London Planning Awards 2004: a successful year for the capital

As the RTPI's judge for the London Planning Awards, Michael Welbank gives his impressions of the process and the projects.

Last year there was some concern that these awards would be a one-off. Would there be enough good schemes around to make the awards a permanent part of the London planning scene? How wrong we all were - 48 entries this time around in five categories, of which 20 were shortlisted. So my guess is that these awards are now here to stay and what an excellent platform for planning they make.

So where does one start? First we had the classic problem besetting all planning awards, which is the "chalk and cheese" conundrum. It is no use moaning that this ought to have been sorted out before we started because that can deny the very essence of planning, which is, or at least should be, a multi-issue affair. Seldom did an entry score highly across the board. Even after careful scoring the judges were left with the task of selecting a winner.

This was particularly the case in the best built project contributing to London's future category, where the Walthamstow town centre revitalisation, with its new town square, gardens and bus station, was in contention with Paddington Central. The latter was an excellent scheme in planning terms, producing high-quality architectural design, good management, excellent environmental enhancements and substantial community benefits. But its location and potential market made it a certainty that a high-quality development could be supported.

At Walthamstow, however, the overall winner of the mayor's award for planning excellence, the environmental and economic context was very different.

It has been an uphill struggle to get the project going. The key initial project was a public sector investment, the quality of which was good but not outstanding, but it has been exploited not only to give direct and immediate benefit to all town centre users but also to provide a force for incremental change in the wider area. That all these benefits will be achieved is assured by a dynamic and determined planning team working in the closest collaboration with local interests.

This year we had a number of high-profile, glamorous, well financed schemes of national significance in the best conceptual project contributing to London's future category.

This led to a real tussle between the claims of three entries: Lower Lea Valley Olympics and legacy masterplan, delivering a new Wembley and Greenwich peninsula. All were first-class important schemes in their own right and for the regeneration impetus they provided to adjacent areas.

It was unfortunate that they all came up this year because each could well be regarded as a worthy winner. But, alas, the task of the judges was to decide on a winner, and by a narrow head we selected the Lower Lea Valley scheme, not because this might be seen as giving a fillip to the Olympic bid, but because of the high quality of the scheme, the comprehensiveness of the proposals, the attention to detail, the extensive restoration of the river network and the manner in which it captured the imagination of the local community and responded to understandable concerns.

The best community or partnership initiative category produced a fascinating range of entries demonstrating diverse examples of the dedication and imagination of planners benefiting local communities. The winning Bow church masterplan was local in scale, tackling the regeneration of an area dominated for many years by major roads.

Also in this category was the unusual entry of the Chinatown steering group, which was essentially a vigorous urban management scheme specifically aimed at the Chinatown area in London's West End. Here the initiative and drive shown by the local Chinese community led to a steering group being established. The group involves the police, security guards, planners, other local authority departments and a wide range of local agencies.

This partnership has led to very high standards of maintenance and cleanliness, massive reductions in antisocial behaviour and a 75 per cent drop in street crime. It is a remarkable example of how a determined coherent community working together can achieve outstanding results to the benefit of residents, workers and all users of the area.

In the best public sector planner or planning organisation category there were excellent entries. The winner was the Elephant and Castle team, which has shown enormous stamina, determination and imagination over a long period in coping with changes in political direction and in successfully managing to alter developer aspirations originally dominated by retail shopping concepts. This has led to the creation of a comprehensive regeneration scheme with the local community as its focus.

The best private sector planner or planning organisation award went to Hugh Bullock and the team at Gerald Eve, who demonstrated the highest levels of achievement in bringing together development and public sector interests to produce top-quality strategic direction for major schemes, benefiting the community, the promoter and all the interests involved.

Hugh Bullock has taken banging heads together to a high art form.

So it was a good year for the award and the judges entirely endorse the mayor's selection for his award for planning excellence, unusual maybe in that Walthamstow was not a winner in any category but was nevertheless outstanding in the scale, range and span of its planning achievements against all the odds. It is an inspiring example of planning initiatives carried out across a very wide front over a long time frame, missing out perhaps on outstanding achievement related to any specific category of the award scheme, but with immense cumulative benefits to the community of Walthamstow.

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