32. Design and the English National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)

Much hyperbole has been spoken and written about the draft National Planning Policy Framework, now at the end of its period of public consultation.  On the face of it beyond changes to the tone of the guidance (clearly pro-development) little seems to have changed:

  • Planning is still plan-led
  • Planning remains essentially discretionary
  • The objective of planning continues to be the delivery of sustainable development
  • The presumption in favour of development is really nothing new (according to latest government statistics, 86% of applications are approved, including 81% of major residential schemes)[1].

A new deal

So what has changed?  Two critical things.  First, the document places clear faith in local authorities and local communities to plan in the public interest (at least in the local public interest), stepping away from national government trying to dictate every planning policy from the centre.  Arguments about the absence of a strategic planning tier aside, this is surely a sign of a mature planning system; and one in which the actual act of ‘planning’ has the potential to become a whole lot more interesting.

Second, as a quid-pro-quo, planning authorities need to take planning far more seriously.  Driving this is the sting in the tail, namely, that where no up-to-date plans exist, the new flexible (and thereby uncertain for the purposes of control) national framework will supplant local planning as the basis for decision-making.  As a consequence, planning authorities without up-to-date adopted plans will be fatally undermined in their ability to proactively lead local planning processes, whether that be in protecting greenfield land (about which there has been much debate), supporting their local high streets (about which there has been some), or requiring better quality design (about which there has been none).  In each policy area (these and many more) the document takes a step back, outlining general principles, but leaving it to localities to shape their own plans and priorities within this succinct and high-level planning framework.

To my simple mind, planning authorities that loose any control over their local planning processes under these new arrangements will have no one to blame but themselves for not investing appropriately in the sort of positive planning required to proactively shape places.  The move recognises that the legitimacy and responsibility for local planning has to be local, and that what central government can achieve through the blunt (albeit powerful) instrument of national policy will always be compromised.  Nowhere is this more true than in the area of design, a remit that national government has always struggled with in the face of conflicting external pressures to on the one hand encourage local authorities to do more, and on the other, to require them to withdraw.

Five design process principles

Recently a colleague of mine was throwing out a lifetime of accumulated papers and documents and uncovered a box labelled ‘government policy’.  Leafing though it I came across Circular 28/66: Elevational Control with three short paragraphs from June 1966 (the month I was born) penned by J. Hope-Wallace, Under Secretary at the Ministry of Housing & Local Government.  He states: “I am directed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government to say that he has been considering the question of planning control of elevations, how far this contributes to the improvement of the external appearance of buildings and its effect on the quality of architectural design generally”.

Updating the sentiments that follow to encompass today’s broader notion of design (urban rather than aesthetic), he establishes four key principles from which a fifth supposition can be drawn:

  1. Control of design can help to eliminate bad design, but by itself will not deliver good design
  2. Skilled design is required
  3. Design should be judged in relation to its context
  4. A careful (and skilled) review process is required before judgments can be made about the merits or otherwise of design proposals
  5. The pursuit of good design is important.

In the intervening years new policy in this area has regularly superseded and up-dated the old.  Sometimes the tone has been more encouraging of a stronger public sector role in guiding design quality (e.g. PPG1 1997: “Good design should be the aim of all those involved in the development process and should be encouraged everywhere”) and sometimes discouraging (e.g. Circular 22/80: Planning authorities “should not impose their tastes on developers simply because they believe them to be superior”).  Throughout, the principles of 1966 held sway, and they do so now.

Design is important

Taking the fifth first, the message that design is important infuses the draft NPPF, whilst the design-specific paragraphs (114-123) reiterate this key message in a manner not dissimilar in content and length (perhaps explaining the lack of discussion on this issue) to the design paragraphs of the still current PPS1 (2005).  Importantly, the key statement “Good design is indivisible from good planning …’ from PPS1 is repeated word for word, supplemented with the phrase: “… and should contribute positively to making places better for people”.  The addition is important as with this simple phrase the focus on places rather than buildings that has been a feature of government guidance since 1997 is also maintained.

Marking a departure from PPS1, little explicit indication is given about what is meant by ‘good design’ beyond a rather broad statement that the planning system should ‘promote good design that ensures attractive, usable and durable places’ as a key dimension of achieving sustainable development.  Although consistent with the objective of simplifying and shortening national policy, omission of an explanatory paragraph or cross-reference to more expansive guidance (both of which are contained in PPS1) interpreting such terms as ‘usable’ opens them up to almost any interpretation.  A drive-in McDonalds is ‘usable’, but is it in any sense sustainable?

Positive planning is required

Returning to the first of the 1966 principles, the draft framework clearly articulates the need for planning authorities to ‘plan positively for the achievement of high quality and inclusive design for all development’, and not simply to wait passively for the submission of designs into the control process.  In doing so it recognises that planning is part of the process of shaping places, and that planners (as well as project designers) need to be skilled in this process, using the range of proactive tools at their disposal.

Thus, like PPS1 (2005), the framework explicitly endorses the use of design codes, although curiously and perhaps counter-productively also warns that ‘any additional development plan documents should only be used where clearly justified’, namely ‘where their production can help to bring forward sustainable development at an accelerated rate’.  This, design codes (like other forms of detailed design guidance) can do by making design expectations more explicit and certain over the long-term.  However, the main justification for using such tools should always be the quality of development that they help to deliver (not the speed of development), and this will always require a significant pre-investment in skilled design time in order to put such tools in place.

The draft framework also establishes that planners ‘should develop robust and comprehensive policies that set out the quality of development that will be expected for the area’ including a range of factors that plans would be expected to cover; issues of adaptability, sustainability, functionality, site capacity, mix of uses, character, identity, safety, sense of community, and visual quality.  Counter-intuitively it then attempts to limit this by stating that ‘design policies should avoid unnecessary prescription or detail and should concentrate on guiding the overall scale, density, massing, height, landscape, layout and access’.  The list of seven physical factors not only contradicts the earlier statement that policy in this area should be comprehensive, but seems to limit the design agenda to a physical one, rather than one encompassing the sorts of social, environmental and perceptual concerns articulated previously.

As a historical curiosity, the list of seven factors (although with materials substituting for massing) has its origins in a draft circular on ‘Good design and development control’ produced, but never adopted, in 1983.  There the issues appeared (with definitions) as appropriate matters for development control.  They reappeared following omission in both Circular 31/85 and PPG1 (1988) (both of which largely repeated Circular 22/80) in the 1992 version of PPG1 as matters for development plan policy.  They have reappeared ever since in successive iterations of the national design policy (1997, 2005, and now), each time contradicting the guidance they seek to explain.

Skills and context counts

The design skills of architects are not explicitly endorsed in the draft text as they have sometimes been in earlier notes, although some of architects’ historic preoccupations are.  For example, the controversial policy supporting isolated dwellings of exceptional design quality in the countryside remains, a policy first introduced in the 1997 version of PPG7 and fought over ever since.  Wording with its origins in the Development Control Policy Note 10 of 1969 also survives, that planning authorities ‘should not stifle innovation, originality or initiative through unsubstantiated requirements to conform to certain development forms or styles’.  The statement provides the usual reassurance that planning is not (or should not) be out to crush contemporary design.

Instead, the draft framework firmly establishes that, notwithstanding support for innovation, policy and decision-making should be based on an assessment of context (including the natural and historic built environment), and on ‘an understanding and evaluation of its present defining characteristics’.  This repeats a call for character appraisal as the basis for design policy making that first made an appearance in the 1997 version of PPG1.  It was little headed then (and one suspects now) because of the resource implications of such work.

The framework goes on to articulate (in a more limited way than PPS1) the need for communities to be involved in plan production and planning decision-making, and that developers should engage communities in formulating their development proposals.  This, of course, represents a fundamental shibboleth of the drive to localism that underpins the draft framework.  In this respect, however, the guidance seems thin and the potential to use design as the means to galvanize communities around the development process, is not articulated.  One suspects that localism might already be taking more of a back seat, in the context of a driving need for economic growth.

Systematic review is needed

Turning to fourth of the 1966 principles, the need for a skilled and careful process for making decisions on design, here the framework delivers an unexpected boost, arguing that ‘Local planning authorities should have local design review arrangements in place to provide assessment and support to ensure high standards of design’.  This suggests something more than standard development management arrangements where a non-specialist planning officer is charged to make decisions on design, balancing it against all the other planning factors.  It implies that a more systematic process should be put in place locally to evaluate the design of development proposals, independent of that established to consider their wider planning merits.

From the government that dramatically downsized CABE this inclusion is surprising.  It is nonetheless welcome for its endorsement of planning authorities who have already put in place local design review panels, or who have long retained their conservation advisory panels for a similar purpose.  Unfortunately, the latest evidence in London courtesy of an Urban Design London survey of London boroughs suggests that independent review processes, where they exist, are under serious threat; trends that in the current economic climate are likely to be replicated elsewhere in the country.  If, therefore, the government is keen that best practice in this area is spread more widely, then a firmer and more explicit statement may be needed to give this key innovation in the draft policy framework more weight.

The onus is on local authorities

In design, as in the other areas of policy articulated in the draft NPPF, there is little to suggest that local authorities who engage in a properly resourced, rigorous and realistic planning process will be any more constrained than they were in the past in achieving their objectives.  If anything they will be liberated as in many areas the framework is far less prescriptive than national policy was in the past.

This implies that the onus is firmly on local authorities to deliver, both an up-to-date plan, and a clear vision for how they see their locality developing in the future.  Design matters and should be a crucial part of this, but what this means will differ from locality to locality, as will the importance attached to such concerns.  This is a matter for local judgement, and that is exactly the way it should be.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


September 2011

[1] http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/statistics/pdf/1929647.pdf