The urban white paper may supply some of the tools for regeneration, but they won't be much use if, as Lord Rogers says, the UK has lost a generation of urban professionals. Is he right?
All eyes were on Lord Rogers as he prepared to respond to the urban white paper. Sitting beside John Prescott at last Thursdays' launch, he waited impassively as the politicians spelled out details of the first serious attempt to legislate on urban issues in 23 years.

Then he dropped his bombshell. When asked what he considered to be the main hurdle standing in the way of his cherished renaissance, Lord Rogers replied: "The biggest problem we face in this country is lack of skills to deliver urban regeneration. Through years of underinvestment and lack of interest, we have lost a whole generation of architects, planners, engineers and other professionals dedicated to urban design and development. It will take time to regain those skills and we must not be afraid to ask for help from overseas."

Others were quick to agree with Rogers' assessment. "There are very few people who've got the wide range of skills needed to lead these regeneration projects – and even fewer who've got experience of doing it," said Chris Brown, director of Amec Developments and urban regeneration spokesman for the RICS. "My own view is we actually need a new profession – something called an urbanist." These would be people with an existing specialism – "planners, surveyors, engineers; maybe even a few architects" – trained in a wide range of disciplines, including planning, policing, education, grants and property.

Jon Rouse, chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, proposed a similar idea, calling for a new breed of professional masterplanners. "It would usually be an architect who has an additional knowledge of how planning works, how infrastructure works, and how investment works. They should be seen as the cream of the profession," he said.

Rouse adds that, where skills do exist, they do not seem to be used in the UK. "When I went to the Netherlands last week there were an amazing number of masterplans and buildings by English architects. Why aren't they doing it here?"

Gerard Maccreanor of Rotterdam-based architect Maccreanor Lavington said skills in the UK are too compartmentalised. "In my experience there is an enormous lack of knowledge in the UK about how to work together as a community to try and achieve something," he said.

Maccreanor, a highly respected architect and urban planner, escorted Lord Rogers on his fact-finding mission to the Netherlands in the run up to last year's taskforce report.

"In the UK there's a lack of understanding about each other's skills," says Maccreanor. "In the Netherlands every government official spends at least three days a year on organised trips to see what's happening in other cities. People in the UK usually have no idea what's happening in the next town."

Maccreanor said the thrust of the white paper, which devolves responsibility for urban regeneration onto regional development agencies and local authorities, makes sense. "That, in a way, is the Dutch strategy. It's not nationally led, it's locally led." But there are concerns that local bodies lack the skills to undertake the tasks handed to them by the white paper.

In the Netherlands, regeneration schemes are led by urban planners – design-aware professionals who emerge from the fields of planning, architectural or landscape design but who also have broad knowledge of issues such as finance and consultation.

The biggest problem we face in this country is lack of skills to deliver regeneration

Lord Rogers

Urban planners work closely with local authorities to draw up strategies and appoint architects and other team members. The process is fast and non-bureaucratic, with appointments made on the basis of reputation. "If you don't perform you won't get work again in that city," says Maccreanor. "Developers want to please the municipality."

The UK skills gap has not gone unnoticed. "There is a shortage of people with the necessary range of skills to drive forward the urban renaissance," said Prescott, announcing a package of measures to tackle the shortfall.

There will be a programme of international secondments to bring in expertise from abroad. Prescott has asked Sir Stuart Lipton, chairman of CABE, to chair a special committee, made up of high-level representatives of all professional institutions, to tackle the skills shortage. "It's absolutely critical," said Sir Stuart. "We're hoping to pass the skills on down the line."

The group will meet for the first time this week and Sir Stuart will deliver an action plan to the new cabinet committee on urban affairs early next spring and bang heads together to get the self-centred institutions to co-operate.

In the white paper, Prescott also called for a network of regional centres of excellence, where local authorities, regional development agencies, universities and professional bodies get together to improve skills and training. The first, the North West Centre of Excellence, or NW CoX, is to be set up early next year in Manchester.

Funded by the North West Regional Development Agency, Manchester and Liverpool councils and private firms in the region, NW CoX has linked up with Salford University, among others, to develop course modules to broaden the skills of industry professionals.

NW CoX will be based at the city's Centre for the Understanding of the Built Environment, a pioneering resource centre founded to explain architecture to local people but which has expanded to cover every aspect of the built environment. In many ways, CUBE is a prototype of Prescott's vision of joined-up regeneration. Its gallery spaces are used to present large planning applications to the public; the offices above contain the Construction Innovation Centre – a research unit dedicated to expounding the Egan agenda. "Egan is part of this as well," says Jim Chapman, chair of the NW CoX steering group.

CABE's Rouse believes that this broad approach is essential. "It's not just about urban design. We need one-stop-shops where people can get answers to questions like: how do I compulsorily purchase land? How do I do Egan?"

The urban white paper: key measures and responses

Key measures in the white paper include a new cabinet committee on urban affairs, chaired by local government minister Hilary Armstrong and supported by an urban policy unit at the DETR. Design will be placed at the heart of the planning system through a revision of PPG1, the lead planning document. Regional development agencies and local authorities will be expected to lead the urban renaissance, teaming up with communities and the private sector. Urban regeneration companies will be formed in areas of most need, with nationwide coverage by 2003. Five more Millennium Community competitions will be launched, starting with the Cardroom Estate in east Manchester. There will be a comprehensive programme to improve all parks and public spaces, including a new “Green flag” award scheme for excellence. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is given added responsibility. It will help to set up regional centres of excellence and disseminate new planning policies to local planners and regeneration organisations. Lord Rogers gave the paper a qualified welcome. “It’s a welcome step but there’s still a long way to go,” said Lord Rogers. “On the crucial issues of land assembly, land clean-up, resource allocation and statutory powers, this white paper falls short of what is going to be required to engender a real urban renaissance.” Rogers added he was disappointed by the failure to equalise VAT between new homes and refurbishments but welcomed measures to strengthen the planning system, introduce fiscal incentives for brownfield development and reinforce the importance of good design. The House Builders’ Federation described the white paper as a “welcome addition to the measures introduced in chancellor Gordon Brown’s pre-budget report,” referring to stamp duty concessions, tax credits for cleaning contaminated land and reduced VAT on conversions. But the HBF added that the new measures were “no substitute” for gap funding, which has been outlawed by the European Commission. The Town and Country Planning Association said the range of measures to encourage local public-private partnerships to regenerate could lead to confusion and lack of accountability. “Strategic planning needs to be much stronger if it is to ‘join up’ the plethora of new partnerships and initiatives, which businesses find impenetrable,” said TCPA director Gideon Amos. The urban white paper and related documents can be downloaded from the internet at