Countryside campaigners fear that local councils in picturesque rural areas such as Selworthy Green, Somerset, will not be able to control the spread of developments under the government’s new planning policy.Source: Chris Nicholson / Robert Harding /Rex Features
Many architects have broadly welcomed the governments’ proposed planning reforms, but some are concerned that the lack of detail could prove a minefield.
Planning has emerged as the unlikely battleground between the government and Middle England. A subject that for many years has been of little interest outside council chambers has suddenly been elevated to the level of national debate. Architects are just as well versed as planners and developers in the challenges the current system can pose. But with consultation on the proposed national planning policy framework ending in just over two weeks, what do the changes mean for the architecture and design profession?
Ministers have already achieved one of their goals for reform — brevity. More than 1,000 pages of planning policy will be scrapped, replaced by a national planning policy framework (NPPF) of 52 pages. Key principles in areas including design are intended to guide local plans and free applicants from bureaucracy.
The RIBA sees the framework as a step in the right direction. The institute’s policy manager Rebecca Roberts-Hughes says: “As a whole, the RIBA welcomes the draft NPPF. The section on design is strong and there are opportunities for architects in the focus on local and neighbourhood level planning. The recognition of the importance of design review is also good news.”
But the response from architects has not been entirely positive. Cutting so much detail has inevitably allowed readers to interpret the document differently. Some have warned that a lack of detail could compromise the principles that have guided planning in recent years. The Urban Task Force recently warned that a decade of positive progress on the urban renaissance could be reversed.
Alex Ely, partner at Mae Architects, believes the planning framework lacks direction. “There is no evident model for what the government is trying to achieve,” he says. “Previously, planning policies were trying to deliver the urban renaissance agenda. The only obvious objective is economic growth.”
The opportunity for interpretation is at least partly intentional. As part of a drive towards localism, ministers want to reduce the amount of policy emerging from Whitehall. Instead, guidance is intended to allow councils to set their own policies tailored to the needs of their areas. But local authorities have struggled to complete local plans since their introduction seven years ago. Faced with cuts, some wonder whether the situation is likely to improve.
Ben Derbyshire, managing director of HTA, says: “To work well, there’s going to have to be a step change in the amount and quality of plan making that local authorities are involved in. They have to be high quality and finished. At the moment only 33% of local authorities have that.”
A “presumption in favour of sustainable development” is the cornerstone of the planning framework. The policy is intended to create a culture where the default answer to planning applications is yes. Where a local authority does not have a local plan, the presumption will apply. It is this that has enraged the countryside lobby. From a design point of view, architects are concerned that the definition of sustainable development is not specific enough.
Derbyshire believes that in the absence of a local plan, poor quality development could take place. “We strongly think the definition in favour of sustainable development needs to be greatly improved. It should be a pretty strict definition,” he says.
Ely adds: “It could mean anything, couldn’t it? You get the lawyers involved — they will argue the case for anything.”
There is no evident model for what the government is trying to achieve
Richard Simmons, former director of Cabe, says this prospect may be intended as an incentive to local authorities which have struggled to produce a local plan. But he has doubts about the success of such a strategy. “This feels a bit like holding a gun to the head of local authorities and saying ‘get on with it or face the consequences’,” he says.
Design Council Cabe has welcomed the framework’s reference to the importance of good design and a clause that allows development of poor design to be refused. Nevertheless, chairman Paul Finch believes the definition of sustainability should be bolstered. “It would be better if there was a statement saying that the process of design is where you reconcile your economic, social and environmental considerations,” he says. “We think it is design that achieves that.”
The RIBA and Design Council Cabe lobbied ministers for design review to play a part in planning, and were rewarded with its inclusion in the document. Philip Singleton, chair of the RIBA planning group and director at Facilitate Urban, says this should help ensure architecture is represented in planning despite local authority cuts.
“There have been significant cuts in a lot of local planning authorities,” he says, “and therefore the resources that they have, in terms of both planning applications and skills in design analysis, may have diminished.”
As ever, there is a potential stumbling block — who will pick up the bill? Design Council Cabe’s Bishop Review of design support is drawing to a close and its recommendations are expected shortly. Consultation on changes to the planning fees system has also taken place, raising the prospect of greater local control over what developers should pay. But none of this is certain. Developers may or may not pay more if they are guaranteed a better service, one that promotes the importance of design. Whether councils will have the freedom to charge what they like is yet to be confirmed.
Whatever the final details of the reforms, a major overhaul looks certain. As the national row rages on, the government has refused to countenance a full U-turn. But ministers’ recent remarks have been increasingly conciliatory, signaling the potential for changes.
As it stands, the framework offers potential for the architecture profession. Its success will depend on pinning down what is “sustainable”, and whether good design is something for which the government thinks developers should pay.
Few could have anticipated the extraordinary row that has erupted over planning reform. The wrath of Middle England was unleashed when the prospect of development in the green belt reared its head.
This week a National Trust petition against the proposals secured 100,000 signatures, demonstrating the swell of public support which has seen environmental groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England find a national platform for their concerns. The Daily Telegraph has launched a Hands Off Our Land campaign to force the government into a U-turn.
So far, the prospect looks unlikely. Ministers have stood firm in the face of vehement opposition, backed up by development lobby groups.
The row has taken some bizarre twists and turns. Junior planning minister Bob Neill accused campaigners of orchestrating a “left-wing smear campaign” while the minister overseeing the reforms, Greg Clark, accused the National Trust of “nihilistic selfishness”.
More recently, ministers have struck a more conciliatory tone but without raising the prospect of any major concessions.
The prospect of a simpler planning system has gone down well with the RIBA. References to design and opportunities for architects to get involved in neighbourhood planning have also been praised. But concerns about the ability of councils to prepare local plans have led the institute to warn that the framework could take on a “very different meaning” and undermine the principles of the planning system.
Angela Brady, RIBA president, says:
“The big question is how this policy will be implemented on the ground. The onus is now clearly on local authorities to develop strong and coherent local plans and to do so quickly. But with many so desperately under-resourced, we are concerned that this may not happen.”
Design Council Cabe has thus far refrained from publicly entering the row over the planning bill, but is expected to submit a response to the consultation next week. However, the commission has told BD that the reforms are good for architects and design. Proposals that councils should work with design review panels have gone down particularly well. Recommendations will include promoting the importance of design in achieving sustainability.
Paul Finch, deputy chair of Design Council Cabe, says: “There have been a lot of people saying if there’s no local plan, housebuilders will be able to build whatever they like. Frankly, that has been rather exaggerated. We’re probably in a better position now than when we had 1,000 pages of policy.”
The National Trust is leading a vocal campaign against the planning reforms and is supported by the Campaign to Protect Rural England. The trust describes the proposed planning framework as a “developer’s charter” and warns that it could lead to a development “free-for-all”. The ferociousness of the campaign led to David Cameron becoming involved, writing to the charity to stress his commitment to protecting the countryside but reiterating the need for reform.
Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust. says:
“We fully support a simplified system and are not opposed to good development, but we need to get it right or the consequences could be disastrous. A bad reform of the system will lead to bad development.”
The opposition has been highly critical of the government’s plans. Communities secretary Eric Pickle’s decision to scrap regional plans as soon as the Conservative-led coalition came to power has not gone down well with the party that introduced them. While the Labour top ranks are yet to wade into the debate proper, shadow CLG ministers have described the NPPF document as unsustainable and criticised the timing of the consultation — during summer recess.
Caroline Flint, shadow communities and local government secretary, says:
“Tory ministers are showing breathtaking hypocrisy. Time and again, they have decried the lack of housing, while cynically campaigning against new homes for families in their own constituencies. Labour supports the streamlining of the planning system but by ripping up 60 years of planning policy, the government has created chaos and confusion.”
Much of the work defending the proposals has fallen to the development industry’s lobby group. The BPF backed the govern-ment’s claims that reform is needed to ensure economic growth and tackle the housing shortage. Protests by countryside campaigners have also been refuted by the organisation, which points to the role of councils’ local plans in deciding where development should take place.
Liz Peace, BPF chief executive, says:
“Claims that our cherished countryside is to be slathered in concrete misunderstand the system that has been proposed. Councils — not developers — will have the power to dictate where development will go.”
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