Impact Story

Improving housing quality at St Helens through diversifying in-house skills

16 May 2024

At Public Practice, we believe that diversifying in-house placemaking skills can improve the quality of everyday places for everyone.

In 2022, Jack Richards joined St Helens Borough Council as an Urban Designer Officer through our Associate Programme. This marked a transformative time in the borough’s history, as it adopted a new Local Plan with ambitious housing targets.

This article delves into Richards' strategic role in the council, showing how his role and architecture skills have impacted homes and places in St Helens by supporting the new Local Plan’s aim to raise housing design standards in the borough. We explore how Jack learnt from his public sector colleagues and how he's been able to up-skill design expertise in-house.

Joining St Helens Borough Council

‘Coming into the world of house builders, you soon realise the area in which the profession that architects are involved with is so minuscule’, says Jack Richards, Urban Design Officer at St Helens Borough Council and Public Practice Associate.

Richards was part of the 2022 cohort, the first to expand to the northern regions of England with support from Homes England, making Richards St Helens’ first Associate, and indeed the first ARB-qualified architect in the council in recent memory. He brought a wealth of design experience to the planning team, its planning policy and development control teams.

Richards arrived at a crucial time for the borough: it adopted a new Local Plan in July 2022, which has ambitious housing targets, going above calculated needs with a planned 10,206 dwellings by 2037, many of which will be delivered on large sites that have been taken out of the green belt.

Jack Richards

St Helens and the new Local Plan

St Helens, part of the historic county of Lancashire but now in the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, is typical of a northern post-industrial town grappling with the legacy of its past while looking to create a secure, viable and prosperous future for its residents. The existing housing stock in St Helens reflects its industrial heritage, with many terraced houses dating from its boom period, as well as much interwar and post-war council housing.

A decline in industry has created a legacy of derelict and sometimes contaminated land. Still, St Helens also sits in the Merseyside Green Belt area, which encompasses land around Liverpool and Manchester. It is this dual context that means the identified sites in the new Local Plan are a mix of greenfield and brownfield sites, creating a complex and differing set of design considerations.

St Helens town centre

Why bring design skills in-house?

Richards comes to the council with experience working on the Colville Estate Regeneration in Hackney and Meridian Water in Enfield while at Karakusevic Carson Architects, and later the Great Jackson Street Regeneration Project in Manchester with Hodder + Partners, before co-founding his Manchester-based architecture practice Editional Studio. ‘There was very high-level support from the council to get Jack on board’, explains Kieran Birch, Head of Planning at St Helens.

‘As we were adopting a new Local Plan, planning for significant economic growth and large housing numbers; we wanted to hire Jack through the Associate Programme to make sure that those sites that came forward were absolutely of a high quality of design.’

Kieran Birch, Head of Planning at St Helens

Additionally, as Greater Manchester awaited approval of its ‘Places For Everyone’ plan, housebuilders were forced to sit on many of their sites in this region. In the Liverpool City Region, the adoption of the new Local Plan signalled to housebuilders that many sites were, in principle, acceptable. Aware of this and knowing that Public Practice was expanding its Associate Programme to the north, Birch saw this as an opportunity to support his team in terms of design and placemaking expertise: ‘I was like, yeah, let's do this, because ultimately, we can't not. We can't risk it. We don't want to be in a position where we get just standard development on these fantastic opportunity sites’.

The impact of having in-house design skills

Richards and the council are pushing the projects coming forward to be aspirational yet accessible, with a focus on providing a mix of housing, including affordable options, to uplift the wider area. This effort is crucial in some of the most deprived areas of the country. St. Helens faces challenges with viability due to lower property values. Jack's role has been pivotal in finding solutions that balance good design with viability. Senior Planning Officer and Richards’ colleague Natasha Ayres commented on the difficulty of reviewing the design of a scheme without a design background:

‘When you are holding a negotiation with a large-scale developer, it can be quite a difficult conversation to go back and say the design’s not good enough when you've not got the backing of someone like Jack.’

If you invite developers in for a meeting and you've got Jack sat around the table with you, he can really state his opinions of the design, then it gives more authority’.

Ayres also described the collaborative and educational process of determining such applications: ‘We usually sit down and have a discussion, go through the plans and have a back and forth about my opinion on it, and his opinion on it, which is really interesting’.

Even when Richards is not in the room in such negotiations, planning officers can leverage his expertise: ‘[Richards] is clearly qualified in his expertise, so you are able to go back and say, I've discussed it with the design officer, and he said, this is not good enough’.

Kieran, Jack and Eleanor from the St Helens team

Impact on homes and places

Richards continued to embed this confidence and authority on design matters in the team as he led the update of the Design Supplementary Planning Document (SPD), formally adopted in April, which focused on raising standards of housing design. The hope is that Jack's contributions will create a framework – a design guide – that can be a reference tool in decision-making processes to equip officers without a design background better. This guide is seen as an essential tool for maintaining high design standards in future projects.

In January 2024, a significant allocated site in the Local Plan received approval: Taylor Wimpey’s 514-home Gartons Lane development. On land adjacent to an old colliery that has been turned into a country park and adjacent to the borough's iconic sculpture, The Dream, Gartons Lane is a key site in the area development. The development is on an expansive open space with a Bridleway network, train links to Liverpool and Manchester, and near to the M62.

Moss Nook development, with the same typologies as Gartons Lane

Richards engaged in an iterative design process with the applicant, resulting in several revisions. He reflected on the changes made possible: ‘The main street has a tree-lined avenue all the way through it, the house types that are in key locations have additional brickwork detailing, relating to existing buildings around the site, and the layouts of the houses were revised in order to create a more coherent and well laid out development’.

There is long-term value in this more drawn-out process, and the enduring quality of the development justifies the effort.

Gartons Lane development leads the way for future development in the borough, balancing the need for profitability with the imperative for quality and community benefit. It sets a precedent for how large-scale housing projects can be developed in a way that is both viable and in harmony with the council's vision for sustainable and aesthetically pleasing environments.

Continued impacts of interdisciplinary skills and diverse teams

With the team now better equipped in design feedback, Ayres commented that this has highlighted the importance of developers engaging in pre-application advice with them. ‘Sometimes you receive an application that you've had no sight of before this point. The developer wants it to be a viable, profitable site, but that’s just one consideration for us.’

With design expertise on the team, they can push these applications to be both viable for the developers and still positively contribute to the borough and lifting housing standards; ‘you can form the development with them’.

Richards has partly thrived due to the collaborative team already in the planning office at St Helens. ‘The team are all open to other people giving the benefit of their experience and advice. Natasha, she's like a sponge. She just wants to learn as much as possible and make herself as good as she can be at her job,’ says Birch. Through workshops, Richards upskills the team, working through projects to discuss key design elements that make a successful scheme and the technical details that would realise it. This is supported by his work on the SPD, which will serve as an important reference document for officers without a design background, and is noted by colleagues such as Ayres: ‘he is setting it out starting from a large scale – what's the form, the layout, is it acceptable or are there too many dwellings – moving down in scale to the very detailed design of roof types, brick detailing, really small, minor things that, in my opinion, make or break a development.’

In reverse, Richards is learning back from the officers.

‘When I started, I could not distinguish between a good house builder layout and a bad one’, he explained. Less glamorous volume house-building schemes were a steep learning curve for Richards. They gave him the opportunity to challenge his own preconceptions of how house builders operate and what makes a good development in this sector. ‘As I learn, I can see there's potential for them to be much better or much worse, and there's so much opportunity to influence how those places work and function.’ It is evident in his experience that it is important to interrogate the quality and robustness of a design on all schemes.

St Helens town

‘St. Helen's is a really nice town, and the community is so strong, but they've been through a lot,’ explains Ayres. ‘In terms of Public Practice, it was deserved for St Helens’.

Resources are stretched in local authorities across the country, and this is felt most acutely in already deprived areas. Planners work tirelessly to make their areas better places to live and work, but as Ayres says: ‘local authorities don't have enough expertise, there's just not enough people’. With a perception of better salaries and more career opportunities in the private sector, recruiting for local authority planning roles is tough.

Richards’ role comes after the council advertised for a dual conservation and design officer a few years ago and was unable to fill the position. Birch explained that ‘in local government, you've got to grow your own a lot, and that’s why Public Practice exists’, adding that ‘knowing these people on the scheme want to move from the private sector, that's half the battle’.

It is this cross-pollination between the public and private sectors that has made Public Practice a rich and productive experience for both Associates and local authorities. Through a carefully crafted job description on the local authority side, and Public Practice’s support in providing Jack Richards with the skills and knowledge of local government that allowed him to thrive, the placement has had a real impact on both the homes and places that the teams are currently developing in the borough through live planning applications and future schemes that are safeguarded through rigorous and persuasive policy documents.

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