The challenges facing the planned fast-track route for 'beautiful' schemes

Practitioners have cautiously welcomed a government-backed proposal to introduce fast-track planning approvals for well-designed developments, but have warned of a number of potential obstacles before it can be effectively implemented, including a lack of local authority skills.

Robert Jenrick at the launch of the report last week (Pic: MHCLG)
Robert Jenrick at the launch of the report last week (Pic: MHCLG)

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission was set up by the former housing secretary James Brokenshire in late 2018 with the aim of improving the quality of new buildings. Last week, it published its final report. One of the key recommendations is to "permit a fast track for beauty" in which schemes that "improve their local area" can make "more speedy progress" through the planning system.

"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 report recommends. "The focus should be on compliance with the site-specific design policy, whether contained in the local plan or in a supplementary planning document."

"For example, where a master developer has demonstrated their commitment to quality through the initial phases of a scheme in line with provably popular and pre-agreed standards and design codes, then councils should be encouraged and aided to put in place local development order or permission in principle regimes which aid the more certain delivery of these homes," the document states. As a result, developers "should be incentivised to deliver, indeed actively promote, beauty through their schemes", while the new process "would remove work from the council".

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick immediately said he would implement the recommendation. At the launch of the report, he announced: "I will establish a ‘fast track for beauty’ where individuals and developers, who have put in the time to create proposals for well-designed buildings, and which use high-quality materials which take account of their local setting, can see their developments proceed at pace."

Finn Williams, co-founder and chief executive officer of social enterprise Public Practice, said: "The fast track for beauty is a new approach to an old chestnut - how to encourage developers to commit to design quality upfront in return for an easier planning process down the line." According to Williams, a number of planning tools have already been introduced to try to enable this shift, including the use of outline or hybrid applications with design codes and permission in principle - a relatively new two-stage form of consent in which the broad principles of the scheme are agreed up front. Local development orders, which pre-grant permission for certain types of development in specific areas, are another example.

"Local authorities with strong in-house design capacity are already able to secure high quality schemes from pre-application stage onwards using existing policies and tools," he said. The key thing was not so much the fast-track route itself, but addressing the commission’s other recommendations around "building and supporting high quality urban design skills in local authorities". "The government must recognise that new tools are no substitute for having the right in-house expertise," he added.

Mike Kiely, board chair of local authority body the Planning Officers Society suggested that the use of permission in principle (PiP) is likely to be the most common route for such an approach. It would be backed up, he expected, by a design code that would allow "some form of permitted development rights that deal with high-quality design in a much quicker way".

But Kiely suggested that, under such an approach, PIP would have to be broadened from its current iteration, which only allows consent via applications for schemes of up to ten units. Such a move would be likely to require some form of primary legislation. He also pointed out that "an awful lot of development" would not be suitable for such a regime, which is aimed at multiple buildings. "For example, most of the development in London is bespoke [single] buildings that are fairly tall and it would be impossible to deal with them through this approach," he said. "So it is not a panacea across the piece but it's still a significant tool."

Greater reliance on design codes would require specialist urban design and architecture skills that no longer tend to be part of planners’ core skillset, Kiely added. "My worry is whether the skills are there to draw up design codes, because they are something we've not necessarily done for some time," he said.

Practitioners from the development industry also gave a cautious welcome to the move but similarly warned of potential obstacles. Andrew Whitaker, planning director of industry body the Home Builders Federation, said fast-track permissions for well-designed schemes had already been used successfully in developments such as Upton in Northamptonshire.

"Once you have a design code for a major development, then successive phases and parcels of land within that development can be brought forward rapidly through the planning process, so it can be done and [housebuilders] are keen to do it," he said. However, one difficulty would be that it could take "many months" for local authorities to develop and adopt the rules for a fast-track planning process.

Ian Fletcher, director of policy at industry body the British Property Federation, said: "There is no argument with the approach, but it’s ensuring that it's a bit broader than just pure design of buildings and that it takes account of other factors such as place-making and the public realm."

How easy will it be to implement key recommendations from the report?

1. Permitted development rights should be accompanied by "strict adherence to a very clear (but limited) set of rules on betterment payment and design".

Such a change could be introduced through changes to regulations and would not require primary legislation.

Ease of implementation score - 5/5

2. Design standards should be effectively enforced: where masterplans or designs are approved, "it is those schemes that should be built - not a diluted version down the line".

Revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework would give weight to this change, although changes and extra resources for enforcement would make it even more effective.

Ease of implementation score - 4/5

3. The government should investigate ways of facilitating gentle suburban intensification and mixed use, with the consent of communities.

Such a change would require primary legislation and may not be universally popular.

Ease of implementation score - 1/5

4. Local planning authorities "should feel the full support of government when they reject ugliness".

The government could implement this through a clear and consistent message to the Planning Inspectorate when handling appeals for schemes refused on such a basis.

Ease of implementation score - 5/5

5. 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".

Such work could be carried out under the existing system but would be reliant on councils having the resources and expertise to develop such codes.

Ease of implementation score - 2.5/5

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