Five things we learned from the government's design conference

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) held its 'Better Design for Better Places' conference in Birmingham last week. Here are five key things we learnt from the event.

Design: MHCLG conference held in Birmingham last week
Design: MHCLG conference held in Birmingham last week

1. The government is to commission research into the shortage of planners, MHCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain told the conference. "We are conscious not only of the need to understand what the skills gaps are, but also of the need to build a pipeline into the profession," he said. The research would link in to studies on the issue carried out by other bodies in the sector, he added. The chief planner also announced that the ministry had appointed the department’s architecture adviser Andy von Bradsky, former chairman of PRP Architects, as the government’s head of architecture.

2. Developers need to acknowledge the need for good design and factor it into their financial appraisals for new schemes, planning minister Kit Malthouse said. The minister said he was starting to sense "more and more resistance to development" from communities on design grounds. "People tend to feel that what’s plonked down in their area is somehow going to spoil the community in which they live and not enhance it," Malthouse told the conference in a speech made via video link. "That is a problem for us as an industry, and the way we can obviate that is by making room for design, and making room for beauty. For you as developers and the housebuilding community, you need to ask yourselves a simple question: am I building the conservation area of the future."

3. The government is not prepared to accept compromises in design quality in order to accelerate housing delivery, communities minister Lord Bourne told the conference. The minister said it was "essential" that the numbers of homes built is increased, "but not at any cost." "The more we build, the more important it is that we get it right", Bourne said. "We need many more homes, but we also need homes that fit into the modern world around them". The government will be judged in five years’ time by how many homes it has built, but will be judged in 50 years’ time "by how beautiful they are", he told the conference.

4. Being able to achieve "exemplar design" depends on willing landowners and a robust local plan policy framework, a housebuilder told the conference. Philip Barnes, group land and planning director at Barratt Developments, said "good design" was about "getting the basics right from day one, so that we can bid competitively [to build a well-designed scheme] against our competitors but are not disadvantaged." Key ingredients of good design were connectivity, accessibility, structure, landscape and character, Barnes said. But to achieve "exemplar design", he said, "you have to have a landowner on board and a local authority policy framework that guarantees its execution".

5. Change is needed "on every single level" to deliver better place-making, while the planning system is "an antiquated mess", TV presenter and architect George Clarke said. Clarke, founder of built environment education charity Mobie, said there had been a debate about the national housing crisis for decades, but that successive governments had failed to solve the problem. He also described the planning system as "an antiquated mess", saying he had personal experience of making suggestions for public realm improvements that were rejected because of maintenance cost concerns. He added that the use classes order that governs what changes of buildings’ use can be made without planning permission had become outdated. "The world has moved on at a massive pace," he said.

Kit Malthouse will speak at Planning’s National Planning Summit on 14 May in central London. To book, visit

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