As Planning Policy Guidance 1: General Policy and Principles transmutes into Planning Policy Statement 1: Creating Sustainable Communities, does the re-branding offer the step change promised in the Planning Green Paper, or is it a step back to where we have already come from? For design, if measured in steps forward and backwards, the statement offers six of one and half a dozen of the other.
Draft PPS1 continues a line of ‘headline’ policy statements on design that since the infamous Circular 22/80 have appeared approximately every four years (1980, 1985, 1988, 1992, 1997, and 2004 – in draft form). For most of this time the statements have been characterised by their similarity rather than by their difference, with the same well-worn phrases appearing, often with slight tweeks, time after time.
Even the most radical departure in 1997 was characterised by many of these hackneyed statements, but also by the fact that around them the then government wove a significantly expanded and profound design policy. The approach led to a new emphasis on design, but also to some surprising inconsistencies in the PPG itself. A comprehensive definition of urban design and emphasis on understanding and promoting local distinctiveness, for example, was followed by the time-honoured and limiting pronouncement that design policies should concentrate on the ‘scale, density, massing, height, landscape, layout and access’.
The sweeping away of these inconsistencies is perhaps the first important step forward made by the new draft. Indeed, policy is on the whole positive about the importance and significance of design, with only the single (now traditional) warning that authorities should not impose arbitrary styles and tastes or stifle innovation, originality and initiative; included, one suspects, to mollify the RIBA. Unfortunately, the greater consistency is achieved at the expense of removing much of the content that characterised the 1997 draft.
As a consequence, discussion in the main text is reduced from eight paragraphs on design to one, and in the design annex from seven paragraphs to five. The effect, perhaps unintentionally, is to downgrade design as an issue within the guidance, a perception reinforced by the removal of the statement that characterised the start of the 1997 note that design was an underpinning theme of national planning policy, alongside sustainability and the pursuit of mixed use development.
The draft PPS, by comparison, identifies sustainable development, the spatial planning approach and community involvement as its three policy themes, with design incorporated as an element in the first of these. Intellectually this is undoubtedly correct, although the importance of high quality urban design as perhaps the key outcome of sustainable planning nevertheless deserves to be prioritised up front alongside community involvement and a spatial approach. To learn the lessons of the past, high quality urban design should always be viewed as an irreducible dimension of good planning, and never again as an optional extra.
The firm link between design and sustainability is nevertheless a second important step forward, which has a much greater prominence in this statement than it did in 1997. Unfortunately, the aspects of sustainable design that are emphasised, namely resilience and energy efficiency, represent just the tip of the iceberg of a much broader sustainable design agenda that does not really feature in the statement.
Moreover, the attempt to succinctly define the scope and key dimensions of design that were included in the earlier note are missing, leaving an altogether partial statement on the subject. In the days of ‘By Design’ and the range of other comprehensive design guides from Government, CABE and elsewhere, such a clear statement in PPS1 may no longer be considered necessary. I would argue, however, that in the days of ubiquitous good practice guidance across a wide range of planning subject matter, this fails to recognise the importance of an unequivocal Government policy statement to clearly establish national (and by inference local) priorities.
If the absence of the previous inconsistent messages on design and the greater emphasis on sustainable design are the key steps forward, other important steps include:
- The cross-referencing of design to other planning issues throughout the document, leading to a more integral view of the subject
- The much greater emphasis on accessibility concerns in the wake of changing disability legislation
- The removal of the long-standing fixation about (or against) over-prescription in local design policy
- The firm encouragement to local authorities to ‘plan positively for the achievement of good quality urban design’.
On the flipside:
- Much of the design advice is relegated to an annex for no good reason (perhaps simply tradition)
- Little emphasis is given to the importance of delivering and thereafter maintaining high quality public space and landscape
- The consistent bête noir of good urban design, the impact of highways authorities’ often ill-conceived standards, are not addressed
- The key unequivocal phrase from the 1997 PPG that ‘Good design should be the aim of all those involved in the development process and should be encouraged everywhere’ is missing.
In sum, although the design elements of this latest re-draft of the ‘headline’ national advice on the planning system makes significant steps forward, it steps back in an equal number of important directions. Reading the statement as a whole, this reader could not help feeling that the statement needs some considerable refining, not least to reduce the degree of repetition apparent throughout the document. It is hoped that as part of this process that the opportunity will be taken to greatly strengthen the design-specific paragraphs, to establish a more comprehensive view of exactly what sustainable design entails, and to re-establish the pursuit of high quality urban design as an underpinning theme of the Government’s approach to planning.
Reader in Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL