27. Design in the age of austerity

We are heading into uncharted water.  Government departments with responsibilities for planning face a huge 25% cut in their funding over the life of this Parliament.  Together with the cancellation of the Housing and Planning Delivery Grant and the freeze in Council Tax next year, the implications for Planning are severe!  How will design fare in this age of austerity?

Over the lifetime of the previous Government, design was increasingly prioritised as a key, indeed ‘indivisible’ (see PPS1, para 33) dimension of the planning project.  But times are changing.  Today we have a new government, an eye watering fiscal deficit, and are anticipating the most swingeing public sector cuts since at least the early 1980s.  The danger for design is two-fold.

First, in a time of public sector cutbacks, good design may once again be viewed as a ‘luxury’ that we can no longer afford.  This would be a massive mistake with consequences for the reputation of planning and the quality and sustainability of the built environment that are both long-term and serious.  Not long before its demise, the previous Government argued as much. In their policy document ‘World Class Places’, an economic rationale for investing in place quality was made, justified on the basis that during the current downturn, the temptation to cut corners and slash spending on place quality should be resisted if the competitiveness of British cities is to be maintained.

This argument is not new, and in fact was first made by a Conservative Secretary of State – John Gummer – who in his 1994 Quality in Town & Country Discussion Document loudly proclaimed that “Quality effects us all … Quality is sustainable … Quality pays, Good design is good economics”.  For its time this initiative was bold, admitting, in effect, that the ‘hands off’ approaches of his own party during the 1980s had been fatally flawed, with disastrous social, environmental and economic consequences for the way we build cities.

The fact that is was a Conservative administration that recognised the essential value of good design and put in place a series of policies to deliver it (subsequently built upon with great enthusiasm by New Labour), offers a ray of hope that these lessons will continue to be shared across the political spectrum.  Unfortunately, politicians have notoriously short memories, making the work of CABE and others all the more important in providing a constant reminder that good urban design is no luxury, but instead a hallmark of civilised society.

Second, when things get tight, there is a tendency to cut first those services that in any way are discretionary; in other words, those that are not absolutely tied down in legislation with a requirement to deliver.  In such a context, development management, forward planning and even conservation have a firm statutory footing and will continue (even if slimmed down) as long as we have a planning system.  The same may not be true for the urban design services offered (or bought in) by local authorities.

There is no statutory requirement, for example, to maintain an urban design team within local planning authorities, or even to properly assess and refuse sub-standard developments; such judgements are still open to judgment and discretion, and the temptation in hard times may be to approve any development, rather than risk loosing it to another municipality.  In this regard, even the provisions within the 2008 Planning Act requiring that ‘those exercising development plan functions … have regard to the desirability of achieving good design’ (Section 183) remain untested and open to huge interpretation.  As such they may be too readily ignored by authorities struggling to deliver even the most routine of planning services, let alone something as complex and challenging as better urban design.

On the positive side, and looking to the future, the Conservative’s ‘Open Source Planning’ Green Paper issued shortly before the election specifically mentioned design, arguing that encouragement of good design is important in itself for creating more sustainable, liveable, attractive and affordable places, but also as a means of making new development more acceptable to existing communities.  It proposed more deemed permissions where sustainable development meets no objection from a significant majority of neighbours and where the development conforms with the plan.

For developers this will present significant challenges, but, in theory, they will have to up their design game in order to reduce local opposition and benefit from a streamlined planning process.  A side effect, however, may be the temptation to play it safe and focus on delivering neo-traditional architectural solutions in order to pander to the conservative (with a small ‘c’) tastes of many local communities.

The recent budget now commits the Government to consider further the required framework of incentives for local authorities to encourage development and includes proposals to simplify planning consents based on the increased use of Local Development Orders.  In my own research on design codes, we identified LDOs to be potentially useful tools to streamline the planning process as long as they are used in conjunction with a design code or other similar device in order to maintain outcome quality through laying down clear public interest objectives concerning the achievement of good design and sustainability (see http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/citiesandregions/preparingdesigncodes).  This approach offers great potential to deliver quality and efficiency, but requires investment up-front in a proper design/planning framework within which to develop.  In short, it requires a serious investment in the design skills required to deliver.

To my mind, the approach is attractive because it:

  1. Where no framework is in place, it puts the onus on developers to fund the preparation of one
  2. Supports front-loading which can actually save time and resources further down the line by reducing needless acrimonious negotiation
  3. Explicitly recognises that design adds value in many ways – social, environmental, as well as economic
  4. Helps to overcome planning’s more bureaucratic tendencies, focusing resources where it matters, on getting the right local outcomes.

If we cut corners now, we will pay for it down the line, and for many, many years to come!  This approach isn’t about cutting corners, its about doing the real planning up front, and in so doing leaving developers and scheme designers a greater free hand to develop within the context of clearly established design parameters.  Such approaches can incorporate social and sustainable design objectives as well as physical ones, and – importantly – can meet the objectives of the more locally-based and even community-led planning agenda that the new Government is seeking to deliver.

One often hears the mantra that we should not let a good crisis go to waste.  Despite the pain that planning will undoubtedly share, this is a golden opportunity to think radically about different ways to plan, and of the role of design within that.  The challenge will be to deliver more for less.  Whether planning is up to the challenge will be clearly demonstrated by if and how it continues to address the design agenda.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


July 2010