Everyone agrees that masterplans are essential to any self-respecting regeneration project. It's just a pity that councils and urban regeneration companies don't know what they are … 
Of all the buzzwords thrown up by the urban regeneration movement, none is more seductive than "masterplan". It sounds both grandiose and sophisticated, promising a route-map through the complex business of turning rundown urban areas into prosperous, happy communities.

No wonder local authorities and the urban regeneration companies are rushing to draw up masterplans. But increasingly, there are signs that the masterplanning process is being misunderstood and misapplied. Authorities are appointing consultants to prepare masterplans without first considering what they require, and expecting designers to solve social and economic problems with a few pen strokes on a map.

In the latest case, at the end of last month, Newcastle was forced to start again on its regeneration strategy after admitting that it had botched the process.

"Local authorities say they are looking for a masterplanner, when in fact they want a vision statement," says Jon Rouse, chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. "First an analysis of the place in question should be commissioned. Once the authority identifies what is required from the masterplan, they can then go to architects." Architect Terry Farrell is so concerned about authorities' unrealistic expectations that he has refused to tender for masterplanning jobs in the UK. "I've decided not to show any expression of interest to [UK] public bodies tendering for masterplanners," says Farrell, whose firm, Terry Farrell & Partners, has been involved in high-profile masterplanning commissions around the world. Farrell claims local authorities are asking for masterplans to be delivered quickly and for extremely low budgets. Often, he adds, all they will pay for is an aerial perspective of a plot of land, when what they really need is a sophisticated 10-year regeneration strategy.

Farrell's withdrawal from UK masterplanning follows bad experiences bidding for council regeneration schemes in Sheffield and Newcastle, which were "unsatisfactory because the design briefs were not properly prepared and consequently lacked direction". Authorities were not clear about which areas were intended for development or what they expected to achieve.

David Prichard, of architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, agrees. "Clients expect architects to write the brief as well as design solutions to often ill-defined problems." Brian Ham, director of the Department of Enterprise, Environment and Culture for Newcastle council, sympathises with Farrell and Prichard. "Councils can find it difficult to articulate what it is they want to achieve from a masterplan," he says. "There needs to be a healthy tension between what the council wants and the advice that hired consultants can bring. But it can be difficult to strike the balance." Here, Ham speaks with experience (see the box, "How Newcastle fell foul of residents" overleaf).

So what exactly is a masterplan? The term, which has not yet made it into most dictionaries, leaped to prominence two years ago with the publication of Lord Rogers' urban taskforce report. The need for adequate masterplanning was one of its seven main recommendations. This was followed up in last November's urban white paper, which encouraged all regeneration projects to employ masterplans. The white paper also contained a useful definition of what a masterplan should do: "Masterplans are about setting out a vision for an area undergoing change and a strategy for implementing that vision. They are about taking the initiative in terms of design, layout, houses, jobs and services in order to build or strengthen communities." It added: "Critically, they must show local people what an area might look like in the future." In their rush to transform their fortunes through masterplanning, authorities appear to have concentrated on the last point – getting designers to prepare pretty pictures of shiny new communities – at the expense of the tougher social and economic challenges.

Clients expect architects to write the brief as well as design solutions to often ill-defined problems

David Prichard, MacCormac Jamieson Prichard

"Too often, the briefing document turns out to be a spatial report for a development site rather than a wider plan for regeneration," says Robert Cowan, director of the Urban Design Group, a charity that campaigns for better urban design. "To be effective, the masterplan must relate to the real world – it is more than a static plan of how developments might be distributed. Transport, the needs of local residents and the economic environment all need to be considered," says Cowan.

Kevin Murray, director of planning at urban designer EDAW and the former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, agrees. "Architecture is very often one of the least important points of a masterplan, yet planners have a tendency to dive into the design element straightaway," he says, adding that architects are not equipped to tackle all aspects of a masterplan. "Some architects will design a masterplan around a landmark building. Many do not have the skills to work out community needs, transportation costs and investment costs." Murray called on universities to address the masterplanning skills shortage by teaching the subject to architecture students.

You get what you pay for
Then there is the problem of cost expectation. CABE's Rouse says some authorities expect a complete regeneration strategy for £30,000 where, in practice, this sum should only buy the most basic outline plan.

EDAW's Murray says a comprehensive masterplan costs between £100,000 and £400,000, because of the wide range of professionals that should contribute. Liverpool Vision, one of the three pilot urban regeneration companies set up in the wake of the urban taskforce report, paid Skidmore Owings Merrill £800,000 for its plan. In return, it got a 200-page A3-sized report setting out how the city could achieve its aspirations (below).

But Liverpool Vision is very much an exception; more often, the public sector is fearful of committing large sums to masterplanning because regeneration timescales are so long and the benefits of the investment may not become apparent for many years. To get round this, CABE is pressing for the costs of masterplanning to come out of local authorities' capital investment funds. At the moment, the costs come from councils' general revenue – effectively income from the government. If the funds came under the heading of investment, it would mean the money was being borrowed, so making it easier to swallow the cost.

Authorities are also accused of using masterplanning competitions as a way of getting ideas on the cheap. Ricky Burdett, chair of the cities, architecture and engineering programme at the London School of Economics and one of the key figures in the urban taskforce, says pilot urban regeneration company Sheffield One used last year's competition to gather information about its own city. "During the competition, Sheffield One asked the architects to provide an economic strategy for the whole city." This work should have been done by the urban regeneration company itself, Burdett says.

To get a masterplan requires detailed socio-economic analysis of the area earmarked for development

Ricky Burdett, urban taskforce

Sheffield One was set up in July 1999 and launched a competition to masterplan the city centre the following month.

Consultants interviewed for the Sheffield job have privately complained to Building that, in the interviews, they were asked what kind of industries the city should be attracting and how they would create new jobs – questions they felt unqualified to answer.

Last month the winning masterplan, produced by giant US practice Koetter Kim and regeneration expert Robert Maguire Consulting, was unveiled. Speaking to local magazine Yorkshire Insider last year, Robert Maguire said: "Masterplan is a misnomer. This is a framework for investment and about creating the conditions for renewal and growth." Architects shortlisted for the Sheffield job say the winning plan is short on design and long on economic strategy, suggesting a degree of confusion about what Sheffield One was looking for.

Everyone agrees that clearer guidance on how to produce and manage masterplans is urgently needed if the UK is to catch up with the quality of regeneration schemes on the continent. CABE is taking the lead here, lobbying the government to include a guide on getting the right masterplan in PPG1, the lead planning document, which is currently under review.

Burdett believes that clients need to become more intelligent when it comes to commissioning masterplans, and not transfer all responsibility to consultants. "To get a masterplan requires detailed socio-economic analysis of the area earmarked for development," he says.

CABE’s guide to getting the most from your plan

  • Be realistic. Figure out the physical limits of the area you want to change and recognise that there are wider socio-economic influences beyond the core physical boundaries
  • Analyse the physical and economic state of the area
  • Don’t jump to purely physical solutions – a masterplan should integrate the physical, social and economic
  • Recognise that a high degree of flexibility must go into the physical plan – some developments will need to be phased in
  • Establish the non-negotiable elements of the plan. If you are creating a new square, say, a road may have to be closed, and this is something concrete to work around
  • Understand the relationship between buildings and spaces. You cannot tackle either separately
  • Start consulting with the local community from an early stage
  • Think about the delivery mechanism for the plan. Are the funds in place to research the project? Who will deliver it?
  • Be prepared to hire a range of multidisciplined professionals
  • How Newcastle fell foul of residents and Liverpool spent six months preparing its masterplan

    Newcastle council learned the hard way how not to approach masterplanning when residents rejected its regeneration proposals. In July 1999, the council decided to regenerate a 140 ha tranche of the city under an initiative dubbed Going for Growth. This became the basis of a masterplanning brief calling for “a holistic approach to regeneration”. One source described the brief as the “worst of all time – two pages of text and a map”. Nevertheless, last February the city appointed Richard Rogers Partnership masterplanner, paying it £40,000 for its work. Residents revolted when they learned that the Going for Growth brief proposed the demolition of 6000 homes. Lord Rogers was forced to clarify that this proposal predated his involvement in the scheme. In a letter to Building, he wrote: “We believe that any work indicating defined areas or specific numbers can only be premature and unhelpful.” Newcastle is now creating a new regeneration plan, employing what it calls a “greater sense of collaboration” with consultants and residents. It will be launched next month. Regeneration company Liverpool Vision had a better time. Set up in July 1999, its first move was to recruit urban designer Jo Berridge of Toronto-based Urban Strategies and economic consultant Alan Burk to advise on the development of a regeneration programme. It also recruited Building Design Partnership (for £50,000) to produce a study of the city’s economy. After spending six months compiling socio-economic research, the company launched a competition to find a masterplanner. The shortlisted firms were given 10 weeks to come up with preliminary proposals. They had to identify what in the city’s physical structure was hindering potential growth and were asked to demonstrate that their strategies would make a difference by 2007/8. Skidmore Owings Merrill won the competition in January last year and was given six months to come up with a strategic urban framework – the term “masterplan” was deliberately avoided. During that time, SOM worked in consultation with a panel of 350 residents. The designers and residents had weekly meetings until the final framework document was unveiled last June.