Co-founders of Public Practice, Pooja Agrawal and Finn Williams. Image: Timothy Chase
Co-founders of Public Practice, Pooja Agrawal and Finn Williams. Image: Timothy Chase

‘New Municipalism’: A Conversation with Finn Williams and Pooja Agrawal

Pooja Agrawal and Finn Williams are advocates for a revival in public sector planning, after decades of neo-liberal policies drained it of design expertise. Through not-for-profit Public Practice, they’re re-injecting much-needed knowhow back where it can make the most difference.

[This conversation features in Spatial Practices: Modes of Action and Engagement with the City, edited by Melanie Dodd and recently published by Routledge].

What follows is a conversation between Melanie Dodd and Shumi Bose, and Pooja Agrawal and Finn Williams, founders of Public Practice, a not-for-profit social enterprise that enables spatial practitioners to work earlier upstream in the public sector, and contribute to the decisions that shape the built environment.

As a recently launched initiative to support the placing of architects into local authority planning and regeneration departments, this interview talks about the ambitions and intentions of the Public Practice initiative, as well as the political context in which it has emerged after thirty years of public sector shrinkage and neo-liberal policies.

Through a focus on supporting a revival of public sector planning, Public Practice’s ambition is to increase the volume of social housing in response to recent crises, as well as to more generally address strategic issues related to the quality of the built environment and the entrenched inequalities private forms of urban development can encourage.

Melanie Dodd:    Can you tell us how you define what you do, as practitioners in the public sector?

Finn Williams:    It’s easy to say what I’m not. I’m not technically an architect according to ARB, I’m not technically a planner, according to the RTPI. In many ways, the kind of practice that I’m involved in both in the public sector and through Public Practice is what I’d like architecture and planning to be in the broadest sense. I once called myself a “half-architect, half-planner”, which got me into trouble in both camps (laughter). We defend the use of the term “architect”, but we’ve failed to defend the real scope of the architect’s role and the value of the profession to society. And for me that’s a real problem and something that needs to be challenged. In the last 30 to 40 years we’ve allowed the definition of what it is to be an architect to shrink, and become limited to a very constrained role. And the same is true of planning. 40, 50 years ago, planning was shaping every aspect of a place. Today, a large proportion of the profession devotes their career to securing planning consents for developments that they don’t think are very good. No one enters into architecture or planning to do that. That’s why we need to broaden the agency, and definition, of both professions.

Melanie Dodd:    Are you an architect, Pooja? (laughter)

Pooja Agrawal:    Yes, I am a qualified architect and throughout my educational career and practice I have been trying to find ways of designing ‘beyond the building’. When I joined the public sector two and a half years ago, I was hesitant about starting to call myself a planner, because I work in the Regeneration Team at City Hall, and there’s a separate Planning Team. There’s definitely been a blurring of boundaries in terms of what we do and how we define these professions. But I also think it’s dangerous for us to be really rigid and institutionalized in how we define professions, not only in terms of just architecture and planning, but in the case of all wider environmental design practices.

Finn Williams:    The kind of practitioners who are our predecessors – in the London County Council, Camden Council, or Lambeth Council in the 1950s and 1960s – would have called themselves ‘architect-planners’. And in many ways what we’re trying to do with Public Practice is to rebuild that breadth of expertise – and ambition – for what the role of an ‘architect-planner’ could be. We do that by putting together cohorts of practitioners who are drawn from across a range of broader fields; people with expertise in surveying, development, planning, regeneration or conservation. And by encouraging them to work collectively, to build and broaden each other’s skills.

Pooja Agrawal:    A new generation of young practitioners are questioning the status quo in the professions. Something as fundamental as gender has become so much more fluid. I think we need to revisit such institutionalized terms such as ‘architect’ or ‘planner’, and rethink how people would want to engage, because they seem such rigid professional titles. The more accessible and open they are, the more they will attract the most talented people.

“I think we need to revisit such institutionalized terms such as ‘architect’ or ‘planner’, and rethink how people would want to engage…” – @AgrawalPooj

Melanie Dodd:    I’m interested in how Public Practice describes itself as an organization. Is it a third sector organization that’s sitting outside the public sector as an enabling body?

Finn Williams:    Public Practice came from our own experiences of having a background in architecture, practicing in the private sector, then moving into the public sector. Through this journey we got an understanding of where the gaps in the capacity of the public sector are, and how to support the public sector to plan more proactively – and a lot of that boils down to resourcing. We’ve had almost a decade of austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, on top of 40 years of retreat from the public sector taking a hands-on role in building homes and leading change. The cumulative impact of that is that it has become increasingly hard for local authorities to recruit and retain people with ambition, talent, and skills.

Now, for the first time in decades, ambitious local authorities are looking to start building homes again. The more enterprising councils can find the funding, but they can’t find the right people. So we set up Public Practice as an independent broker to match outstanding practitioners from the private sector with extraordinary new opportunities to work within councils for the public good. In 1976, 49% of all architects worked for the public sector, and now it’s less than 1%. We’d like to see a greater proportion of the incredible talent from across the UK’s built environment sector working for all of us, on our behalf.

“In 1976, 49% of all architects worked for the public sector, and now it’s less than 1%” – Finn Williams @commonoffice

Pooja Agrawal:    When we were working at the Greater London Authority (GLA) together and designing what Public Practice could be we considered various different models: should it sit within the GLA; be associated with another existing organization; or should it be an independent not-for-profit social enterprise, which was the final decision. Being independent has helped us gain local authorities’ trust, as we’re politically neutral and only acting in their interests. There is a kind of nimbleness in being a social enterprise that can facilitate conversations between the public sector but also with other organizations, and with academic institutions. It’s not-for-profit and publicly driven – but it’s not public sector.

Finn Williams:    Whether we like it or not, we are a part of a wider wave of social enterprise that’s grown up in inverse proportion to the shrinking of the state. In an ideal world, the job descriptions and perceptions of the public sector would be strong enough for our placement program not to be needed. But we’ve got a long way to go until we get to that point. We’re doing everything we can to keep expertise embedded within authorities, build their in-house capacity over the longer-term, and attract people into the public sector as a whole. I think that’s what distinguishes us from lots of other social enterprises. This is not a permanent solution. We see success as the placement program no longer being necessary. But another part of our role is to help the public sector to keep pace with changing demands, pressures and challenges – whether economic, demographic, or environmental – and that is always going to be needed. It’s not easy for large public-sector organizations to respond quickly to emerging challenges. That’s where we can continue to be useful, by helping local authorities evolve to deal with future changes in the built environment.

Melanie Dodd:    Yes, you are independent, but you want to support the state.

Pooja Agrawal:    In the end our mission is to improve the quality and quality of places, and that’s much broader and more fundamental.

Melanie Dodd:    Is the research and development side of the organization needed to fund and generate policy research that’s collectively important to local authority contexts?

Pooja Agrawal:    Yes, we can be proactive and respond quite quickly to pressing issues. For us the research and development program is about creating really practical outcomes and actions. That is what local authorities find most useful. For example, how should councils measure the quality of the new social housing they are starting to build? If a template post-occupancy survey could be created and shared across local authorities, that is an incredibly useful resource that comes from the local authorities demand and need, rather than being imposed by a central body like the GLA or Government. This kind of cross-cutting R&D, of sharing ideas between authorities through the network of associates, can produce a really practical body of work. It is not academic research. It’s very much about everyday practice; capturing how the associates are addressing the barriers they come across in the day-to-day work.

Finn Williams:    As a social enterprise we have a mission, which as Pooja said is to improve the quality, and equality, of everyday places. And we have a theory of change, which shows how we’ll try to achieve that mission in three ways. The first pillar, currently at the core of what we do, is building public planning capacity. And yes, there will hopefully be a point in time where we have built capacity within authorities to the extent that this pillar of our model is less essential. To do that we need to change people’s ideas of what it is to work in the public sector, to be a planner. That’s the second pillar; transforming perceptions of public planning. The status of those two things, public service and planning, has sunk to rock bottom over the last few years. We want to make going into public service feel like a privilege, not a last resort…

The third pillar is about enabling proactive planning. This is not just about getting good people into existing jobs within local authorities, it’s actually about rewriting the job description; fundamentally changing the role of local government in the way places address and implement change. Our research and development is a big part of that. We see the research and development as a shared platform for local government that just doesn’t exist currently. It happens in silos within departments; or it happens within strategic organizations like the GLA or Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. But most local authorities don’t have access to wider research networks, or the space and time to develop new strategic thinking themselves. It is applied research in action.

“The best way to bring people into a town centre might not be a shiny new iconic building, but simply working to adjust the parking fees” – @commonoffice

Pooja Agrawal:    By sharing discussion with colleagues on the ground we believe there is a much longer legacy, building the solutions whilst working in a place. Many recommendations that are parachuted in just don’t have that kind of lasting impact.

Finn Williams:    And the research and development platform is not just for the Associates we have on the program. It’s also for their colleagues. You rarely get any time for critical reflection in day-to-day work in local authorities because you’re often fire-fighting, dealing with large caseloads, or responding quickly to changing political circumstances. We hope that the associates can also create a space for their fellow officers to get a wider perspective.

Pooja Agrawal:    One example is a recent field trip to Brussels, organized by three of our Associates, one from Old Oak Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC), one in London Borough of Bexley, and one in the GLA Planning Team – all investigating industrial land. Just the process of officers from those different teams and organizations travelling on the Eurostar together meant they had to speak to each other, without an agenda, for three hours. These are conversations officers just don’t have the time for in their everyday jobs.

Melanie Dodd:    What do associates gain from being in the public sector? Do you think the architects that you place will gain as much from the public sector as they contribute?

Pooja Agrawal:    Yes, architects can learn a lot. It’s an invitation to redefine what architecture is and think about it in a much broader sense, including the actual impact it has on people who experience buildings and the built environment on an everyday basis, as well as wider social, political, environmental and economic considerations.

Shumi Bose:    So, what do you think the associates would get specifically from this experience?

Finn Williams:    The economic model behind private practice drives architects towards the response to every question being a building. As long as fees are tied to construction costs, architects are incentivized to build more “things” to earn a living. In the public sector, you’re paid a salary to come up with the best outcomes for citizens and society. That allows you to think more laterally. For example, the best way to bring people into a town centre might not be a shiny new iconic building, but simply working with colleagues to adjust the parking fees. Or the best way of improving the social housing on an estate might not be by demolishing and rebuilding it, but just working with housing colleagues to improve the maintenance regime.

“As much as we’re inspired by the Golden Age of the post-war period, we think it’s important not to over-idealize it. For all the bold and innovative projects, there were clearly also a lot of problems” – @AgrawalPooj

Melanie Dodd:    I was also wondering whether skills of ‘speaking to people’ get refreshed in this context?

Finn Williams:    Yes, the architectural profession’s exposure to the reality of the built environment is limited on so many levels – we’re really operating in a tiny bubble. Architects only design six or seven percent of new housing in the UK, and even then, the architectural press probably only ever discuss six or seven percent of that. Most of our attention is focused on projects and clients at one end of the spectrum of socio-economic advantage. Even when architects consult the public on their projects, it’s often subcontracted to a consultation consultant. On the other hand, as a public sector officer your job can involve standing in front of some boards in a train station all day, speaking to everyone who passes through; attending a public meeting and being expected to answer any question that comes from the floor; or of course responding to every kind of application that comes through the planning process. You see school extensions built entirely from portakabins, through to the most shockingly poorly designed retirement homes. Good architects can spend an entire career sheltered from these kinds of realities, and unable to influence them. And I think that’s wrong. I think it should be part of our job as architects to improve these everyday places.

Pooja Agrawal:    Just working with lots of different types of people is personally something I’ve got a lot out of from being in the public sector. Previously I worked in small, up-and-coming practices, with practitioners of a similar age living in similar parts of the city. Now, I’m working with people from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of ages. People really do enjoy going to Costa, Brent Cross and Westfield. And that’s important for a large section of society, not expecting everyone to want to go to an independent coffee shop and have flat whites. As an architect, we need to rethink aspects of aesthetics and design and how these relate to class and social status as well.

Finn Williams:    That’s something we look for when we’re selecting the practitioners for the program. One of the most important attributes we’ve found is humility; where Associates recognize that they’re going to learn as much as they contribute. It’s those Associates who’ve been the most successful. Instead of arriving with the attitude that they’re going to tell everyone what to do, they recognize that there are already brilliant people in local authorities, they listen to them, and they support them.

Melanie Dodd:    This revaluing of the state’s role in ‘wealth creation’ for society is emerging strongly in current discussions from Local Authorities – that they are ‘insourcing instead of outsourcing” services is now common and spoken with pride. Are we returning to some sort of ‘Golden Age’ of Local Government?

Pooja Agrawal:    As much as we’re inspired by the Golden Age of the post-war period, we think it’s important not to over-idealize it. For all the bold and innovative projects, there were clearly also a lot of problems. The push to deliver homes cost-effectively meant there was varying quality. And there was far less understanding of what public engagement meant or why is was important. In that sense, we’re keen to define a new kind of ‘municipalism’.

Finn Williams:    In many ways the biggest power shift that seems to be happening now is in the growth in influence of the civic sector and the agency of communities. New technologies are giving citizens the tools, and the expectation, to have more of a say in local government than just one tick in the box every four years. And that means we can’t expect the pendulum to simply swing back the other way. It doesn’t work in one dimension any more. This new municipalism needs to be built with a totally different relationship to society and responsibility to communities.

“As an architect, we need to rethink aspects of aesthetics and design and how these relate to class and social status.” – @AgrawalPooj

Shumi Bose:    Yes, so navigating how that civic sector expands out into public and private, maybe that leads us into a conversation about what we mean, when we say ‘public’.

Finn Williams:    We see the role of the public sector and the civic sector as two ‘cogs’ moving at very different speeds which should be working together. But at the moment they’re completely disconnected. The public sector doesn’t know how to engage with civic activism. And communities just don’t know how to engage with the machinery of local government because it’s so obscure and arcane, it was built in a different age. If we can get it right, we can get to a point where the civic sector looks after what they’re best at, which is the more immediate, more direct, more personal aspects of environment. And the public sector can look after the broader outcomes of long-term planning for a wider community –  where community isn’t just your neighbors who look like you and think like you – it’s the inhabitants of your city, your country. This is a scale of thinking that seems to be lacking in politics and economics at the moment. The public sector is one of the only organizations that can afford to take that really long view: a wide geographical and social perspective.

Pooja Agrawal:    And the public sector has the kind of tools, agencies and finance for the longer term. In contrast to the civic sector which can respond to more immediate matters.

Melanie Dodd:    So, it is very much about scale? Without being simplistic, the scales of civic society might be distributed into small, scalar enterprises, groups and organizations that can respond and offer representation. But the longer durational scale of a more responsive planning policy needs to carry this forward?

Pooja Agrawal:    Exactly. But another complication tends to be political cycles, which can be very short term. All of these different timescales need to work to in order to create the longest legacy that has the most positive impact.

Finn Williams:    Where it doesn’t work is where public sector tries to take on what the civic sector can do much better. When I’ve tried to organize pop-up events, for example, trying to involve councils in direct cultural production –  it’s not what the public sector is cut out to do. We need to get better at recognizing what our role is and seeding power and initiative to people who are much better placed at doing that.

Pooja Agrawal:    But there’s still more space for the public sector to have more of a ‘face’, a direct relationship with people. For example, the need for a housing officer to live on an estate and have a very direct relationship all the residents who live there, and be able to join the dots between the various issues – like not being able to speak the language, mental health, and not being able to pay the rent. That human experience of government, of the public sector, is something which we don’t really have. We need to understand the value of having direct relationships.

“There’s still more space for the public sector to have more of a ‘face’, a direct relationship with people” – @AgrawalPooj

Melanie Dodd:    Are there other traditions of public service – in the UK, or elsewhere – that you draw on?

Finn Williams:    For us the inspiration for public practice has been more networked, dispersed and quite anonymous forms of practice. For example, the ‘Artist Placement Group’, which embedded artists in major corporations like British Steel and the Ministry of Scotland. The ‘Design Research Unit’, who brought the highest quality of graphic design to ubiquitous things like the British Rail system, or Watneys pubs. And then KF – or the ‘Swedish Cooperative Union and Wholesale Society’s Architects Office’ – a collective of the most brilliant architects in Sweden in the 1930s who put aside individual authorship and worked on the most ordinary buildings; corner shops, factories, schools, affordable housing. KF found a way of building high quality architecture that everyone could benefit from, partly because they chose to work in a very understated and anonymous way. It’s easy to romanticize radical practices that agitate against the system from the outside, but I think quietly altering the system from the inside can sometimes be a more effective form of activism.

Melanie Dodd:    Can the scheme work around the UK more broadly?

Pooja Agrawal:    Yes, with devolution, city regions are gathering more and more power to deliver housing, build infrastructure, and take decisions using a place-based approach. In that sense, there’s an exciting opportunity to use the structure of the cohort to work in a networked way across a whole region.

Finn Williams:    We can make a much bigger difference beyond London. London is the only place in the UK that’s already got a regional planning body. Some of these other regions which are changing very quickly have the political ambition, but don’t necessarily have the breadth of practitioners to draw on, or the communities of practice at an officer level.

Shumi Bose:    The candidates that you are recruiting might say, “Well why would we be in London, there’s way more to do elsewhere”

Finn Williams:    Yes, exactly. Those are the people we want to attract to Public Practice, the people who are more motivated to work somewhere where they can really make a difference.

Spatial Practices: Modes of Action and Engagement with the City, edited by Melanie Dodd,9780815351863

Spatial Practices: Modes of Action and Engagement with the City is edited by Melanie Dodd and published by Routledge. It is available now.

Pooja Agrawal is a co-founder of Public Practice and works in the GLA Regeneration Team, City Hall, London. She has been a Research Fellow at UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and was nominated for the Planner’s Woman of Influence 2018.

Finn Williams is Co-Founder and Chief Executive at Public Practice. He has been a Visiting Professor at UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He is also the founder of public sector planning think tank NOVUS and independent research practice Common Office.