extension of permitted development (PD) rights and a mooted move to a zonal planning system – on the quality of development coming forward. 

One such group is the TCPA, which has campaigned against the use of PD rights to create new housing. But Thrift said: “She has a track record of championing quality and it’s a signal that the government is listening to the criticism.” Derbyshire, chairman of architect firm HTA, said: “The planning system is about designing a built environment in a way that creates human well-being, and if anyone understands that, Joanna does. The appointment could not come at a more important time and is a massive relief.”

Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service and now chair of housing association Peabody, said secretary of state Robert Jenrick’s stated desire to rethink planning from “first principles” made Averley’s job “incredibly important”. “It’s a role where she’ll need to test the ideas that are coming out of Number 10 rather robustly,” he said, pointing to the expansion of PD rights as “exactly the sort of thing” she will need to look at.

Unlike her predecessor, Averley has not herself been a local authority planner, and some are concerned that her lack of experience in this area may make her advice easier for ministers to ignore, because she does not bring personal experience of the challenges facing councils. Planning consultant Roger Hepher, founder of hgh Consulting, said this could mean she “will have to work even harder to stamp her authority on things”, adding: “With a headstrong secretary of state and a government keen to make progress, there is a risk the chief planner is not invited fully into the tent.”

However, Riddell said the depth of local authority expertise within the housing ministry’s planning team would protect her from this. Chris Brown, chief executive of developer Igloo, added that the ongoing political fallout from Jenrick’s unlawful Westferry Printworks appeal decision may, ironically, make it easier for the new chief planner to retain influence over ministers. He said: “Westferry is going to be quite a shock to the system and I think it’s much less likely that the chief planner will have her views overridden.”

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