RTPI NEWS: Design-related appeals and quest for excellence

Excellence must reign supreme in issues relating to design. Tony Wharton reports on an RTPI conference.

The ODPM's Peter Ellis provided an overview of how design is now handled in planning policy guidance and practice guides, looking in particular at new housing. The underlying messages were: if the planning system is to be used to foster better design, positive management, well-conceived collaboration and the right skills are all required.

Planning should manage change proactively rather than merely rolling forward unimaginative policies and responding to applications. Although positive collaborative planning could not be a substitute for good design, it is a positive way of providing the conditions in which good design can be produced. Designing attractive, sustainable and inclusive places, that can be enjoyed by all who use them, depends on the skills of designers.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment's (CABE) design review programme and how a committee of experts reviews major projects were outlined by CABE's Peter Stewart. Local planning authorities (LPAs) are encouraged to consult CABE in relation to certain categories of projects.

It seeks to assist LPAs, designers and applicants on design issues but does not seek to 'shadow' the authority.

Stewart stressed that CABE considers projects in the round and does not necessarily set out to be for or against. In one example CABE was in favour of a particular design for a major building and yet, on appeal, had to be considered as an opponent due to objections to the proposals at street level.

Having set out Westminster's statutory duty and referred to PPG1 and the design remit, Rosemary McQueen told us that, with 11,000 listed buildings, 53 conservation areas, 22 registered historic parks and gardens and 70 of London squares, the authority received 319 appeals from a total of 9726 applications in 2002/03. She cited specific examples - some very high profile including No 1 Poultry, Heron Tower and The Time Life building, while others ranged from small alterations to listed buildings to shroud type advertisements.

"What constitutes 'good design'?", Wendy Shillam of Shillam and Smith Architecture and Urbanism asked delegates. She then invited them to vote for or against a granting of permission. There was a general consensus in most cases. In one example, although the specific high-profile design of the building was acceptable, the context and the landscaping were considered lacking. "Design is indivisible and 'excellence' and 'no compromise' must reign supreme in design-related issues and decisions," Shillam concluded.

Research confirms the importance of clear policies that can establish the strategic priorities of the LPA and relate design to that vision, according to Matthew Carmona of University College London's Bartlett School.

He emphasised that if design is poorly represented in adopted policy frameworks, it is likely to be poorly represented in the planning process. Policies can then provide the hooks for area and site specific guidance.

Writing and implementing such policies require improved officer and member skills, a theme picked up by Richard Guise from the University of the West of England. His work with planners and councillors on making design decisions has led to some interesting ideas about the language used in describing the context for new buildings and their attributes. He emphasised the importance of a rigorous context appraisal and of character statements which, with design policies, provide the key support for decision making in appeals.

Principal planning inspector Keith Durrant suggested that by understanding how design decisions can flow from a reasoned analysis of the site, of the application, and of the community's or developer's aspirations and values, a degree of objectivity can ensue. Understanding that process can guide the applicant and the LPA in preparing for an appeal - since decisions are evidence based and rely on ascribing weight to all material considerations. Inadequate applications can be rejected.

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