Why planning authorities may struggle to implement government advisors' plans to beautify building

Interim recommendations by the government's design quality commission would place "beauty" at the heart of the planning system. Commentators expect the new Prime Minister to take forward the agenda, but suggest that under-resourced councils might struggle to push for higher design standards.

Nicholas Boys Smith (pic: Create Streets)
Nicholas Boys Smith (pic: Create Streets)

Last week’s interim report from the government- appointed Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission proposed improving the design of new homes, neighbourhoods and town centres by making the creation of beauty a primary objective of the planning system. The report, compiled by interim commission chair Nicholas Boys Smith, founder of urbanist campaign group Create Streets, identifies 30 separate areas where change is needed. These range from reinvigorating failing out-of-town retail parks to upping local authority place-making skills (see below). More detailed recommendations are expected in a final report before the end of the year, but this interim document sets a clear direction of travel.

The report, Creating Space for Beauty, says that "beauty and place-making" should be a "collective ambition" and "legitimate outcome" for the planning system, embedded in the National Planning Policy Framework. Local authorities should have explicit power to "say no to ugliness" – by turning down applications that fall short on design grounds. These applications should be judged, the report says, not against a central government definition of beauty, but against locally-created policies.

Local plans, the report adds, should embed a "national requirement for beauty and placemaking from the outset". "What beauty means and how it relates to locality should be discovered and defined empirically and locally by surveying local views on objective criteria," it states. Building Beautiful commissioner and planning consultant Peter Studdert said local "beauty" policies should then be given "very very strong weight indeed" in the planning system. "Local authorities need to feel no qualms about dismissing applications [on design grounds], and inspectors should back them up," he said.

Despite this, the development industry has so far come out in support of the vision outlined. "Most of our clients would be up for this challenge," said Dominic Scott, masterplanning partner at consultant Barton Willmore. Referring to a recommendation calling for greater community engagement on design standards as part of the local plan-making process, Scott said there’s an "increasing realisation" in the sector that involving the public at an early stage "brings benefits and adds value".

The report locates beauty at three levels – individual buildings, places, and broader areas – albeit with a particular focus on the "placemaking" of neighbourhoods. Andrew Whitaker, planning director at the Home Builders Federation, welcomed the idea of local policies around placemaking, but warned that planners should not try to dictate the design of homes themselves. "If you start intruding on the design of homes, then this can create a real problem for housebuilders," he said. Boys Smith, however, insisted that the final recommendations would address beauty at a building design as well as a neighbourhood level.

While planners also welcomed the report, there are questions about the practicality of creating local "beauty" policies. Boys Smith said: "We would anticipate the government and professional bodies to give guidance to local authorities on what components might be considered, and how it [a beauty policy] might be discovered locally."

However, David Birkbeck, chief executive of social enterprise Design for Homes, said: "The key problem here is not the appetite for good design in local authorities; it’s the money that local authorities have to ask for and fight for." Royal Town Planning Institute president Ian Tant agreed that the vision required "the right resources". "Most local authorities don’t have designers anymore or even access to design advice. The resource of knowledge simply isn’t there," he said.

Whitaker said this issue was compounded by the difficulty of the task of defining beauty. "If you write a policy mandating ‘local vernacular’ design, then you still have to define it. Everyone struggles at this point. It’ll take a lot of resource and skills and authorities will find it a challenge." Boys Smith said he recognised the recommendations would have resource implications, but said the commission had no power to promise additional funding. However, he added that new technology could free up planning department resources by automating some functions, an issue highlighted in the report.

At the report’s launch last week, there were some questions about the apparent lack of recommendations in the report around the issue of residential permitted development (PD) rights, which the Raynsford Review last year concluded had allowed low-quality housing to proliferate. Studdert said he had recommended that the commission back a "moratorium" on any expansion of PD rights but that this hadn’t been taken up. However, he said it hadn’t been ruled out for the final report, due by the end of the year. "It’s not unreasonable to think we’ll push further on this," he said.

With the county’s new Prime Minister tipped by some commentators to name a completely new ministerial team, it is uncertain whether any successor to housing secretary James Brokenshire will implement the recommendations. Jack Airey, head of housing at free market think tank Policy Exchange, said frontrunner Boris Johnson’s track record as mayor indicated this was an agenda he will take forward. "Johnson did good work on the London vernacular while he was mayor. I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested in this area and its certainly something that’ll be taken forward." he said. "The housing issue is going to be number two on the agenda for the next Prime Minister," said Boys Smith. "I’m confident whoever it is will continue to want to look in this area."

FIVE KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE INTERIM REPORT

1. The principle of ‘beauty’ should be embedded in a revised version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Creating beautiful places should be a core aim of the planning system "embedded prominently" in the NPPF, giving the issue "great weight" in the planning system.

2. Beauty should be defined at the local level. The principle should be defined up-front within local plans, after consultation and collaboration with local communities. Authorities would have the power to turn down applications that don’t meet the criteria.

3. Placemaking should be prioritised as a way to deliver beauty through the planning system. This means measures are needed to encourage masterplanning, long-term development business models and mid-rise "gentle density" projects.

4. Encouraging failing out-of-town retail and commercial developments to be redeveloped. The report calls for such "boxland" schemes to be reimagined as "mixed ‘finely-grained’ developments of homes, retail and commercial uses".

5. Local authorities need more "high quality planning, landscape and urban design skills". They need to invest in improving planners’ and members’ placemaking knowledge, the report says.


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