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Office for Place – A Statement from the Chair

In a speech earlier today (24 July 2023), the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced that the Office for Place will be based in Stoke-on-Trent, and that Nicholas Boys Smith has been appointed as interim Chair. Read the full text of the speech.

Alongside today’s announcement, Nicholas Boys Smith, our interim Chair, has made the following statement:

“This week is an important milestone in our journey to create and steward more beautiful and more popular, greener and more sustainable places. The Office for Place is moving from being a small team within DLUHC to a formal and legally constituted arm’s length body. And we can announce that we will be based in the marvellous city of Stoke-on-Trent. I am also personally delighted to have been asked to become interim chair of the new organisation.

Nowhere could be more appropriate for the Office for Place’s home town. The very derivation of the name in the Old English means place. And Stoke has both a proud past as home to the English pottery industry (an industry that is still based in the city) and every chance for a marvellous and prosperous future.

I visited our new home in Stoke-on-Trent recently together with the advisory board. We met with the City Director Jon Rouse and Council Leader Jane Ashworth. Both spoke proudly and passionately about the opportunities for their city and the residents, but also about the social and economic challenges they face. We were struck by their vision for regenerative development, re-stitching the city, moving from streets as gyratories to streets as enjoyable places to be, attracting jobs and taking advantage of the legacy of their proud industrial heritage not throwing it away.

The challenges and opportunities in Stoke-on-Trent are not unique. Many towns and cities are grappling with the opportunities and headwinds that post-industrial townscapes create. We are excited about the prospect of supporting our new hometown of Stoke-on-Trent, and in doing so helping local councils and communities across the country create beautiful, successful and enduring places that re-engender a sense of community, local pride and belonging.

Those who have been following our journey since the inception of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission will know that when we started, many people said our task was without purpose and our aims without merit. However, our proposals were greeted with near universal support. One Stirling-prize winning architect said “I’m finding myself agreeing with almost everything, which is a surprise”. Calmly, consensually and I hope empirically we had reviewed the quality, popularity and sustainability of the places we create and had found them wanting.

The government positively accepted our report and acted upon many of the recommendations, including making significant changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, setting beauty as an aim of the planning system, and publishing the National Model Design Code, which is a superb document that I commend. Major themes in both documents included the need to re-green our streets and squares, to rejuvenate our streets’ vitality as places to dwell not just roads to rush through, to make planning more visual, less verbal.

We’re seeing some evidence that this is starting to make a difference. A few councils are starting to raise the bar on what they expect, and this was evidenced by the hard work and dedication of our design code pathfinders who have all been championing the importance of design in their local authorities and neighbourhood planning groups. But we know that we need to go further and faster, and that government has a role to play.

That is why, with the support of officials and the expert advisory board I have been chairing, we have carefully been working towards the establishment of the Office for Place. This newly established independent body will help councils lift that bar; by creating and commissioning training, by producing tools, templates and processes, that councils and communities can freely access and adapt and apply; by commissioning and undertaking independent research into popular placemaking, by sharing good practice; by creating a system of accreditation for design codes and other tools; by advising government and by understanding empirically the relationship between place with neighbourly prosperity, sustainability and health.

These activities will enable us to realise our vision to:

  • Catalyse a fundamental change within and across all levels of government, communities and the development, planning and design industries, to support the creation and stewardship of popular, healthy, beautiful and sustainable places.

  • Help neighbourhoods, communities and public servants working on their behalf, to ask for and deliver new places, and manage existing places, to be popular, healthy, beautiful and sustainable.

  • Support public sector planners and the British design and development industries to be the best place makers in the world aided by improving UK and international data on happiness, health, popularity and sustainability.

To conclude on a personal note, I would like to thank Michael Gove and his predecessors as Secretary of State, including the late James Brokenshire and Robert Jenrick, for their unstinting and warm support; to the late Sir Roger Scruton for his calm and clear leadership at the start of our journey, to all members of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and our advisors; to my highly expert advisory board over the last two years as we have navigated the path from concept to legally-constituted body; and to the brilliant officials who have made it all happen. I am deeply honoured to be asked to become interim chair of the new organisation.

We have set ourselves a big ambitious goal, but it is one we must seek to work towards if we are to help families, neighbourhood, parishes, councils, landowners, housebuilders and developers easily and more seamlessly create places in which the body can prosper and the soul sing.  I look forward to working with councils and communities the length and breadth of the land as we seek to help others achieve this aim.”

Councillor Jane Ashworth, Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, also welcomed the announcement of the Office for Place establishing in the city, saying:

“We are delighted that the Office for Place is going to be based in Stoke-on-Trent. We are a city with an extraordinary built heritage and an exciting future. We will only benefit from having the Office based in the city and will give them every support as they pursue excellence in urban design and place-making that engenders local pride and connectedness.”

Further details on operational arrangements will be announced in due course.

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