For The Future

are probably the three words I most associate with the planning system in England, since you asked.

The main part of this post is a commentary by special guest and fellow Town partner Duncan Field on the Government’s Planning for the future white paper, published on 6 August 2020.

But before we get to that, some initial comments from me on timescales.

The consultation period on the white paper ends on 29 October 2020.

The aspiration in the document is that (subject to time extensions for recent plans) new local plans should be in place by the end of this Parliament, so by Spring 2024. Given that those local plans will take up to 30 months to be put in place under the new system proposed, the necessary primary legislation will need to have been passed and in force, with any necessary accompanying Regulations and guidance, by Autumn 2021.

By way of proxy for legislative timescales, the less ambitious Housing and Planning Act 2016 and Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 each took around seven months to pass through the necessary Parliamentary stages, which would mean introducing a Bill by the beginning of 2021. One perhaps has to look back to the Localism Act 2011 for planning legislation of equivalent complexity. That took eleven months from soup to nuts.

Something is going to have to give – either there is going to be rushed consideration of these proposals, which still need significant refinement, or that “end of this Parliament” aspiration is going to have to be reconsidered before long.

But in any event, things can be expected to move quickly.

On the subject of timescales, of course there are shorter term measures proposed in MHCLG’s accompanying document “Changes to the current planning system: Consultation on changes to planning policy and regulations”, which is the subject of a shorter consultation period, until 1 October.

The timescales in that document for the four sets of proposals within it are as follows:

· changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need: “Following the outcome of this consultation, the Government will update the planning practice guidance with the revised standard method for assessing local housing need.”

· securing of First Homes through developer contributions in the short term until the transition to a new system: “We intend to begin by making planning policy changes, to ensure that clear expectations are set. However, to ensure that First Homes are delivered, nationwide, on a consistent basis, we are keeping under consideration the option to strengthen the policy through primary legislation at a future date. We also intend to introduce an exemption from the Community Infrastructure Levy for First Homes, to enable delivery prior to wider developer contribution reform. This would require changes to regulations. Lastly, we are also considering significant reforms to the system of developer contributions. We will ensure that First Homes will continue to be delivered under a reformed approach”

· supporting small and medium-sized builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing: “Following the consultation, a decision will be taken on whether to proceed with this approach. If it is taken forward, this could be through the introduction of a Written Ministerial Statement in the Autumn.”

· extending the current Permission in Principle to major development: “Following this consultation, if we introduce Permission in Principle by application for major development, we aim to introduce amending regulations this Autumn, with the regulations expected to come into force by the end of the calendar year. Changes to the fee structure would require separate changes to the Planning Fees Regulations.”

The white paper is in my view a considered document and less radical than might have been expected, although certainly ambitious in its breadth. Proposals spin out of it, one after the other, often just in a sentence or two. There are of course areas where there needs to be further thought or explanation. For me, there are two big ones in particular:

⁃ the way in which housing numbers are to be set by the Government for individual authorities and how to resolve the inevitable tension between a swifter examination process and a process that allows proposals in a plan (and the basis for proposals not being in the plan) to be properly tested (particularly where the plan is going to be the equivalent of a series of outline planning permissions for its growth areas);

⁃ how this new infrastructure levy is really going to work and how obligations are going to be addressed that presently are dealt with by way of section 106 agreement, in particular the delivery of affordable housing.

There will also have to be a clear working through of the respective powers and responsibilities across the system, as between government, strategic authorities, local planning authorities and neighbourhoods.

I must say that I found Chris Katkowski QC’s explanations in the latest Have We Got Planning News For You episode really helpful in bringing the proposals, and the thinking behind them, to life. And, boring to say, there is no substitute for reading the actual document.

We are going to drill down into the likely practical implications of the proposals in our next webinar, arranged for 5 pm on 13 August. Do register here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_ddkW3FG1SeS4j1XuV5KK6A . The panel will be:

• Chris Young QC (barrister, No 5 Chambers)

• Steve Quartermain CBE (consultant, Town Legal LLP)

• Catriona Riddell (Catriona Riddell & Associates)

• Duncan Field (partner, Town Legal LLP)

• Thea Osmund-Smith (barrister, No 5 Chambers)

• Gordon Adams (Battersea Power Station)

• myself

Now, Duncan’s thoughts, as follows:

Planning for the Future begins with some fairly combative language, referring to “our outdated and ineffective planning system” and drawing comparisons with a patched up building which needs to be torn down.

In truth the Government’s proposals do not go quite as far as that and in practice, to continue with the same analogy, we might end up with a better and more sustainable outcome if we were to save the parts of the “patched up building” which have architectural merit. The biggest problem with the current system is not that it is all inherently bad but that it is not sufficiently resourced; it is a pity that planning reforms by successive Governments have never really grappled with that central issue. The good news on this occasion is that the new system will be accompanied by a comprehensive skills and resources strategy for local authorities and key participants in the system; let’s hope the Government delivers on that.

Further on in the document there are some powerful words from the Secretary of State which bring home just how important a time this is for the planning system and what it can deliver.  It is hard to disagree with any of this:

The outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the economic and social lives of the entire nation. With so many people spending more time at home than ever before, we have come to know our homes, gardens and local parks more intimately. For some this has been a welcome opportunity to spend more time in the place they call home with the people they love. For others – those in small, substandard homes, those unable to walk to distant shops or parks, those struggling to pay their rent, or indeed for those who do not have a home of their own at all – this has been a moment where longstanding issues in our development and planning system have come to the fore.

Onto the objectives for reform, which can be summarised as follows:

• Reduce complexity and with it, uncertainty and delay.

• In doing so, deliver a more competitive market with a greater diversity of developers.

• Remove the discretionary nature of individual development management decisions and replace it with a rule-based system of development control.

• In doing so, reduce planning risk and the cost of capital for development.

• Reduce the time it takes to produce a local plan.

• Simplify assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts.

• Restore public trust and encourage more widespread public participation.

• Get better at unlocking growth and opportunity, encouraging beautiful new places, supporting town and city centres and revitalising existing buildings as well as new development.

• Harness digital technology.

Linked to this is a long list of desired outcomes including the user experience, home ownership, access to infrastructure, economic growth and innovation.

We then come to the main proposals which the Government intends to bring forward:

1. Local plans

a. These will be simplified so that they only identify land for development, the sites that should be protected and the development that can take place.  There would be three categories of land:

i. Growth – sites suitable for comprehensive development which, once allocated, will have outline approval for development.

ii. Renewal – sites where smaller scale development is appropriate, which would benefit from a statutory presumption in favour of development once allocated.

iii. Protected – sites with environmental or cultural characteristics where development should be subject to more stringent controls.

An alternative approach might be a more binary system (growth and renewal with permission in principle versus protected areas) or more scope for the existing development management approach in areas other than those allocated for “growth”.

b. Plans should become digital, visual and map-based, interactive and data rich, using a standardised approach to support open access.

c. Local plans (and neighbourhood plans) will be more focused on giving clear area-specific requirements for land that is allocated for growth and renewal including design codes; generic development management policies and duplication of national policy and guidance needs to be avoided.

d. Plans should be subject to a single test of achieving sustainable development instead of the current tests for soundness and the duty to co-operate.  There would be no Sustainability Appraisal and instead this would be replaced by a simplified process for assessing the environmental impact of plans.

e. Local plans would meet housing need by reference to a standard method for establishing housing requirements developed and set at a national level; this would mean distributing the national housebuilding target of 300,000 new homes annually, and one million homes by the end of the Parliament, taking into account local factors including constraints, opportunities and affordability.  The Housing Delivery Test would stay.

f. Local plans would have to be brought forward by reference to a fixed 30 month statutory timescale with six stages and individual timings for each stage.

g. Local planning authorities would be under a duty to review their plans every 5 years; powers of intervention would remain such as the issuing of directions and preparation of a plan in consultation with local people.

h. Neighbourhood Plans to be retained but with more focus on form of development to reflect the proposals for Local Plans.

This is a refreshingly clear vision of what local plans might become and a digitalised system would be transformative for the user experience and public engagement. However, there are some big questions around how to encourage strategic planning across local authority boundaries for the bigger than local issues (the Government is open to suggestions), how in practice the “sustainable development” test would work and, linked to that, how robust the new environmental assessment process will be.

Equally as important, what will the effect of these promised changes be on current local plans? Without further incentives or assurances around their continuing effect in any transitional arrangements as we switch over to the new system, there must be a real concern they will be halted in their tracks.

2. Development Management

a. As indicated above, growth areas allocated in a local plan would have outline permission for the principle of development; details would be agreed and full planning permission achieved through a new reserved matters process, a local development order or possibly, on bigger sites, via a development consent order.

b. Renewal areas would benefit from a new statutory presumption in favour of development and would benefit from either a new automatic consenting route where specified forms of development meet design and other prior approval requirements, a faster planning application process or a local or neighbourhood development order.

c. Proposals which do not conform to the local plan in renewal and growth areas could still come forward, exceptionally, through a planning application process.

d. In protected areas, proposals will have to be brought forward via a planning application (subject to any permitted development rights or local development orders) and will be judged against the NPPF.

e. Generally, the development management process will be based on a more streamlined end-to-end process with firm deadlines for determination through a mix of:

i. Digitalisation;

ii. Data access;

iii. Shorter and standardised applications with reduced or limited supporting material;

iv. A standardised approach to technical information, conditions and developer contributions; and

v. Delegation of detailed planning decisions to planning officers where the principle of development has been established.

f. The Government will build in incentives for prompt determination of applications by local planning authorities such as deemed approval of some applications or refunds of application fees.

g. The process will still be subject to call-in powers and appeals but the Government expects the volume of call-ins and appeals to reduce over time.

h. There will be encouragement for faster build out by making provision in local plans/design codes for a variety of development types by different builders (picking up on the conclusions of the Letwin Review).

This vision for the new development management system feels less clear: permission in principle and outline planning permission are used interchangeably in places as a consequence of land being allocated for growth; however, over and above this, there appears to be provision for a “full” planning permission through a new reserved matters system or local development orders or even development consent orders. Would this not remove a lot of the benefit of allocating land for growth?  There is also a myriad of possible ways in which land allocated for renewal might gain consent and, in the meantime, we retain the current planning application process as well.  If the Government is not careful it might add to the complexity of development management.

Certainly, we can all get on board with the much-needed streamlining of the development management process from end to end, with more standardisation, reducing the quantity of application documents and increased use of digital technology.  However, resourcing this change will be key to its success.

3. Building better, building beautiful and sustainable places

Design and place-making is still high up on the Government’s political agenda.  Proposals in this space include the following:

a. A National Model Design Code to be published in the Autumn which will work alongside the National Design Guide and the Manual for Streets; together these are expected to have a bearing on design of new communities and to guide decisions on development. (This will be an early entrant into the current planning system.)

b. Local guides and codes are to be prepared wherever possible to reflect local character but need to have input from the local community before they are given any weight in the planning process.

c. A new expert body will be set up to help local authorities make use of design guidance and codes, as well as performing a wider monitoring and challenge role for the sector.

d. The much-heralded “fast-track” for beauty will be achieved through:

i. The NPPF – which will have provision for schemes that comply with local design guides and codes to be approved quickly;

ii. Legislation to require that sites in growth areas should have a masterplan and site-specific code as a condition of the permission in principle which is granted through allocation in the local plan; and

iii. Widening permitted development rights through the use of “pattern books” for different building types.

e. The NPPF will require targeted consideration of measures to support climate change mitigation and adaptation. (In our view, policy has been playing catch-up on climate change for some time – this is long overdue and should be welcomed.)

f. There will be a quicker and simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts, stepping away from the current frameworks such as Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal and Environmental Impact Assessment.  The key requirements for the new framework will be:

i. early consideration;

ii. clear and easy to understand; and

iii. avoidance of duplication.

A further consultation on this is expected in the Autumn.

g. The Government intends to review and update the planning framework for listed buildings and conservation areas, to ensure their significance is conserved while allowing, where appropriate, sympathetic changes to support their continued use and address climate change.

h. Improvements to the energy efficiency standards for buildings will be brought forward to help meet the 2050 net zero commitment.

The intention here is clear and consistent with the recent focus of the Government on design and beauty in the planning system.  The area with the most loaded questions is the promised framework for assessing environmental impact; in our view, there is clear scope to reduce the voluminous and highly technical nature of the current framework but now is not the time to water it down in terms of its ambit and its protective function.  We will have to wait until the Autumn to find out more.

4. Infrastructure

There are radical proposals for the funding of infrastructure:

a. Replace S106 obligations and the current version of Community Infrastructure Levy with a new Infrastructure Levy calculated as a fixed proportion of the development value above a threshold, with a mandatory, nationally-set rate or rates (potentially variable by area).

b. This new levy will be charged on the final value of a development (or an assessed sales value where the development is not sold, e.g. build to rent) by reference to the rate in force when planning permission is granted.  This would have to be paid before occupation.

c. Local authorities would be able to borrow against Infrastructure Levy revenues so that they could forward fund infrastructure.

d. The London Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy and similar strategic Community Infrastructure Levies in combined authorities could be retained.

e. The Infrastructure Levy Could be extended to capture changes of use without additional floor area and through permitted development.

f. The new levy would be extended to fund affordable housing.  Allowance would be made for in-kind delivery on-site, which could be made mandatory where an authority has a requirement, a capability to deliver on site and wishes to do so. In those circumstances local authorities would be able to specify the form and tenure of the on-site provision.  The Government anticipates that there would need to be a considered policy approach to the risk of imbalance between the value of the agreed in-kind delivery and the fluctuating nature of the levy liability, contingent as it will be on the development value.

g. Local authorities could be given more freedom on how they spend the levy.

There is a lot of detail to be worked through here.  Setting the new levy at a level which does not deter development (and indeed land supply through the price paid by developers) will be key and a difficult issue to judge.  

The Government will also need to be scrupulous in ensuring that affordable housing continues to come forward using levy funds and still comes forward as part of mixed and balanced communities.

The removal of the blunt and inflexible tool that we have come to love or hate in the form of CIL is welcome in our view and with it the removal of a considerable amount of confusing and time-consuming red tape.  For practical reasons – not least delivering site-specific solutions for development – we are not sure we are witnessing the end of S106 obligations or an equivalent just yet but they will undoubtedly be slimmed down.

5. Delivery

The consultation document ends with a few final proposals and thoughts from Government on the delivery of a new planning system:

a. As a first step there is a parallel consultation on changes to the current system including extension of Permission in Principle (by application to major development), the standard method for assessing local housing need, First Homes and supporting SME builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing. More here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/changes-to-the-current-planning-system

b. The Government sees a potential delivery role for development corporations.

c. The reforms are considered likely to reduce judicial review risk.

d. The need for resources and skills is recognised and will be addressed through a comprehensive strategy.  In principle, the Government’s view is that the cost of operating the new planning system should be principally funded by the beneficiaries of planning gain – landowners and developers – rather than the national or local taxpayer.  Funding may also be achieved through application fees and potentially the new infrastructure levy or- to a limited extent – general taxation.

e. The Government intends to strengthen the powers for local planning authorities to enforce against breach of planning control and provide incentives for enforcement action to be taken.  

To end where this overview began, resources are key and a comprehensive strategy to ensure the sufficiency of funding and skills will be very welcome, as long as it does what it says on the tin. This will be vital to the success of the new system.

We know now what the Government wants to achieve. It is up to all of us in the sector to help them make it work and if parts of the system are worthy of retention for their “architectural” merit, to explain why that is, with reference to the Government’s objectives.

Thanks Duncan.

Simon Ricketts, 7 August 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Beauty Duty

The accelerated planning green paper will be published in November 2019.” (MHCLG press release, 1 October 2019).

Later this year I will publish a White Paper on planning reform, an objective of which will be a simpler and faster system for the benefit of everyone, including homeowners, and small and medium-sized builders” (Robert Jenrick, 13 January 2020, during Commons debate on new homes).

These proposals have certainly lost their acceleration.

Of course the white paper could emerge at any time now, or be part of the now traditional cohort of budget-accompanying announcements on 11 March 2020 (MIPIM week too…). But actually why not take a little longer so as to reflect on the recommendations in the final report of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, Living with Beauty: Promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth (30 January 2020)?

For a report on beauty it’s a bit of a beast, at 190 pages.

I blogged here on the appointment of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission in April 2019 and here on the Commission’s July 2019 report.

As with the interim report it is a wide ranging and discursive read, prickling with all manner of recommendations. It will take some time to assimilate. I almost pulled up at the first fenestration, but spent my commutes yesterday cantering once through the whole document, before then reading the “planning” section in more detail. (I had been to three preparatory discussion sessions held by Commission member Adrian Penfold, who led on this strand. The sessions were in fact extremely interesting with a wide range of perspectives and Adrian obviously has unparalleled experience – the discussion was practical, and action-orientated). I noted down some wider questions and dipped back into the main document in more detail this morning to see if they had been addressed.

The report sets out its overall aims in three exhortations:

• Ask for Beauty

• Refuse Ugliness

• Promote Stewardship

These aims are to be “embedded in the planning system and in the culture of development, in such a way as to incentivise beauty and deter ugliness at every point where the choice arises” by way of eight objectives:

1. Planning: create a predictable level playing field

2. Communities: bring the democracy forward

3. Stewardship: incentivise responsibility to the future

4. Regeneration: end the scandal of left behind place

5. Neighbourhoods: create places not just houses

6. Nature:re-green our towns and cities

7. Education: promote a wider understanding of placemaking

8. Management:value planning,count happiness, procure properly

Each objective leads to a series of recommendations, or “policy propositions”.

For instance these are the ten policy propositions under the “planning” objective, even though many of the policy recommendations under the other objectives would equally call to be delivered by way of changes to the planning system. I don’t see any alternative to setting out the “planning” propositions almost verbatim:

Policy Proposition 1: ask for beauty. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) defines the planning system’s purpose as ‘to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.’

a. References to the importance of ‘placemaking’ and ‘the creation of beautiful places’ should be placed in chapter 2 as well as in chapter 12 of the NPPF, particularly in paragraphs 7 to 10, at the end of the first sentence of paragraph 17 and in paragraphs 72(c) on new settlement, 73 on buffers and 91 on green infrastructure. Beauty and placemaking should be strategic and cross-cutting themes.

b. References to ‘good design’ in the NPPF should be replaced with ‘good design and beautiful places’ particularly in the section on ‘achieving sustainable development’

c. Beauty and placemaking should be embedded more widely across relevant government strategies. They should also feature in relevant forthcoming government legislation, such as the Environment Bill.

d. We have heard much support for the government’s recent guidance document Design: process and tools, as well as its new National Design Guide (one public sector planner told us it ‘would make things a lot easier’). We warmly endorse both the National Design Guide’s aim – to illustrate ‘how well-designed places

that are beautiful, enduring and successful can be achieved in practice’ – and its contents. We particularly commend its focus on character and identity.

d. Local planning authorities should take up the strong encouragement in paragraph 34 to use the National Design Guide to prepare their own local plan policy, guidance and area-wide or site-specific codes in line with clear evidence of local preferences (see chapter 7).

• Where relevant, a similar aim should be embedded in other planning policy guidance.

• The National Design Guide could be improved further with even more emphasis and more visual explanation on façade quality and materials (the importance of elevational proportions, symmetry, window treatment, storey heights and a façade with both complexity and composure are not mentioned). The guide could illustrate more the importance of block size, type and structure (above all blocks with clear backs and fronts and the way in which houses face the street so that boundaries contain façades). The guide could also focus more on height to width (or enclosure) ratio and street proportions, grain and plot size and effective ways to meet the challenges of parking provision. It should contain even more on street trees and the need for a hierarchy of public squares, streets and green spaces.

e. Paragraph 79e of the NPPF states that planning permission can be given for isolated houses in the countryside where design is ‘truly outstanding or innovative’. This opens a loophole for designs that are not outstanding but that are in some way innovative in these precious sites. The words ‘or innovative’ should be removed. In cases like these, we should always insist on outstanding quality.

Policy proposition 2: expect net gain not just ‘no net harm.’ The planning system operates on the principle of minimising harm. The important paragraph 130 of the NPPF should be reworded to say:

‘Development that is not well designed should be refused. Well-designed development will take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions, be properly served by infrastructure and will contribute towards meeting the needs of the wider community. It will also take into account…’

Policy Proposition 3: say no to ugliness. We have found good examples of schemes being turned down by the Planning Inspectorate on well-argued design grounds after developers appealed against rulings from local authorities.

Such examples should be publicised, celebrated and used to encourage beautiful and popular placemaking and they should encourage neighbourhoods or local media to argue for less unpleasant development. Local planning authorities should feel the full support of government when they reject ugliness. Government and the Planning Inspectorate should have a consistent message about placemaking.

Policy Proposition 4: discover beauty locally. Local authorities, neighbourhood forums and parishes should be strongly encouraged to embed the national requirement for beauty and placemaking from the outset, before any decisions are made about allocating land or making development control decisions. What beauty means and the local ‘spirit of place’ should be discovered and defined empirically

and visually by surveying local views on objective criteria as well as from deliberative engagement with the wider local population. Where appropriate, more detailed design codes should also be included in local plan documents, supplementary planning documents or neighbourhood plans. […]

Policy Proposition 5: masterplan, don’t plan by appeal. Local planning authorities should be encouraged to take a more strategic and less reactive approach to their local plans. Steps to incorporate this would include:

• More clarity on what and where. The ‘plan-making’ section of the NPPF should make it clear in paragraph 16 that plan proposals should provide a clear indication of the scale and design features of development that is proposed, particularly on strategic sites. This could be elaborated in paragraph 23 (which deals with broad locations for development) and in the ‘non-strategic policies’ section in paragraphs 28-30.The soundness test in paragraph 35 should be reworded to read ‘d) consistent with national policy – enabling the delivery of sustainable development, including the creation of beautiful places..’;

• Thinking more broadly about optimisation. We recommend the addition of text in paragraph 123 of the NPPF on the importance of area-based masterplanning in assessing and meeting the need to optimise, whilst also creating beautiful places. The piecemeal site by site approach leads to poor outcomes.

• A process review. We recommend a review of the way in which sites are identified including the ‘call for sites’ process. The review should consider which process changes could reduce the adversarial consequences of the current approach, reduce the resource-pressure on local authorities and better encourage ‘the right growth in the right place.’

• A timescale review. It takes too long to prepare local plans, supplementary planning documents and area action plans. We recommend a detailed review of how the process of creating local plans can be speeded up. Ultimately, local plans should be quicker to write and ‘living documents’ which can be updated more readily when circumstances change.

• Thinking long-term as well as medium-term. We understand and respect why the government has increased the focus on five-year land supply. This has had the very welcome consequence of obliging councils to have local plans in place. However, a longer time frame is necessary when thinking about new settlements, urban extensions and infrastructure investment. We recommend that the phrase ‘within the context of a longer 30-year vision is’ added to paragraph 22 of the NPPF.

[ ]

Policy Proposition 6: use provably popular form-based codes. Local planning authorities should develop more detailed design policy interventions, such as provably popular form-based codes and

pattern books, as a basis for considering planning applications. We believe that form-based codes and non-negotiable infrastructure including green infrastructure (as with the Community Infrastructure Levy) are often appropriate ways to embed quality in a popular and predictable way. [ ]

• The government’s July 2019 guidance on plan-making…should be more specific, requiring a minimum level of detail.

• The local plan should apply the approach taken in the national planning practice guidance on design at the local level, reflecting local circumstances, by setting clear area-wide design criteria, and local planning authorities should consider adopting a co-ordinating code approach in the local plan, particularly for strategic sites. It should also define the requirement for masterplanned area action plans in order to coordinate development across sites in any defined growth area, as well as the application of a co-ordinating code or similar approach to allocated non-strategic sites. These should be prepared as supplementary planning documents or in Neighbourhood Plans prior to the commencement of any planning application process.

• Pages 23 to 28 of the government’s July 2019 guidance on plan- making deal with the evidence required when preparing a local plan. Other than ‘conservation and the historic environment’ there is no section which deals with evidence that might support design policies, such as character assessment. This should be included.

• The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012 set out the legal requirements for local planning authorities when preparing local plans and supplementary planning documents. They specify their form and content very generally. There is no specific reference to design. There is scope to specify the minimum design policy level for different types of site.

• The government’s Design: process and tools guidance gives helpful and positive advice to local planning authorities on design policy and its associated tools. It also provides useful advice on assessment frameworks, design review and effective community engagement on design. The ‘What role can non-strategic

policies play?’ section refers specifically to the establishment

of local and/or detailed design principles for an area, including design requirements for site specific allocations. The wording might however be strengthened to move from encouragement (‘can’) to something closer to requirement, (‘should’ or, in some circumstances, ‘must’).

Policy Proposition 7: localise the National Model Design Code. We support the government’s proposal to publish a National Model Design Code, which will function as a template for local authorities to develop, their own codes in accordance with local needs and preferences and to support better urbanism and mixed use…

The model code should include the following elements:

• Design guidance relying on numbers, specifications and images more than words. The model code should define the segments, ratios, façade patterns or cross-sections that make for popular and well-designed places. Local authorities would not be required to accept these definitions in their own codes, but they would form

a template to help local planning authorities understand what they need to define. The national code should provide measured and illustrated exemplars of how all these good principles come together in street segments, public space segments, building and street patterns. These can be stylistically neutral and should take account of parking and servicing.

• Guidance on what goes where. A street hierarchy, and the difference between a good central, urban or suburban street (including levels of mixed use), needs to be set out and illustrated so that it is clear where different elements of guidance are most relevant in different types of place.

• Guidance on scales of development. The National Model Design Code should give examples of what is relevant for various scales of development so that local authorities are helped to be clear about what is (and is not) being scrutinised

• Guidance on turning the The National Model Design Code into a local code. The national code should contain a clear and straightforward suggested process to help turn it into local policy. This will need

to include surveying local preferences empirically and should lay great weight on harmonising with local vernaculars.

[ ]

Policy Proposition 8: require permitted development rights to have standards. There is scope for targeted and carefully drafted use of permitted development rights to free up the delivery of new development, whilst ensuring it achieves better placemaking. But we are not there yet. One way to keep the supply-side advantages of permitted development rights but with some basic standards, would be to move minimum home or room sizes into building regulations. This would prevent some of the worst excesses that have come to light in office to residential conversion. We support this but it is not enough.

The government should evolve a mechanism whereby meaningful local standards of design and placemaking can efficiently apply to permitted development rights. This is not possible at present under the current legal arrangement. It should be. Where it is appropriate, to build housing via permitted development rights or permission in principle should require strict adherence to a very clear (but limited) set of rules on betterment payment and design clearly set in the local plan, supplementary planning document or community code as set out above. If these rules are followed, then approval should be a matter of course. There are precedents for this. For example, permitted development rights for residential extensions requires matching materials.

The Commission recommends that adherence to established design guidance, coupled with a certification process, not unlike the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (‘BREEAM’) but directed to the sense of place, is embedded into an overhauled ‘prior approval’ process. It is outside the scope of this report to undertake that drafting, but we consider it to be an important ‘next step’ following these recommendations

Policy Proposition 9: permit a fast track for beauty. If a robust design policy, which is based on community engagement and which has been properly examined, has been established, the detailed planning application stage should be relatively straightforward. The focus should be on compliance with the site-specific design policy, whether contained in the local plan or in a supplementary planning document.

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Policy Proposition 10: ensure enforcement. Where masterplans or designs are approved, it is those schemes that should be built – not a diluted version down the line. There should be more efficient management of conditions applications, of alterations and a greater probability of enforcement, with stricter sanctions where necessary. Clearer, shorter, more visual local plans should help, but additional ways to achieve this which we recommend include:

• Encouraging specificity on issues such as materials in detailed planning applications.

• Supporting the use of centres of excellence to aid local planning authorities’ enforcement teams.

• Strengthening enforcement penalties for a Breach of Conditions Notice from a maximum of £2,500 to perhaps ten times that. (Breach of Enforcement Notice is already unlimited). The Government should also consider permitting authorities to obtain proceeds from a Process [sic] of Crime Act order in relation to breach of condition notices.

• Tightening the approach and digitising the process of signing off the discharge conditions and regulating non-material and minor alterations. Might it be a requirement that building control sign-off cannot be achieved without adherence to design quality requirements?

• Involving enforcement teams in early discussions about the scheme. This would permit them to understand the relative priorities of members and officers, and the importance of the design features of a scheme. This appears to happen very rarely, if at all, at present.

Many of these recommendations appear to me to be practical and deliverable but obviously questions arise:

Are we all on the same page as to what is “beauty” or “good design”? Can such prescription be imposed in reality without stifling individual design responses? Are we not just feeding bullets to those who will oppose development, using whatever arguments come to hand?

The document says this:

Are there assumptions that arise from political or social outlook, or age? The report roots its stance by describing a “powerful consensus…concerning what people prize in the design of new developments, and about how beauty in human settlement is generally understood”, with passages on:

⁃ townscape

⁃ mixed-use

⁃ building to last

⁃ affordability

⁃ respect for nature

⁃ stewardship.

Much of this must be right, but, faced with specific choices, I am still certain that there is room for debate as to development choices.

The throw-away assumption in the document is that tall buildings are bad:

“...there is much evidence for the view that we will not normally achieve the kind of humane densification that we are looking for by ‘building upwards’ – evidence that has not always been taken into account in recent urban developments, especially in London and Bristol. We need to weave the ground-level fabric more closely, not to stretch it to the skies.”

There is an equivalent dismissive reference to “iconic buildings”, immediately followed by a photograph of the Walkie Talkie:

“...people may not want an ‘iconic’ building in their immediate environment if it does not fit in or harmonise. For many planning protesters, the best outcome is also the outcome that will not be noticed.”

Do we dream of a bland and pleasant land? Where is the room for rebel buildings, for surprises? (I spotted nothing on the desirability or otherwise of preserving, for instance, outstanding examples of brutalist or post modern architecture – little of which would have got past the beauty police). And, whilst the use of traditional materials is eulogised, is this not, in many circumstances, to descend to pastiche and facadism? A logistics warehouse is what it is, or it should be.

Given the difficult value judgments required, are local planning authorities sufficiently resourced to fulfil the central role that the Commission envisages for them?

It is going to be a fascinating debate and, given the warm reception that the Secretary of State has already given to the recommendations (one of which is that he should become the Secretary of State for Place – I would certainly support a change of MHCLG to MoP), I predict that much of the document will find its way into the Government’s agenda. Better this, in my view, than a curious document, almost as long, published earlier in the week by Policy Exchange, Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century.

To my mind, we need to move on from the Conservatives’ 2010 mantra that “the planning system is broken”. It either is not, and never has been – or they have had long enough to mend it (and it beggars belief that the Policy Exchange can be advocating “a clean break with the land use planning system introduced in 1947”, unless you read it as part of a wider free market attack on all associated post-war settlements of that time). I tend to favour the former – the planning system is not broken – and the system can indeed accommodate greater attention to be paid to beauty. However, whilst there are always improvements to be made (including some of those recommended by the Commission) there are always two more fundamental influences on outcomes:

stewardship, dealt with well in the the Commission’s report:

We are persuaded, from a wide pool of evidence, that on-going involvement by the landowner very often leads to development which is better for residents’ well-being, more popular and, ultimately, more valuable. Currently, however, most landowners sell or ‘option’ their land to developers or sign deals with land promoters.. If we are to achieve this stewardship model, there are six issues that must be confronted:

1. We need to encourage management structures that can guide longer-term placemaking projects or stewardship projects, as well as the expertise to staff them;

2. We should support and encourage sources of patient capital investment;

3. We need to address ways in which the tax code unintentionally discourages landowners and developers from putting together stewardship projects;

4. We need to use the spatial planning system to encourage the right stewardship projects and infrastructure in the right place (using improving geospatial data where possible);

5. We need to help public bodies pool their land with private landowners for long-term schemes; and

6. We need to encourage competent long-term stewardship (or trusteeship) of the result.

financial resources, the relevance of which is acknowledged but not given particular prominence in the report, by which I mean: both a recognition that is wishful thinking to assert that good design does not cost (in terms of compromises on height and massing, on materials and in the use of appropriate professionals at every stage) and a recognition of the additional resources, including additional skillsets, required by local planning authorities.

My condolences to Sir Roger Scruton’s family. With Nicholas Boys Smith and the other Commissioners, he has produced an elegant and thought-provoking, but practical, piece of work. Let’s not dismiss it out of hand, but equally, as with any contemplated changes to the planning system, let’s be sure that the consequences of what is proposed are fully understood before we hand-chisel again into our battered, much extended, poorly maintained, but still in its own way beautiful, planning system.

Simon Ricketts, 1 February 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Beauty & The Beast; Wheat & The Chaff

Mike Best at Turley made the point most concisely in a tweet this week:

Two themes to this blog post:

⁃ the, partly inconsistent, changes to the planning system announced over the last week;

⁃ the difficulty of sieving out from this a lot more media chaff.

The pre Conservative party conference briefings in relation to planning reforms started last week with stories in the Sun, Mail and Telegraph. What a textbook example of choosing the media (Tory), the language (middle aged “turbo charged” concept) and the interests emphasised (home-owning families):

BUILD BOOST Tories to unveil revolution in planning rules next week to turbo-charge house building in Britain (The Sun, 27 September 2019)

Communities will get legal right to fight ugly buildings in their towns (Telegraph, 29 September 2019)

Families may be able to add two storeys to their home WITHOUT planning permission, under new government reforms (Daily Mail, 30 September 2019).

EXTRA SPACE Families could add two storeys to homes WITHOUT planning permission, under new government plans (The Sun, 30 September, updated 1 October 2019 – drawing heavily on the Mail piece above – do people get paid to write these pieces? I would do it WITHOUT payment).

Robert Jenrick’s conference speech on 30 September 2019 says very little as to the detail:

“…I will simplify the system.

I’m announcing new freedoms, including to build upward so that your home can grow as your family does too.

Reducing conditions, speeding up consent. Better funded local planning in return for efficient service. The beginning of a planning revolution.

Thirdly, no new home will be built in the country from 2025 without low carbon heating and the highest levels of energy efficiency.

We want better homes – and a better planet to match.

And fourthly, these new homes must be well-designed, safe, and rooted in places to which people can belong.

I am announcing the first national design guide and asking every community to produce their own. Empowering people to make sure that development works for them, in keeping with the local heritage and vernacular, with each new street lined with trees.

So, under the Conservatives, more environmentally-friendly homes, more beautiful homes, faster and simpler planning, and a leg up on to the property ladder.”

Motherhood is still good.

The next day we have his formal announcement:

Housing Secretary unveils green housing revolution (1 October 2019). The announcement includes:

Consultation on The Future Homes Standard: changes to Part L and Part F of the Building Regulations for new dwellings, (following on from his predecessor’s March 2019 commitment):

This consultation sets out our plans for the Future Homes Standard, including proposed options to increase the energy efficiency requirements for new homes in 2020. The Future Homes Standard will require new build homes to be future-proofed with low carbon heating and world-leading levels of energy efficiency; it will be introduced by 2025.

This document is the first stage of a two-part consultation about proposed changes to the Building Regulations. It also covers the wider impacts of Part L for new homes, including changes to Part F (ventilation), its associated Approved Document guidance, airtightness and improving as-built performance of the constructed home.”

Update as to the proposed Accelerated Planning green paper:

The government has also confirmed proposals to speed up the planning system, including the potential for more fees to be refunded if councils take too long to decide on specific planning applications.”

“Local residents will no longer have to contend with a complicated and outdated planning system, but a more user-friendly approach designed to simply the process. Small developers will similarly benefit from the simplification of guidance, with the introduction of a new tiered planning system.

Application fees will also be reviewed to ensure council planning departments are properly resourced, providing more qualified planners to process applications for new homes and other proposals.”

“The accelerated planning green paper will be published in November 2019. Government has also set out its ambition to reduce planning conditions by a third, and will take forward proposals to allow homes to be built above existing properties as well as seeking views on demolishing old commercial buildings for new housing, revitalising high streets in the process.”

So what can we expect?

Further reform of the application fees system

Greater use of technology in the application process

reduce planning conditions by a third”? Search me. Sensibly framed conditions are a crucial mechanism both in ensuring timely approval of applications without requiring unnecessary details at a premature stage and in ensuring that what is approved is what is built.

That there will be further work on the very difficult and not at all new ideas, supported by successive ministers, to expand permitted development rights “to allow homes to be built above existing properties” and “demolishing old commercial buildings for new housing”. I have covered the problems in various blog posts, for instance Permitted Development: Painting By Numbers Versus Painting The Sistine Chapel? (8 December 2018) and The Up Right (13 October 2018).

What is quite interesting is the additional detail in one of the Mail’s stories, although who knows whether any of it has any factual basis:

The right will be afforded first to purpose-built blocks of flats, but will eventually be rolled out to all detached properties.” [This right was originally framed around the creation of additional homes, not about home extensions. What possible justification is there for a massive extension in domestic permitted development rights?]

Ministers will also try to accelerate the conversion of disused and unsightly commercial properties into residential homes.” [except that we know that the criteria will not include whether the commercial properties are indeed “disused” and “unsightly” – see equivalent terminology before the existing office to residential permitted right was introduced]

Under a ‘permission in principle’ system, developers will not have to get detailed planning permission before the bulldozers can move in.“ [Interesting use of terminology – do we think that the changes might in fact be introduced by way of the “permission in principle” procedure rather than by amendments to the General Permitted Development Order? Even so, I don’t see that the problems would be reduced – how to arrive at a light-touch procedure which properly addresses legitimate and inevitable concerns as to for instance design, townscape, daylight and sunlight, overlooking and section 106 requirements such as affordable housing]

Announced publication of the MHCLG National Design Guide: Planning Practice Guidance for Beautiful, Enduring & Successful Places and update to the planning practice guide Design: process and tools.

The purpose of the national design guide is to address “the question of how we recognise well- designed places, by outlining and illustrating the Government’s priorities for well-designed places in the form of ten characteristics.

It is based on national planning policy, practice guidance and objectives for good design as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework. Specific, detailed and measurable criteria for good design are most appropriately set out at the local level. They may take the form of local authority design guides, or design guidance or design codes prepared by applicants to accompany planning applications.

This is how the ten characteristics are introduced, before being addressed in turn:

Well-designed places have individual characteristics which work together to create its physical Character. The ten characteristics help to nurture and sustain a sense of Community. They work to positively address environmental issues affecting Climate. They all contribute towards the cross-cutting themes for good design set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.”

Part 3 of the national design guide, a “national model design guide”, is “to follow”.

In the meantime of course the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is working on its final report, anticipated in December 2019, following on from its interim recommendations that I covered in my 27 July 2019 blog post New Cabinet, Poor Doors, No Windows.

Christopher Hope in the Telegraph should also know better than describe planning practice guidance (that’s all it is, guidance, not even policy) as a “legal right”.

The inevitable challenge, obvious but so far unacknowledged by Government, is how to reconcile this earnest work that seeks to improve the quality of our places, with its continued attachment to deregulation via expanded permitted development rights.

Is it any wonder the public are confused and sceptical as to the planning system operates? They are continually being misled.

Simon Ricketts, 5 October 2019

Personal views, et cetera