Views On Design – Three Recent Decisions

It is interesting to consider what the Secretary of State has said about design matters in three recent decisions, subsequent to the July 2021 revisions to the NPPF and new national model design code (see my 27 July 2021 blog post Beauty & The Beach).

Westferry Printworks

Image courtesy of Westferry Developments

Following the quashing of his predecessor’s decision to allow the appeal by Westferry Developments Limited in relation to the non-determination by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets of its application for planning permission for 1,524 dwellings and associated development on the former Westferry Printworks site (see my 23 May 2020 blog post) the Secretary of State has now dismissed the appeal in a decision letter dated 18 November 2021.

On design he says this:

“The Secretary of State has given careful consideration to the Inspector’s analysis at IR.A.420-435 and IR.B.235-240 and IR.B.302 in relation to the effect of the scale, height and massing of the proposed development on the character and appearance of the surrounding area. For the reasons given at IR.B.235-236 and IR.B.302 the Secretary of State agrees that the appeal scheme would be harmful to the character and appearance of the area (IR.B.302).

The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s assessment at IR.A.436 that the spacing between the proposed towers and the way materials and the detailed design of the facades would bring texture and variety to the appearance of the buildings. However, for the reasons given at IR.B.235-236, the Secretary of State further agrees that the appeal scheme would result in a proposal of excessive height, scale and mass which would fail to respond to the existing character of the place. He further agrees that it would not enhance the local context by responding positively to local distinctiveness and, like the Inspector, considers that the proposal would conflict with LonP 2021 Policy D3 (IR.B.236).

For the reasons given at IR.A.436-438 and IR.B.237, the Secretary of State agrees that although the site is within a Tall Buildings Zone (TBZ) as identified in the development 6 plan, the scale, height and mass of the proposal is such that it would not make a positive contribution to the skyline nor the local townscape or achieve an appropriate transition in scale to buildings of significantly lower height. He further agrees that it would not reinforce the spatial hierarchy of the local and wider context, and would cause harm to the significance of heritage assets, would harm the ability to appreciate a World Heritage Site (WHS) and would compromise the enjoyment of an adjoining water space (IR.B.237). He further agrees at IR.A.436 that the proposal would not be well related to the street scene of Westferry Road (IR.A.436). For the reasons given, he agrees that the proposal would conflict with LonP Policy D9. He also agrees at IR.B.238 that the proposal would conflict with LP 2031 Policy S.DH1 because it would not be of an appropriate scale, height, mass, bulk and form. He further agrees, for the reasons given at IR.B.239, that the proposal would conflict with Policy D.DH6.

The Secretary of State further agrees that for the reasons given at IR.B.240, the proposal would not accord with the design principles set out in site allocation 4.12 (Westferry Printworks) of the LP 2031 and would therefore conflict with site allocation 4.12.

For the reasons given, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR.B.302 that overall, the proposal would not represent high quality design which responds to its context. He further agrees that significant weight should be attached to the harm to the character and appearance of the area because of the degree of harm that would be caused and the wide area over which that harm would be experienced (IR.B.302).

The Secretary of State has taken in to consideration the appellant’s representation of 27 August 2021, including that the proposal is representative of the highest quality design and appearance and that the development would deliver an attractive well-designed landscape masterplan that is easily accessible for pedestrians and cyclists; that trees are integral to the proposed streetscape; and that the proposals will deliver a safe, secure and attractive environment. The appellant considers that the proposed development is compatible with the emphasis in the revised Framework for building and places to be beautiful and sustainable. The Secretary of State has also taken into account the Council’s representation of 26 August 2021. This considers that the amended Framework and the requirement to consider the National Design Guide further reinforces and strengthens the Council’s case, and sets out where the Council considers that the proposal does not align with the principles in the National Design Guide.

For the reasons given in this letter, the Secretary of State considers that overall, the appeal scheme does not reflect local design policies or government guidance on design, and is not in accordance with paragraph 134 of the Framework. This view is further reinforced by his conclusions on heritage issues, below. He considers that the shortcomings of the proposal in terms of the failure to accord with the provisions of the revised Framework carry significant weight against the proposal.”

The Tulip, 20 Bury Street, London EC3

Image courtesy of Bury Street Properties

On behalf of the Secretary of State, the Minister for Housing, Christopher Pincher, dismissed an appeal by Bury Street Properties against the refusal by the City of London Corporation for planning permission for a 304 metre high visitor attraction in the City of London. His decision letter dated 11 November 2021 and inspector’s report make fascinating reading.

Zack Simons gave a great summary of the decision on clubhouse last Tuesday and you can listen again here.

There are some fascinating passages both in the decision letter and in inspector’s David Nicholson’s elegantly written report. Aside from his conclusions on heritage impact (particularly the effect of the proposal on the setting of the Tower of London world heritage site), there is a detailed analysis at paragraphs 32 to 41 of the six criteria for good design set out in paragraph 130 of the NPPF (the six criteria are unchanged from the previous version of the NPPF but it is interesting to see them used in this way):

Function

“…the Secretary of State agrees that the scheme would function properly with regard to delivering a very high level viewing experience together with some exciting fairground-style additions. He further agrees with the Inspector’s comments about the level of skill and effort which has been put into resolving the entrance and exit requirements in such a tight space and the quality of the detailing. However, he agrees with the Inspector’s concerns that the number of visitors would need to be limited to prevent overcrowding at ground level. Overall, he agrees with the Inspector that the extent to which the design would overcome the constraints (of the site) and function well is a matter which should be given moderate weight (IR14.72).

For the reasons given in IR14.73, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that little if any thought has been given to how the building would function over its extended lifetime. He notes that there are no plans for its re-use when it has served its purpose as a viewing tower, or for its demolition. He agrees that if the owner were disinclined with little incentive, it would leave either an unmaintained eyesore or a large public liability, and this counts heavily against its design quality.

• Visually attractive

The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector, for the reasons given at IR14.74, that while the quality of the presentation materials is of an exceptional standard, achieving the highest architectural quality goes well beyond the level of detailing and presentation. While he recognises that the quality of the presentation materials has made it easier to appreciate how the scheme is designed and how it impacts on its surroundings, he considers that the quality of the presentation materials is not directly relevant to the quality of the design and does not carry weight in this matter.

The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there is some comfort that the attention to detail would be followed through into the finished article (IR14.83). For the reasons given at IR14.75-14.83, he agrees with the Inspector that however carefully detailed, in terms of aesthetics the result would be visually compromised, being neither a continuous flowing object, as with the Gherkin, nor a structure of three distinct parts, as with the Monument (IR14.77). He also shares the Inspector’s reservations about the finish to the concrete of the Tulip (IR14.78-14.79). In terms of symmetry, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that while there have obviously been considerable effort and architectural dexterity employed in modelling the top of the building, the way the gondolas, slide and skywalk have been incorporated into the viewing areas has produced a compromised design that is neither a flamboyant expression nor a consistent elegance (IR14.81).

In terms of overall appearance, the Secretary of State, like the Inspector, finds too many compromises to amount to world class architecture. He considers that taking into account his conclusions in paragraphs 35-36 above and paragraph 46 below, the 8 proposal does not draw support from paragraph 126 of the Framework, which promotes the creation of ‘high quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings and places’.

Sympathetic to local character and history

“…the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the form and materials of the Tulip at its proposed height and location would be a poor and unsympathetic response to the historical context. He considers that this weighs very heavily against the quality of the design, and has reflected this in the very considerable weight attributed to the heritage harm.”

Strong sense of place

“The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector, for the reasons given at IR14.88 to 14.90, that the base of the Tulip and the Pavilion would create distinctive spaces and the double height arches between the buttresses would be attractive and welcoming alongside the green wall. He further agrees that the sense of drama and expression of structural forces at the base of the Tulip would be striking, and that the Pavilion would be a bright new building with an exciting roof garden at high level. However, he also agrees that the space around the entrances might feel uncomfortable and shares the Inspector’s reservations about the treatment of the Pavilion’s street elevation and how the ground level functions would be achieved. Overall, he agrees with the Inspector’s conclusions that while the scheme would enhance detailed elements of the existing context it would do so at a cost to openness (IR14.90).”

• Optimise the potential of the site

For the reasons given at IR14.91, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that while the scheme would develop this windfall site to the full, and considerable skill has gone into overcoming the functional requirements within such a tight site and turning these into attractively detailed elements, nevertheless, this would not overcome the loss of open space and part of the backdrop to the Gherkin.”

• Inclusive and accessible

“…while the scheme would be generally accessible to all, its inclusivity would be limited by the cost of the main attractions.”

The Secretary of State concludes on design that he “agrees with the Inspector that the approach would be a muddle of architectural ideas and would be compromised, and that the unresolved principles behind the design would mean that in many regards it would fall between two stools. He further agrees that the development would not amount to a design of outstanding quality, and that the quality of design would not be nearly high enough as to negate its harm to the settings of heritage assets.”

“The Secretary of State has gone on to consider these findings against the revised design policies in the Framework. He concludes that those design elements set out above which weigh against the scheme, both in terms of design process and outcome, have greater weight than the positive elements which have been identified. Overall, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR14.106 that the proposal would not amount to a design of outstanding quality.”

“In particular, The Secretary of State considers that the revisions to the Framework make clear that the creation of high quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings and places is fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve (Framework paragraph 126) and he considers this emphasis on design quality to be an important material consideration in this case.”

The Secretary of State has further considered whether there is conflict with government guidance on design. In the light of his conclusions above, and for the same reasons, he considers that the proposal is not in accordance with aspects of the National Design Guide, in particular those elements of the Guide dealing with context and resources. He has taken into account the representation of 7 September made on behalf of the appellant which refers to the National Design Guide and the evidence submitted to the inquiry. However, as above, because of significance of the areas of conflict, and the resultant degree of harm, overall he considers that that the proposal does not reflect government guidance on design. He considers that design as a whole carries significant weight against the proposal.”

It is well worth reading the more detailed analysis in inspector David Nicholson’s report. Given public discourse about the “beauty” agenda, reflected in the revised NPPF and national model design code, he makes this interesting comment:

“I did not pursue the notion of beautiful found in the draft NPPF. It is evident, for all the reasons that they set out, that the Appellant and its supporters consider that the scheme would be beautiful while objectors think it would not. While I certainly accept that innovative designs can be beautiful, in other regards I consider that the concept of beauty or otherwise for this appeal is in the eye of the beholder and that any further discussion is unlikely to be helpful”.

Amen to that.

Brighton Marina

Image courtesy of the Outer Harbour Development Company Partnership

The Secretary of State dismissed an appeal by the Outer Harbour Development Company Partnership in relation to the non-determination by Brighton and Hove City Council of an application for planning permission for phase two of a phased residential-led mixed use development at Brighton Harbour Outer Harbour. On design, the decision letter dated 11 November 2021 includes the following:

For the reasons given he agrees with the Inspector that the various spaces want for discipline and overall there are not enough ‘events’ or ‘signposts’ to make for a properly legible route across the site (IR11.17). Furthermore, he agrees with the Inspector that in terms of the regularity of the façade treatments, and the homogenous mass that would be created, together with the failure to provide a proper landmark or bookend, the scheme lacks the exuberance and ambition that the best of Brighton’s seaside buildings exhibit. He also agrees that it would not, therefore, be a positive contributor to its context and in many respects, it would fail to take the great opportunity the appeal site presents (IR11.22).

“The Secretary of State agrees with the Council that the updated NPPF gives even stronger weight to the need to follow local design guidance. For the reasons given in this letter, he agrees with the Council’s assessment of the areas of conflict with the UDF. He has taken into account the Appellant’s representations on the matter. However, given the significance of the areas of conflict, and the resultant degree of harm, particularly in respect of heritage, harm to the setting of the National Park and living conditions, he considers that overall there is conflict with the newly adopted UDF, this being a material consideration in its own right. In the light of this conclusion, he considers that overall the proposal fails to reflect local design policies, as required by paragraph 134 of the Framework. He further considers that it fails to reflect the elements of paragraph 130 relating to layout, the requirement to be sympathetic to local character and history, establishing a strong sense of place and providing a high standard of amenity.

The Secretary of State has further considered whether the proposal reflects government guidance on design. In the light of his conclusions above, and for the same reasons, he considers that the proposal is not in accordance with the aspects of the National Design Guide dealing with context, layout, form, appearance, external appearance and public spaces. He has taken into account the appellant’s statement in their representation of 5 August that the provisions set out in paragraph 134 of the revised Framework are covered within Mr Aspland’s POE, which sets out how the landscape design proposals meet the relevant objectives of the National Design Guide. However, as above, because of significance of the areas of conflict, and the resultant degree of harm, overall he considers there is conflict with the National Design Guide. He therefore agrees with the conclusion in the Council’s representation of 24 August that the proposal does not reflect government guidance on design.

Overall, the Secretary of State considers that the shortcomings in terms of the failure to accord with the provisions of the revised Framework carry significant weight against the proposal.”

Taken together, it is clear that care is needed to ensure that proposals are indeed consistent with the revised chapter 12 (“achieving well-designed places”) of the NPPF. But how? On Tuesday 23 November 2021 at 4.30 pm I’m participating in a Montagu Evans webinar: “Planning for beauty, or the “provably popular”. A new urban design agenda?” which I hope will explore the practical implications. I will be joining Chris Miele (Montagu Evans), Charles Banner QC (Keating Chambers) and leading architect Deborah Saunt, one of the founding directors of DSDHA. If of interest please do register here.

In consequence, there will be no Planning Law Unplanned session on Tuesday. You will have to make do with listening back to last week’s session – featuring Zack Simons, as mentioned above, along with Kate Olley, who discussed last month’s Sage case.

Simon Ricketts, 19 November 2021

Personal views et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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