The urban summit will be all about high policy and big money, but the battle will be won or lost at the level of the local, the mundane and the beautiful

The agenda for the government’s Urban summit in Manchester – Delivering Sustainable Communities – is impressive. And to show it matters, members of the Cabinet will be present in force.

By definition a summit offers a view from the very top. You do not expect it to deal with the design of a kitchen extension to a small house on the outskirts of Luton. But funnily enough, design at this level is at the heart of the problem.

We may all be engaged with questions of global concern, and these will be discussed earnestly in Manchester in the kind of broad, well-meaning terms that everyone can all agree with. Yet, we know there is no simple answer to these. While architects across the world can learn from one another, the problems, and opportunities, they face are largely local, immediate, down-to-earth, at home: the stuff of bricks, mortar, finance, heritage and local planning.

In any case, we know that public policy, no matter how well meaning, moves slowly. The course of public expenditure on capital projects in health and education, for example, is pretty well set for years to come. What remains are local issues of skills, management, procurement and quality.

The questions that architects and others involved in the construction industry might raise at the summit are in many ways prosaic:

  • If a legacy of poor quality buildings and bad Urban Design is to be avoided, how can education and skills in design and construction match the accelerated pace of public investment in new schemes, especially ambitious housing developments?
  • What is the future of designers as promoters of innovation, in the face of the tendency to codify plans and designs?
  • If the money for sustainable communities was money for science, a proportion would be set aside for experiment, observation and inference. Why does a similar system not apply in the development of new building types?
  • How do we measure our success in building sustainable communities, especially in terms of taking design and livability forwards?
  • How can we mesh our ideas and skills with the development process to avoid recreating the mistakes of the past dressed up in coats of the latest architectural and political fashions?

Rhetoric about creating sustainable communities is cheap; their delivery is another matter entirely. One of the sessions at the summit that looks as if it might get somewhere close to the heart of the matter, as far as the design profession is concerned, will ask “What does a successful sustainable community look like?”

If the money for sustainable communities was money for science, a proportion would be set aside for experiment, observation and inference

What a sustainable community might look like matters, and not just to architects exercising their design skills. It matters because, as Winston Churchill reminded us in a speech given to the House of Commons in 1943, “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”. The architectural input into sustainable communities is not just about how many homes we can build to this or that environmentally sound practice guide, or how we can adhere to the latest design codes and otherwise meet various official targets. It is also about how we can create homes and settlements that will nurture and uplift the spirit of those who live in them.

Notions of spirit, grace and beauty are all too rarely discussed in architectural, much less government circles. The art of housebuilding has been in abeyance in Britain for a long while. We are only slowly learning how to build well for ordinary people in unexceptional settings, but there is a long way to go.

Inevitably, politicians, no matter how well meaning, have a weather eye on the next election, while architecture, place-making and creating communities of true and lasting value are the stuff of long-term plans, of inspiration, ideals, dreams, learning, skill, pragmatism and sheer graft. At best, our skills equip us to integrate issues of science and art, concerns of head and heart, and these are at the root of good design.

The Manchester summit shows that architecture and planning are high on the government agenda, and this can only be good; but, our job is to take in the view from the peak and then to cut through the latest jargon and dogma to negotiate the tricky, slippery and sometimes treacherous paths down from the top to shape a worthwhile, and truly sustainable world in the plains and valleys far below, beyond the next election and where ordinary people live.

Laurie Chetwood is chairman of Chetwood Associates