Soft Cities

Local authorities are becoming a far more intelligent client

First published in The Architects Journal, 18 March 2015 –

Colm Lacey, director of development at Croydon Council, outlines plans for delivering major public realm schemes in the borough

Describe your main roles?
My role is to guide and influence development activity in Croydon to ensure that it addresses local need. This includes acting as a developer on land we own or acquire, leading the design and delivery of major public realm schemes and attracting inward investment.

How long have you been involved with the built environment? 
I first started working in regeneration in 2002 having previously worked in various sectors including technology and education. It was while researching a photography project on movement in cities that I decided that it was something I would be interested in as a career. I did a masters at the Cities Programme at the LSE in 2003. Since then I have held various different development related roles in local authorities (Newham, Lambeth, Croydon), the HCA and City Hall. 

What are the main projects in your portfolio? 
The redevelopment of the College Green area, a major culture-led mixed use scheme around the iconic Fairfield Halls in Croydon, and the £50 million Connected Croydon programme, a series of public realm and high street focussed schemes which aim to improve key gateways and movement corridors.

Do you think design is higher up the agenda in Croydon than other boroughs? 
Yes, and rightly so. Much of what we struggle with in Croydon today centres around external perception, and much of that is fuelled by the design mistakes of the past. Central Croydon has a unique spatial form in terms of scale and dominance of infrastructure and this context demands a very careful and considered design response for new development. During the economic downturn Croydon, very wisely in my view, spent a lot of time getting its policies around key sites right with the result that we now have a series of inter-related masterplans which are relevant, progressive and up to date.  

What are your plans for Fairfield Halls, will you be looking for architects? 
We are proposing a multi-million pound refurbishment of Fairfield Halls with the aim of stripping back the building to its original design intentions and introducing more public facing activity into the building including new cafe and bar spaces. The scheme forms part of the first phase of the regeneration of the College Green area stretching from Park Lane to the south and George Street to the north. We have recently completed a procurement process for a multi-disciplinary team to help us to deliver this development and have received some excellent bids. We will announce the winner in later this month. 

What do you want from an architect?
Responsiveness and flexibility. Now is a very exciting time for public sector development in London. As cuts to local authority budgets bite, more and more authorities are starting to take a commercial approach and client work directly through their own development companies. This means that architects get a far more intelligent client, with a deeper contextual knowledge of the schemes they want to deliver, steeped in the history and politics of the local area. This creates a real opportunity for practices who can use their expertise to respond creatively and uniquely to this wider brief, and be flexible enough to maintain the quality of their response through the changes that will inevitably happen through the life of the scheme. Public authorities are a different type of client who tend to require an architect to be expert partner and critical friend, rather than a service provider with a slavish adherence to RIBA stages. 

What don’t you want?
Rigidity and ego. Often to be found together! While it is true that authorities are essentially commissioning architects for their vision and expertise, this starts to become counter-productive when it prevents or over-rides contributions from other members of the development team. 

Is the system currently geared against smaller/emerging talent and, if so, are there ways around it?
I think it probably is, with some exceptions. At Croydon we are very keen to work with smaller and/or emerging practices, particularly local ones. The philosophy of many smaller practices often lends itself better to certain portfolios of work we commission. We try to define our very specific requirements through a detailed and bespoke briefing process for each scheme in order to ensure that we get the practice we want, and they get the the client they expect. 

However, for various reasons, the public sector tend to use established frameworks, many of which feature a very similar selection of larger practices. I think there are various ways to address this, notably that a) those procuring the frameworks need to encourage smaller practices to apply and include an actual design exercise as part of the process, and b) smaller practices put the necessary time and effort into responding, notwithstanding their lack of a dedicated bidding team and exceptionally busy workloads. Some frameworks, for example the latest GLA architecture panels, have started to do this and there is a much better selection of practices than previous incarnations.

Which scheme has inspired you most?
There are a number of broad placemaking schemes, both here and abroad, which deserve a mention, but in terms of a single project that is inspiring me at the moment I think I would choose the Allies and Morrison work on the Royal Festival Hall. I think the project was incredibly subtle and true to the original form, yet transformational to the use and feel of the building and it’s impact in the surrounding area. In general I don’t think we value the art of refurbishment and retrofit as highly as we should, and this scheme is standing the test of time as a very successful example. 

Are there any architects you’d love to work with?
My answer to this changes very regularly, but I have harboured a pretty consistent desire to work with Jan Gehl. It hasn’t happened yet for whatever reason, but there is plenty of time! Otherwise, I really like the work BIG are doing on public infrastructure at the moment. I worked with them at Newham on some fantastic concept stage schemes which we unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity to progress.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
My Geography teacher at school once told me to ‘spend half as much time learning Geography as you do learning how to pass Geography exams’. I’m not sure if this was a specific reflection on my studiousness at the time, but knowing a lot more about Geography now than I did then, I still think it qualifies as good advice! Even the best schemes which don’t pass the planning test remain undelivered, and an undelivered scheme benefits very few people. . 

We try to define our very specific requirements through a detailed and bespoke briefing process for each scheme in order to ensure that we get the practice we want, and they get the the client they expect.