Building Beautiful Commission recommends planning 'fast track for beauty'

A call for the planning system to allow a "fast track for beauty" with a "relatively straightforward" application stage for developments that meet local design standards is among a raft of proposals in the government design commission's final report.

The Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street development in Norwich (credit: Tim Crock)
The Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street development in Norwich (credit: Tim Crock)

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission was announced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in November 2018 with the aim of improving the design quality of new development.

It’s final report, published today, sets out a raft of "policy propositions" to improve design quality.

These include a "fast track for beauty" which the report says would see the "detailed planning application stage" for a development being "relatively straightforward" if it is in compliance with "site-specific design policy, whether contained in the local plan or in a supplementary planning document".

"We believe that more will be achieved through a system that rewards beauty than one that seeks to impose it by regulation," the report says.

17 key planning recommendations in the Building Beautiful report

The document also proposes tougher measures to ensure that standards of design quality agreed during the application process are not watered down after schemes receive consent.

The report says: "We have encountered much evidence and concern that planning consent, once granted, is then simplified or weakened by the builders or by subsequent purchasers of the land. Planners and other professionals report that this is very hard for local authorities to prevent."

To counter this, the document recommends that there "should be more efficient management of conditions applications, of alterations and a greater probability of enforcement, with stricter sanctions where necessary".

The report also recommends that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) should be amended to include references to the importance of "placemaking", "the creation of beautiful places" and "good design and beautiful places".

Elsewhere, the document recommends that councils develop more masterplans to guide the design of developments. "Clearer masterplans and firmer guidance as to what is (and is not) possible would set greater clarity for land values and guide future development," the report says.

The report also recommends that councils should develop "more detailed design policy interventions, such as provably popular form-based codes and pattern books, as a basis for considering planning applications." It says 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."

It says that the government should "encourage" housing agency Homes England "to take a clearer master developer role and consider establishing a code zone (‘permission in form’) approach to large sites".

The commission’s report also says that the planning system should permit "intensification with consent". It recommends that the government "should investigate ways of facilitating gentle suburban intensification and mixed use, with the consent of local communities."

It also recommends that the government should "end the unintended bias against ‘gentle density’ neighbourhoods." This should include "strongly encouraging councils not to impose minimum back to back or front to front distance between habitable room requirements which make it impossible to build more finely grained and popular traditional settlements", the report says.

The government should also "promote planning excellence". The report says that the government "should extend and fund professional training for highway engineers and planning officers and inspectors in urban design". It should also support, "both financially and by way of subsequent career advancement, planning officers who wish to take mid-career postgraduate qualifications in urban design".

The report says: "We need to change the culture of planning, so that it reflects the seriousness of its task, and both the stress suffered and the devotion exercised by planning officers in their daily work. The planners and their role should be celebrated as part of the culture of placemaking…"

A list of the other key planning recommendations can be found here.

A statement from the MHCLG said that the government will issue its full response to the report "in due course".

However, housing secretary Robert Jenrick said he welcomed the report's recommendations, in particular the proposal for a fast-track planning process for well-designed schemes.

Coverage of Jenrick's reaction to the report and comments by commission chair Nicholas Boys Smith can be found here

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