22. Good design – its the Law!

For almost twenty years since the days of Chris Patten as Secretary of State for the Environment, we have seen the pursuit of good design through the planning process gradually come in from the cold and rise up the national political agenda.  Today, policy proclaims that ‘good design is indivisible from good planning’ (para. 33 PPS1).

This journey has been marked out by a series of key milestones, including John Gummer’s Quality in Town and Country Initiative (1994), the setting up of CABE (1999), the publication of By Design (2000), and by a succession of important policy statements – most recently PPS1 (2005), PPS3 (2007) and the Manual for Streets (2007).  Now a final hurdle has been crossed; the pursuit of good design is no longer simply advised, it is the law!

For many this may be a surprise as the new provisions have not been widely trumpeted outside of the architectural press.  Nevertheless, following concerted lobbying from the RIBA (amongst others), the 2008 Planning Bill was subject to a series of last minute amendments, the essence of which are as follows:

  • Section 5 (6) says that National Policy Statements must set out design criteria
  • Section 10 (3) (b) says that the Secretary of State must, in designating National Policy Statements, have regard to the ‘desirability of achieving good design’
  • Section 183 amends Section 39 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to oblige ‘those exercising development plan functions’ to ‘have regard to the desirability of achieving good design’

In addition the new Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 Section 2 (1) (d), includes among the objects of the new Homes and Communities Agency ‘to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development and good design in England’.  So the pursuit of good design, and the role that planning must play in its delivery is now firmly on the statute books, and England and Wales (this legislation does not apply to other parts of the UK) join a very small group of European nations who have also seen the need for similar legislative provisions.  These include France through their Loi 77-2 sur l’architecture, dating back to 1977, and more recently, Italy, through their Legge-Quadro Sulla Qualita Architettonica, 2008.

One might ask, in a planning system that retains its essentially discretionary nature, what is the value of such provisions?  For Janet Whitaker, one of the peers to whom these amendments should be attributed, it is about raising expectations at a local level, ensuring that good design is now an obligation rather than simply part of a wish list, and about giving authorities the ammunition to fight for good design without the fear that they will be over-ruled at appeal.  Of course it may also now be (theoretically) possible for Local Development Frameworks to be legally challenged if objectors feel they do not give adequate weight to achieving good design.

For me, however, more important than any of this is the message that the new legislation sends out, by placing the pursuit of good design centrally on the radar as a critical, non-negotiable and ever-present objective of planning.  Design is no longer an optional extra, and as such local planning authorities need to think carefully about whether they are meeting the provisions of the new act.

Predictably, perhaps, and despite the RIBA’s critical role in delivering the new provisions, some architects have been less than enthusiastic in what they see as a further ratcheting up of planning powers in this area.  As one letter (amongst many) to Building Design magazine argued:  ‘We are often faced with planning authorities demanding design changes, often against government planning guidelines, based only on a planning officer’s personal interpretation or even preference.  It is utterly frustrating that a lifetime of building counts for nothing against the whims of planning officers, who often have no architectural training‘.  Somewhat ironically, another writes: ‘ Is this the final triumph of the local authority good taste (planning) committee … While these worthies wish to prevent poor design, they must define the opposite – good design.  Then let them publish it, and we will all know what they want the rest of us to do, and I’ll be able to go to the beach’.

Although the first partly misses the point, namely that the provisions aim at the publication of much clearer design parameters, thereby helping to overcome the old charges of personal taste and subjective judgment, both are absolutely right that a stroke of the legislative pen will not by itself deliver good design.  As always, the critical issues remain skills and time.

As we know, good design is not something that is readily available off-the-shelf, it requires a skilled infrastructure on both sides of the development process, allied with a willingness to invest in the necessary time and resources to ensure its delivery.  If we want it, we will need far more than lines on paper, no matter how influential, to deliver it.  Nevertheless, as a further piece in an ever more sophisticated national framework that is pursuing better design, this legislation is to be welcomed.  One can only hope that over time it has the profound impact on local practice that its originators desire to achieve.

Matthew Carmona

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL

Professor of Planning & Urban Design


December 2008