Planning system 'too reactive', finds review

A revolution is needed to make the planning system 'proactive rather than reactive', a review of architecture and the built environment led by Sir Terry Farrell has recommended.

Farrell and Vaizey launch review (picture by Agnese Sanvito)
Farrell and Vaizey launch review (picture by Agnese Sanvito)

The Farrell Review, which was commissioned by culture minister Ed Vaizey, said that a proactive planning system would help anticipate issues like the national housing shortage or susceptibility to flooding and address them before they reach crisis levels.

It said the planning system has become "too reactive and relies on development control".

This forces local authority planners to spend their time "firefighting rather than thinking creatively about the future shape and form of villages, towns and cities," it said.  

"Proactive planning would free up valuable time for local authority planners to develop masterplans and design codes which are supported by local communities, whilst reinvigorating the planning profession and its public perception," it added.

The report said there are good examples of proactive planning, pointing to Brent, Croydon, Birmingham and Manchester. It said this is often down to strong leadership and the right skills within local authorities.

It added that the UK should look to other countries like France, Sweden, Denmark and the US, where it said guidance is given on the shape and form of the built environment in advance, often with the help of private-sector professionals, and it is not limited to land use.

"This would place less pressure on dwindling resources within planning departments, give more certainty from the outset to developers and creating better-quality places for us all," it said.

The report called on the government to establish a "Place Leadership Council" that includes Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Department for Communities and Local Government ministers, as well as representatives from the public and private sector, to provide a strategy for improving design quality and a culture change in favour of proactive planning.

Other recommendations include:

  • Each local authority should nominate "Civic Champions" – a built environment professional from the private sector and an elected member to champion local design quality and engage with neighbourhood forums.
  • Planning committee members and highway engineers should receive basic training in placemaking and design literacy and it should be given the same status as legal and financial training for elected Councillors.
  • Local planning authorities should use planning fees to recruit more design-literate planners for placemaking teams and attract and retain the best individuals for planning departments.
  • Public-sector developments that are not subject to normal planning, such as national infrastructure projects, should be subject to Place Reviews.
  • Existing everyday places should be reviewed like high streets, mega-hospitals and housing estates.
  • English Heritage should assess the value of heritage assets in a more geographically, socially and historically equitable way. The process of listing buildings should be more democratic and transparent, particularly for listings of local significance.

Farrell said the issues covered by the review are "relevant to some of the most pressing and important issues of our time".

"We have some of the best architects in the world in this country yet it is hard to see how this translates into the everyday experience in our towns and cities," he said. "Industry leaders and built environment professionals should connect to the everyday much more and focus on making the ordinary better, not just one-off exceptional projects."

Farrell said he hoped the review would be a catalyst for change, and the "start of a big conversation" about the built environment, "making it a major public issue like health and food".

He said: "There are few things that are more important to us than the places we live in. I look forward to continuing to work with government and industry to translate this vision into a reality."

Vaizey described the report as the "most wide-ranging exercise that has taken place in the sector for several generations".

He added: "We all know that good design builds communities, creates quality of life and makes places better for people to live, work and play in.

"I hope the five themes that run through the report will be the start of a dialogue within the industry about how the sector can build on its success and recognise the importance of architecture and design in all aspects of our lives."

The review can be downloaded here.

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