On 29 October, JTP submitted a formal response to the Planning for the Future White Paper; the outcome of a process that involved the whole practice in a learning journey as we studied the proposals, researched commentaries by others and consulted trusted advisors.
The absence of detail made it difficult to assess whether many of the White Paper’s big ideas would work in practice, but we were determined to consider the reforms with an open mind, listen to the views of our staff and collaborators and offer constructive suggestions. We held internal webinars and polls, leading to some very lively debates, before finally reaching consensus on our response.
Now that the dust has settled, we are pleased to find our views accord with published responses from organisations we respect including the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), the Urban Design Group, The Wildlife Trusts, New London Architecture, the UK Green Building Council and The Civic Trust. We do not know whether the White Paper reforms will be implemented or not, but we believe some of them will. So, we think it worth continuing to push for the amendments that we, and these organisations, believe necessary to make a reformed system fit-for-purpose. This means the new system needs not only to deliver homes faster, but also to tackle climate change and our ecological and health crises, promote economic recovery, revive our high streets, and ensure equity, diversity and inclusion.
It is frustrating that the White Paper makes reference to documents that are not yet in the public domain but are essential to understanding whether the new system would deliver its stated objectives. These include the revised National Planning Policy Framework, the Environment Bill and the National Model Design Code. It is important that these documents are considered together and then refined to ensure they will work effectively in concert, before adopting a new regime.
But is planning reform needed at all?
We agree with the Government on the urgent need to address the chronic shortage of housing in many areas of England. But we do not agree with the premise, that the current planning system and its discretionary approach is largely responsible for the housing shortage. We believe the cause is more complex. The planning system may contribute to the problem in a small way but, as the TCPA has pointed out, ‘around 90% of applications for planning permission are approved in England and consent has been granted for between 800,000 to 1,000,000 new houses that remain unbuilt’. The failure to invest in social housing and a challenging housing market are likelier causes for the shortage.
We do think it would be beneficial to make the planning system more accessible, transparent, and certain. We also support the White Paper’s proposals for – promoting design quality; creating a new expert placemaking body; committing to involving communities early in the plan-making process; standardising Local Plans and applications; increasing digitalisation and mandating the use of design codes. Although the word ‘zoning’ is not used in the White Paper, the system it proposes with Growth, Renewal and Protected areas designated in Local Plans is a zoning system. We are not against zoning in principle, but would like to ensure zoning is sufficiently fine grained to deliver community Visions.
Building Better, Building Beautiful
Many of the ideas in the White Paper originate from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) and are set out in their report entitled Living with Beauty – promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth. Unfortunately some important BBBBC recommendations have been left out including: requiring a new model for long-term stewardship as a pre-condition for large developments; ending the scandal of ‘left behind places; a radical programme for greening towns and cities and associated tax reforms. We would like to see a closer alignment between the BBBBC’s proposals and the planning reforms.
If the system is to be radically changed, it must be replaced with one that links strategic national planning to sub-regional and local planning in a coherent way. The White Paper proposals fail to do this. They abolish the Duty to Cooperate but offer no solutions for how joined-up planning will be delivered. Developing a national spatial strategy linked to investment in growth and infrastructure that aims to rebalance the economy by reducing the North/South divide should be a priority. We would like to see sub-regional spatial planning introduced to provide a framework for Local and Neighbourhood Plans and ensure that local politics do not distort spatial planning in the way they sometimes do now.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the White Paper is its threat to democratic accountability. Land within Growth and Renewal Areas would effectively be granted approval at plan-making stage, leading to a diminished role for local councillors and removing the public’s right to make representations on detailed designs. We fully support increasing community involvement in plan-making, but most people only get involved in planning at planning approval stage when they can see how development would affect them. It is hard to imagine that many people will ever show the same interest in plan-making and this will lead to a huge reduction in the public’s involvement with decision making.
The White Paper proposes to remove the existing right for individuals to appear in person and ‘be heard’ at a Public Inquiry, and replace it with the opportunity for an inspector to decide whether to hear you ‘face-to-face, by video, phone or in writing’. To deliver the White Paper’s aim of increasing local democracy and accountability, the public’s right to make representations at planning application stage and to be heard in person at Planning Inquiries must be retained.
We wholeheartedly welcome the White Paper’s proposals for increased use of design codes and masterplans and the requirement to involve local people in producing these. Participation rather than consultation should be the approach – involving communities in decision-making through an inclusive process from early visioning and plan-making, to detailed application stage.
Design codes co-designed with the communities they affect will provide greater certainty to developers by setting out requirements before detailed designs are produced. The widespread adoption of masterplans and site-specific design codes co-designed with communities could avoid the frustration many developers experience with the current planning system by providing a set of mandatory requirements against which planning approvals can be assessed. They will also provide assurance to communities that quality standards will be met.
We have yet to see the National Model Design Code but believe it could be a very useful tool – setting out national good practice guidance and providing a template for local design codes. But, some of the language in the White Paper raises concerns that design codes may be seen primarily as style guides. We don’t see this as their role at all. Different types of design guidance and codes are needed for different stages of planning. All should be produced with the involvement of local people.
Area wide design guidance is appropriate for whole local authority areas or regions and many already have good guidance documents in place. These documents should describe and illustrate what is characteristic of the area and encourage local distinctiveness. But they should not simply require replication of existing styles or building types.
A simple, co-ordinating code with an associated framework masterplan should be prepared for Growth Areas identified in the Local Plan. This should include important routes and connections, locations for key community infrastructure, other land uses, a green and blue infrastructure network with associated biodiversity and wildlife recovery strategies and maximum building heights – all in sufficient detail to enable an Environmental Impact Assessment to be undertaken. Adoption of the co-ordinating code as Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) should be a condition of granting ‘permission on principle’.
For Growth areas we recommend that Detailed Phase Design Codes are produced for each phase of development and adopted as SPD before building designs are produced. These Detailed Phase Design Codes should include mandatory specifications for buildings, streets and spaces, and how they fit together to make a place. They should not be style guides but they should aim to create a cohesive place. Detailed design guides must include coding for nature to ensure connected habitats are created for wildlife.
Fast track for beauty
For Renewal Areas, we see value in local design codes and pattern books that could provide greater certainty of approval for detailed planning applications that demonstrate conformity. However, we don’t agree with the White Paper’s proposals for a ‘fast tracking for beauty’ which would delegate the final decision on whether an application was beautiful or ugly to a planning officer.
The BBBBC report defines beauty as follows; ‘It includes everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, everything that makes a collection of buildings into a place, everything that turns anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into home.’ Of course, these are the type of places we should be building. Design codes can set thresholds for design quality and ensure the individual parts contribute to a unified place. Pattern books can provide a range of building types suitable for a particular location.
They are useful tools with potential to provide applicants with greater certainty of approval, but on their own they can’t ensure ‘beauty’ is delivered. Permitted development rights have recently led to some appalling homes and lessons should be learned if we are not going to unintentionally provide a fast track to ‘ugliness’. Creating beautiful places relies on a complex combination of factors and an understanding of the community that will live there. For these reasons we believe that responsibility for granting planning approvals should rest, as it does now, with elected members of local councils who know their places and their communities. Design quality review panels are available throughout England to offer expert advice and training for council members and officers and should be used more frequently.
Zoning and Planning approval
We would like to see the proposed system amended to reflect a tiered system of approvals; moving from general development principles to detailed design. Local plans, neighbourhood plans, and mandatory design codes should establish the principles of permitted land uses, routes and connections, greenspace networks, heights, set-backs from boundaries, street designs and quality standards. Detailed planning applications should be evaluated against these standards using an element of human judgement and discretion that reflects the qualitive nature of assessing design quality – a term we prefer to ‘beauty’ as it implies something less subjective.
In other countries including France and the USA, where zoning systems have been used for many years, the system has been described as a ‘blunt instrument’ and the resulting urban design and architecture is frequently of poor quality. We would therefore like to see a hybrid system developed in England that combines zoning and coding with a procedure for approval of larger developments, determined as they are now, by democratically elected councillors informed by public debate, but with greater support from Design Quality Review Panels. Small domestic buildings, alterations and additions could follow a simplified process using permitted development rights with decisions delegated to planning officers.
Local Authority resources and funding
The White Paper reforms place huge demands on overstretched Local Authorities who will be required to prepare new Local Plans to a rigorous timescale as well as implementing development control. More funding for Local Authorities is needed to enable them to recruit and train staff and more work is needed to ensure the reforms are fit for purpose.
A final thought
Throughout the White Paper there is unresolved tension between deregulation to speed up delivery of new homes, and the stated desire to increase community participation and deliver quality. As a result, many proposals seem at odds with each other. For example, proposals to increase permitted development rights, remove the public’s right to comment on detailed planning applications except in Protected areas and diminish the role local councillors by delegating approval to planning officers, will decrease community participation and are highly unlikely to result in better quality buildings and spaces.
We look forward to contributing to the planning reform debate and to helping refine the White Paper proposals to ensure the new system will deliver beautiful places in sustainable locations and truly reflect the aspirations of local communities.
JTP has identified the following six priorities for placemaking to focus our own work:
- ensuring equity, diversity and inclusion
- supporting nature’s recovery
- delivering healthy placemaking
- promoting local living to revitalise neighbourhoods
- securing the future of high streets and town centres
- utilising modular construction.
We have analysed the White Paper proposals to assess how well they would deliver these and made suggestions for amendments where we think the reforms could be improved. Click on the links below to read more.