7. ‘Doing what it says on the tin’ – PPS1 and sustainable design

Design and its treatment in Government guidance over the last 25 years can be seen as a microcosm of planning more widely.  A generation ago local authorities dared not speak the ‘d’ word for fear of being branded stiflers of innovation and market freedom.  Gradually, however, and with increasing momentum and confidence, design – like planning – has come out of the shadows.  It is once more respectable to seek to deliver good design, and a positive expectation exists that planning will be used as one important tool to do so.

The new Planning Policy Statement (PPS1) makes a further and welcome move forward.  It makes it clear from the start, and in the title – ‘Delivering Sustainable Development’ – that sustainable development is now the core principle underpinning planning, to be delivered through three key means:

  • The new spatial approach to planning – local and regional;
  • Greater involvement of communities in planning;
  • The pursuit of good design as a pre-requisite of planning.

Although this simplifies the messages in the new planning statement, it does not distort it.  Through this statement, design comes centre stage and can no longer be viewed by applicants for planning permission or by planning authorities as an add on.  Indeed, the statement makes it clear that “Good design is indivisible from good planning”, and, importantly, “is a key element in achieving sustainable development”.  This message is reinforced throughout the statement, but most notably in the section on design, which is no longer relegated to an annex, either in whole or in part.

PPS1 really does do what is says on the tin, the tin in this case being the 2001 Planning Green Paper.  It effectively delivers the step change in the national approach to planning that the Green paper sought.  However, government planning policy is always a fascinating combination of the new and the re-cycled.  It evolves gradually, often through additions rather than deletions, and as a result contains the inevitable compromises and inconsistencies of such an approach.  Because of its fundamental nature, more than in previous cases, policy in PPS1 is largely written from scratch.  But even here odd remnants from previous notes can be spotted.

The design paragraphs provide a case-in-point.  If one compares what is identified in the statement as the proper concern of planning, an extensive list of design concerns is revealed (see table).  This can be set against wording originally seen in Circular 22/80 and utilised and/or slightly modified in every note since (1985, 1988, 1992 and 1997) that “local planning authorities should not attempt to impose architectural styles or particular tastes” and “ should not stifle innovation, originality or initiative”.  The blaring inconsistency comes in the same paragraph (38) which goes on to argue that it is proper to seek to reinforce local distinctiveness, a factor inevitably determined – amongst other factors – by particular architectural forms and styles.

More significant is the statement also in paragraph 38 and recycled from the 1992 and 1997 versions of PPG1 that “Design policies should avoid unnecessary prescription or detail and should concentrate on guiding the overall scale density, massing, height, landscape’ layout and access of new development”.  Having charted over thirty five key design concepts in the statement that are appropriate for local authorities to consider in relation to design, and which collectively establish a comprehensive agenda for urban and architectural design, reverting to the familiar seven-point agenda for design policies seems somewhat inconsistent.

But these are minor quibbles.  Overall the new statement on design is a significant step forward, arguing the case that authorities should plan positively for design (para. 34), not least through the creation of a robust set of design and access policies based on analysis and a future vision for the plan area (para. 36).  Its more fundamental articulation of a sustainable urban design agenda is particularly welcome, confirming that sustainable design amounts to far more than simply the pursuit of energy efficient buildings.

Other valuable innovations emphasise:

  • The potentially proactive nature of the local planning authority role, that planning should not be restricted to plan making and development control, but should involve facilitating and promoting the implementation of good quality development (para. 10); and
  • That design should seek to enhance the environment, not simply do it no harm, thus design which fails to take advantage of the opportunities available for improving character and quality should be rejected (paras. 13 and 34).

Overall, therefore, the fate of design continues to track that of planning, and just as PPS1 represents a major step change in the English approach to planning, so to does it for design.  Not only does the statement identify design as an integral and fundamental part of the spatial planning process, it goes a long way to establishing a more equitable, inclusive, and above all sustainable agenda for achieving this.  Planning authorities should sit up and take note!

Appropriate design considerations for planning authorities Inappropriate design considerations – unless substantiated
  • accessibility
  • adaptable design
  • attractiveness
  • barrier-free environments
  • building design (architecture)
  • character
  • connectivity
  • density
  • durable design
  • facilities and amenities (integration of)
  • functionality
  • healthy design
  • height
  • inclusive design
  • landscaping
  • layout
  • legibility (understandable and easy to use)
  • lifetime impact
  • liveability
  • local distinctiveness
  • massing
  • mixed communities
  • mixed uses
  • natural environment (integration of)
  • public space design
  • public space provision
  • recreation opportunities
  • relation to context
  • resource efficiency
  • safety
  • scale
  • sustainable design
  • transport infrastructure (integration of)
  • urban form (integration with)
  • visual appearance
  • architectural style
  • architectural taste

Matthew Carmona

Reader in Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


April 2005