“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.
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:
⁃ building to last
⁃ respect for nature
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