Design – a renewed emphasis

Tue, 01 Oct 2019

This week sees the second of the Party conferences.  In the media, other events and issues have been ahead of homes and planning, but this week has seen the emergence of new policy priorities.  The very long standing and intractable debate about need, constraints and delivery has not moved any further forward but design has achieved a new prominence.

The Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, has been promoting the idea of national design standards for housing to overhaul ‘outdated’ design guides.  He wishes to see a national standard for planning authorities to adhere to, but with local opt outs for an authority to produce its own standard.  In part, this is about creating a greener development with people at the heart of the process.

This is not a surprise.  There is a Commission devoted to the topic: Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.  In its July report is captured its main driver in this way: “Despite being immeasurably richer than our predecessors we build less beautifully than they at all the three scales of beauty that we have defined, at the level of settlement pattern, at the level of place making and at the level of building design.”  The report is well worth the time to read it.  It is a very well informed and supported report, as is indicated by the 237 footnotes.  The development industry provided some excellent evidence which underpins the report.  Take these examples.

“One developer put the point starkly in his evidence to us:

‘the quality, both architectural and build, of the houses that are being delivered in the United Kingdom by the volume house builders is, in 2019, as bad as it has been for many generations’.

No one we have spoken to seems to have really tried, let alone managed, to convince us that this is not correct. (§7.3, p30)”

 “One Planning Director commented recently:

‘If you talk to developers, there are places where they go and work, there are places where they don’t go and work. It depends on a hassle factor. (§8, p36)

There are of course only limited levers available to Government to actively set standards which yield high quality places with the best of design.

The law cannot help.  The issue is not about protecting designated areas, sites or buildings.  So, this is not the sort of issue which can be addressed by amendment to primary legislation or the making of regulations.

The policy is already there in Chapter 12 of the NPPF and is captured in the first line of §124: “The creation of high quality buildings and places is fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve.”  §127 requires that planning decisions ensure that developments establish or maintain a strong sense of place, using the arrangement of streets, spaces, building types and materials to create attractive, welcoming and distinctive places to live, work and visit.  Many other chapter are relevant.

So, it is difficult to see what change in policy would raise the bar.

The answer, is to produce a National Design Guide.  It “…illustrates how well-designed places that are beautiful enduring and successful can be achieved in practice.”  It focuses on climate, character and community within which one finds ten characteristics of well designed places.  Each is described and cross-referenced to the other characteristics.  There are good practice examples.  It has very broad brush cross-references to the NPPF.  So, in respect of ‘Mixed and integrated uses’, one is referred to no less than six different chapters of the Framework.  However, the National Design Guide is not expressed to be a ‘requirement’, nor could it be.  It is a guide.

At a fringe event at this week’s Conservative Party Conference a panel addressed the question of how to build green, beautiful and high quality homes.  One contribution was from Professor Robert Adam.  He explained that the methods to address quality exist in, for example, design codes.  More standards in the planning system is to move in the wrong direction because in the planning system: “so much gets in the way of this vision that so often you just want to give up; your clients want to throw in the towel; and lots of developers just give up before they start. It’s all too difficult.”

As we say above, the National Design Guide is not a standard nor is it a requirement.  But it will, no doubt bring about some change, not least in respect of objectives which are driven by ‘net zero’ objectives.  In our view, the route to addressing the valid points being made are really twofold.  First, the way for the Secretary of State to set the scene and create a culture of quality is to concentrate on this issue in the decisions which he makes.  It would not take very many Secretary of State decisions, which are explicit in giving very considerable weight to design issues, for the message to transmit to all participants in the process.  Secondly, as Professor Adam observed, supply and quality go together because when the need is met, quality becomes a more important purchasing criterion.

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