37. By Design – bye bye

Lord Taylor’s External Review of Government Planning Practice Guidance[1] was slipped out just before Christmas recommending a dramatic cull of extant DCLG guidance.  The material – over 7,000 pages and 200 documents – includes statements, circulars, guides, leaflets, and letters from the Chief Planner, the totality of which, Taylor concludes, “is no longer fit for purpose”.

Looking down the list of (i) guidance to be cancelled, (ii) guidance to be cancelled but with relevant material fed into revised guidance, and (iii) guidance to be retained until replaced by revised guidance, one can see the need for action.  Take, for example, the 1963 MHLG Circular 36/63 Discretionary Payments to Occupiers Displaced by Acquisition of Land or Slum Clearance, you either have to admire the staying power of such a document, now finally to be put out to pasture in its fiftieth year, or else wonder that such an exercise to overhaul our planning guidance seems never to have been conducted before.  Instead, incrementally, the mountain has grown bit by bit, with new guidance, amendments to guidance, and guidance on the amendments added year on year.

Taylor makes the seemingly sensible recommendation that the guidance mountain has got out of hand and needs to be ‘whittled down to an essential, coherent, accessible and well-managed suite of advice that aids the delivery of good planning”, preferably in a single online source.  Within this mass of information Taylor is particularly dismissive of best practice guidance, arguing that such practice is continually evolving and it is not the role of Government to provide such case study material which quickly gets out of date.  Instead, he concludes, the host of “practitioner bodies” are better placed to provide such information and that the new website should “signpost organisations providing best practice guidance”.

Design, going, going, gone

So how does all this impact on design, the primary focus of this column?

Of the 200 documents, six focus exclusively or in significant part on design, five of which are slated for deletion, albeit with relevant material fed into revised guidance.  These are:

  • By Design: Urban Design in the Planning System – Towards Better Practice (2000)
  • Better Places to Live By Design: A Companion Guide to PPG3 (2001)
  • Safer Places: The Planning System and Crime Prevention (2004)
  • Planning for Town Centres: Guidance on Design and Implementation Tools (2005)
  • Preparing Design Codes – A Practice Manual (2006)

Of these, Taylor concludes that the principles articulated in the first four are now fully mainstreamed into planning practice, nullifying the need for dedicated guidance and requiring only that key principles are incorporated into the proposed new online resource.  By contrast, specific, although more streamlined guidance is still required to replace the final guide in the sequence (that dealing with design codes), presumably because practice here is not yet mainstreamed.  This would also be part of the new online resource.  Only Manual for Streets (2007) sits in the ‘to be retained until replaced’ category, perhaps saved because of its status jointly published by the Department for Transport and Department and DCLG.

End of an era

The demise of these guides represents the passing of an era for urban design.  I well remember coming into academia in 1993 as a researcher still wet behind the ears and being shocked at how controversial the interface between design and planning seemed to be.  This revelation occurred whilst working on a project led by Professor John Punter that explored the production of design policies in local plans for the Department of the Environment (DoE) who seemed remarkably reluctant to engage with the project at all, let alone publish it!  Indeed, although we finished our report in 1993, it took until 1996 for it to be published (or should I say sneaked out when no one was looking) by the Department[2] who seemed paralysed by joint concerns that the inculcation of design into the planning system might fatally undermine the British development industry, and would certainly raise the ire of architectural profession whose every creative desire would henceforth be squashed out of it by meddling planning committees.

In truth this was simply part of a process during which the ‘hands-off’ inclinations of the 1980s actually took the full decade of the 1990s to slowly mutate.  This process, tentatively began under Chris Patten when Secretary of State for Environment (1989-1990), was dramatically speeded up by John Gummer later in the decade, but had to await the report of the Urban Task Force in 1999 before the Department had enough confidence to fully go along with the idea that a public aspiration for higher quality design was OK.

The birth of By Design

The publication of By Design in 2000 therefore represented the culmination of a process, the redemption of design in planning.  However, whilst its birth delivered the most significant of government design guides, it was no less long and painful than the research report on local design policies had been four years earlier.

The authors – Kelvin Campbell and Rob Cowan – had initially produced a rather cleaver ‘Thinking machine’, as they called it, at the heart of a new guide that related aspects of physical form to a set of clear urban design objectives.  They boldly claimed “Any policy, guidance or design that cannot be seen clearly as a response to one or more urban design objectives will contribute nothing to good urban design.  Equally, any policy, guidance or design that is not expressed clearly in terms of one or more aspects of development form will be too vague to have any effect”[3].  The statement reflected a wider argument that had increasingly been made throughout the 1990s that urban design (not aesthetic design) was key to successful planning, and that planning without a concern for physical form represented an abdication of responsibility.

Whist the basic idea persisted, the ‘process’ focussed earlier versions of the guide were corrupted over time as successive civil servants (and associated ‘expert’ advisory panels) seemed to flounder in the face of this poison chalice (as design was still seen).  The result was somewhat less attractive, more verbose and less useful than it could have been, although, once published, its impact has certainly been profound.  The final guide was jointly badged by the newly constituted CABE and the Department for Environment, Transport & the Regions (DETR – as the DoE, who under John Gummer had begun the guide’s incarnation, had become).  But whilst CABE, to whom the guide is often erroneously credited, played a relatively small role in the production of By Design, the subtle pressure they were able to bring to bear was perhaps the significant factor in finally ensuring its publication.

The demise of By Design

In the view of Lord Taylor, 12 years or so after the publication of By Design, the case for urban design in the planning process has become so mainstreamed that By Design is no longer needed.  One might argue that this represents a significant achievement of successive Governments, CABE, professionals of all descriptions (almost all of whom have come to accept that design and planning are, in the words of the National Planning Policy Framework, “indivisible”), and of course By Design.  Job done, no need for such guidance any more!

Yet now CABE is much reduced, and its welter of design guidance on just about every aspect of design and the development process has been relegated to the national archives, one wonders who in the future will be the “organisations providing best practice guidance” on design that Taylor clearly thinks are out there.  Today we can look back at what CABE did and think that perhaps it overdid it on the publications front, but this body of work (much of great quality) will soon become dated or simply slip from our collective memory and we will be left with the few words on design in the NPPF and whatever is deemed appropriate for the new online resource.

Whist the words in NPPF are positive concerning the role of design in planning (in sharp contrast to that available twenty years ago at the start of this story), we could too easily find ourselves back to square one in terms of the advice and resources on design available to planners.  That would be a huge backward step.  Personally I feel that Government can have a positive role in helping to uncover and share best practice, and when the fervour of de-cluttering is done, perhaps we can find ways to re-invent that role; this time with a little less trepidation and a little more intelligence than before.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


January 2013

[1] Lord Matthew Taylor of Goss More (2012) External Review of Government Planning Practice Guidance, London, DCLG

[2] Punter J, Carmona M, & Platts A (1996) Design Policies in Local Plans: A Research Report, London, DoE

[3] Campbell K & Cowan R (1999) Finding the Tools for Better Design, Planning, 12th February: 16-17