Countryside: Safe from harm?Source: iStock
The government’s revised planning reforms seem to have placated many critics, but there still remain serious concerns
When planning began to dominate newspaper front pages, even the bumptious communities secretary Eric Pickles must have felt nervous. But eight months after a draft of the government’s planning reforms sparked outcry, the response to the framework published this week suggests a seemingly unachievable balance has been struck. Developers and countryside campaigners alike agree the national planning policy framework is much improved.
Some key changes suggest planning minister Greg Clark was sincere in his praise of the architectural profession (see box). High-quality design has become one of 12 “core planning principles” and greater weight is now attached to the advice of design review panels.
Ruth Reed, former RIBA president and chair of the its planning group, says the framework “will send a clear message to developers, planning officers and committees that poor quality development will no longer be accepted”.
Design is just one of the areas to have been strengthened. A presumption in favour of sustainable development, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the reforms, has been clarified. Key to this is the importance now placed on councils’ own local plans. Other key criticisms have also been addressed — the use of brownfield land and town centre sites is now prioritised.
Developers and planning consultants have praised the changes, which clarified the government’s intention in areas of concern while retaining the document’s emphasis on providing a quicker, less complicated planning system. Even countryside campaigners seem placated by the revisions. Shaun Spiers, chief executive at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says: “We are pleased the minister appears to have listened to the strong public views.”
There’s a risk you end up with 433 definitions of good design
Inevitably, there are still concerns. The importance placed on councils’ development plans has been warmly welcomed, as has a transition period which allows 12 months to update these documents. But what of those local councils — believed to be more than half — with no development plan? Ian Anderson, head of national planning at CB Richard Ellis, believes that a lack of resources means even those with plans in place may struggle with the deadline. “I think it will be a major challenge,” he says.
This was the situation many critics of the reform feared. In areas without a plan, the national framework takes primacy, along with its presumption in favour of sustainable development. But the increased importance of design in the final framework has convinced some of its earlier critics.
Alex Ely, partner at Mae Architects, says: “I’m quite encouraged. If you take the NPPF alone it has a lot to say on promoting innovation and good design.” Ely’s concern now is how the framework is interpreted locally. “There’s a risk that you end up with 433 definitions of good design,” he says.
The government intends design review to help in this regard. Councils are told they should have local arrangements in place, and that major projects should be referred to a national panel. Local authorities should “have regard” to the panels’ recommendations.
Kathy MacEwen, head of planning and localism at Design Council Cabe, says while advice from panels will not be binding, it is a welcome addition to the planning process. “Councils have to record how they have responded to recommendations,” she says.
Again, money could be an issue. Ben van Bruggen, former Urban Design Group chair and principal at van Bruggen Urban Design, remarks: “The government says design review panels should exist but how do you fund them? Does it revert to a group of local architects getting together and making some comments? That may not be independent or transparent.”
The principles of localism mean planning’s interpretation is now in the hands of local authorities. Stressing the importance of high-quality design is one thing. Finding the money so councils can decide what this is might be more of a problem.
Greg Clark speaking on Tuesday:
“Too much development in recent years has been mediocre, insensitive and has detracted from the character of the areas in which we live and work. The effect has been that much of the public have come to assume that any particular change to our built environment will be negative.
“What a disastrous state of affairs in a country which is home to some of the most talented designers, and the best architects and craftsmen in the world, and which has over the years constructed villages and cities and buildings that people cross the world to see.
“This National Planning Policy Framework will help build the homes the next generation needs. It supports growth to allow employers to create the jobs our constituents need.
It does so by taking power away from remote bodies and putting it firmly into the hands of the people of England.”
3 September 2012 | Updated: 3 September 2012 10:58 am
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