CPRE planner Richard Thompson asks whether a welcome policy aspiration risks becoming just another developer-led tick-box exercise
Ask the public whether the above house is well designed and they are most likely to say yes, it is. Ask the same question to an architect, they are much more likely to dislike iti. So who is right? What criteria should be applied in making this assessment? Are we just considering how the individual house looks, or how it relates to other houses? Could this design be considered locally distinctive in Kent? If not, why not and what is locally distinctive? Does what looks good in the centre of a town work equally well in the suburbs? If not, where should that line be drawn? These are all questions that communities, local authorities and anyone else involved in the development industry will be grappling with over the coming months should proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework come to fruition. Specifically, the proposed changes being consulted upon state that “development that is not well designed should be refused, especially where it fails to reflect local design policies and government guidance on designii. To inform this, “all local planning authorities should prepare design guides or codes consistent with the principles set out in the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code and which reflect local character and design preferences. These provide a local framework for creating beautiful and distinctive places with a consistent and high-quality standard of design”iii. A proposed National Model Design Code is also being consulted on alongside the NPPF. Importantly, “all guides and codes should be based on effective community engagement and reflect local aspirations for the development of their area”. On the face of it, such proposals are welcome and it is heartening to see recognition of the role effective community engagement will have in this policy’s success. It is this engagement, and the local knowledge that comes with this, that will be key to grappling with the complexity posed by questions such as those above. It is therefore extremely disappointing that there are no detailed guidance or proposals among the consultation documents as to how effective community engagement will work in practice. Fundamental to this will be ensuring proper resource is provided to councils and local communities so they can effectively participate in the process. Without such resource, it will fall to those promoting sites and their consultants to demonstrate how they are creating “beautiful and distinctive places with a consistent and high-quality standard of design”. If this is not properly resourced, an otherwise welcome aspiration risks becoming just another developer-led tick-box exercise, with the planning consultancy industry being handed yet another revenue stream.
The design of new housing developments in England is overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’, with less affluent communities the worst affected, according to a national audit conducted by University College London for CPRE, the countryside charity, and the Place Alliance. A housing design audit for England reveals that 75 per cent of new housing development should not have gone ahead due to ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ design. The report, an audit of more than 140 housing developments built across England since 2007, found that one in five of these developments should have been refused planning permission as their poor design was contrary to advice given in the National Planning Policy Framework. A further 54 per cent should not have been granted permission without significant improvements to their design having been made first.
The audit also found: • Less affluent communities were 10 times more likely to get worse design, even though better design is affordable • Low-scoring housing developments scored especially badly in terms of character and sense of place, with architecture that did not respond to the context in which it was located • The worst reported aspects of design included developments dominated by access roads and the poor integration of storage, bins and car-parking, leading to unattractive and unfriendly environments with probable negative health and social implications • Some gains had been made – schemes scored relatively highly for safety and security and were also typically successful at integrating a variety of sizes of house
Professor Matthew Carmona (The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL), chair of the Place Alliance, who led the research, said: “Research has consistently shown that high-quality design makes new residential developments more acceptable to local communities and delivers huge social, economic and environmental value to all, yet we are still failing in this regard across England. “Planning authorities are under pressure to deliver new homes and are therefore prioritising numbers in the short term over the long-term negative impacts of bad design. “At the same time, housebuilders have little incentive to improve when their designs continue to pass through the planning system. Some highways authorities, meanwhile, do not even recognise their role in creating a sense of place for communities. “Collectively, housebuilders, planning authorities and highways authorities need to significantly raise their game. This can’t come soon enough.” Tom Fyans, campaigns and policy director at CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “The government has presided over a decade of disastrous housing design and must raise standards immediately. “This research is utterly damning of larger housebuilders and their failure to build the homes our communities deserve. “They must
significantly raise their game if we are to create the sorts of places that
future generations will feel proud to call home. It’s no wonder so many of our
communities feel apprehensive towards new development when the design is so
poor. That’s why significantly improving the quality of design is central to
addressing the housing shortage.”
Recommendations from the research The audit proposed a range of recommendations for the government, housebuilders and local government. Among these the research found strong benefits in designing at higher densities than is the norm. The government should be more prescriptive in seeking less sprawling densities, as more compact developments tend to be designed more sensitively. It should require highways design that helps to create high-quality, characterful places. Housebuilders need to drive greater ambition across the sector to advance a more ethical approach to the design of development that prioritises the long-term social well-being of their customers and the health of the environment at large. Local authorities need to use proactive design codes – design parameters established for each site – and design review processes for all major housing schemes. Local authorities also need to end the current disconnect between highways design and planning aspirations when it comes to new housing areas. Schemes that do not meet minimum requirements should be refused on design grounds and this should be supported, without question, by the government regardless of progress towards meeting housing targets in the area.