6. Legislating for good design – The next step or a step too far?

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 is now in force.  During its extended passage through parliament, pressure from CABE, the RIBA, Richard Rogers, and others, eventually forced the Government to confront the issue of design.  Unfortunately, ‘good design’, perhaps even more so than ‘good planning’, would seem to be difficult to legislate for.

In the case of planning, it seems that the default position has been to try and legislate for ‘good process’; at least that is the intention.  In the case of design, the first legislative toe in the water takes a similar approach.  Buried in Section 42 of the new Act is an amendment to Section 62 of the principal Act (The 1990 Town and Country Planning Act), Clause 5 of which now states:

‘A development order must require that an application for planning permission of such description as is specified in the order must be accompanied by such of the following as is so specified-

(a) a statement about the design principles and concepts that have been applied to the development;

(b) a statement about how issues relating to access to the development have been dealt with’.

Design Statements are nothing new.  They can be traced back to the Time for Design experiments of the late 1980s.  These three-year experiments, conducted in six local authorities across England, were intended to increase public appreciation of design and raise awareness of its importance.  In fact they largely failed to register on the national consciousness.

Nevertheless, the Winchester experiment tested the idea of requiring applicants for planning permission to submit a Design Statement outlining their design philosophy.  The idea somehow made it into Chris Patten’s version of PPG1 in 1992, which stated:

It may sometimes be helpful for the applicant to submit a short written statement setting out the design principles of the proposal.

Despite the advice, few local authorities felt able to enforce this requirement, and Design Statements remained few and far between throughout the 1990s, despite periodically being cited by commentators as a valuable approach to improving the quality of design.  The arguments were made then, and continue to be made on two fronts:

  • First, for their potential to raise the quality of planning applications by forcing applicants to explicitly confront their design aspirations (if indeed they have any), perhaps even encouraging applicants to employ appropriately qualified and skilled designers to establish some aspirations.
  • Second, by providing planning committees, and perhaps local authority officers, with a statement about the design philosophy of architects in a format they could readily understand, and which might help them to appreciate how contemporary design solutions represent responses to local contexts (or not).

John Gummer’s 1997 version of PPG1 upped the anti, by suggesting that:

‘Applicants for planning permission should, as a minimum, provide a short written statement setting out the design principles adopted as well as illustrative material …’

The added emphasis inspired some authorities to routinely ask for Design Statements, although most did not; whilst of those that did, few felt in a position to insist that Design Statements be delivered.  The result has been that although Design Statements are now common currency in some places, practice is very ad hoc.  Moreover, no evidence has been systematically gathered since the rather limited Time for Design study to assess the impact of Design Statements where and when they are prepared.

The suspicion remains that good designers, and good applicants, submit good designs with good Design Statements, whilst those who are not, do not.  In this regard, there remains no substitute for a good designer, and for planning decision-makers who can make informed judgements about what is good design in different contexts.  That said, the inclusion of provisions to make Design (and Access) Statements mandatory, rather than advisory, ups the anti further, and its impact on the quality of planning applications needs to be carefully monitored.

The real significance of the inclusion of the new clause in the legislation, however, may not be the impact of Design Statements at all; but instead that for the first time, even if in a relatively minor capacity, design features in national planning legislation as an integral component of the planning process.  This continues the relentless rise of design in the UK as a concern of Central Government, and represents a significant step forward.

We might ask, is the pinnacle of what is possible, or is this legislative toe in the water the start of more significant attempts to grapple with design in years to come.  What else might we legislate for?

Here we come back to the inherent difficulties in legislating for ‘good design’ and therefore to reliance on the process dimensions of the subject.  We ‘could’ nevertheless legislate:

  • For design skills, for example that only registered architects should be allowed to submit applications over a certain value. This happens in some European countries (i.e. France), but as we know all too well, does not guarantee good design.
  • That certain forms of design guidance be required for certain forms of development, for example, that design codes should be produced for residential schemes over a certain size (watch this space on that one)
  • That comprehensive analysis of local contexts be undertaken for all developments by the applicant seeking permission, in order that informed design processes occur and that informed design judgements are made
  • That schemes submitted by big name’ architects for planning permission, are not emasculated by lesser or non-designers during their delivery; a concern raised during debates on the then Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill
  • For expert Design Review Panels to be formally constituted as part of the development control process, so that all significant applications are considered by those with an appropriate sensitivity to design, something which happens as routine practice in parts of the USA
  • Or that local authorities be required to designate a Design Champion, or perhaps employ a proportion of qualified design staff in relation to their size.

Can we really legislate for good design?  It is difficult to know.  However, as design gradually emerges from its status as a sometimes unwanted bolt-on to the planning process, it may at least be worth exploring the options.

Matthew Carmona

Reader in Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


November 2004