59. Design and the NPPF – re-writing the rules?

The latest draft of the English National Planning Policy framework (NPPF) was launched on the 5th March.  Sitting in Central London in a room full of expectant professionals, and watching the Prime Minister launch the policy, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu.  In particular the claim made by the Prime Minister that the Government had been “re-writing the rules of planning”[1] needs testing.  Similar claims have been made by Ministers and Prime Ministers of different political persuasions ever since we first realised that we had a housing crisis in the mid-1990s.  A generation later we seem to have done very little about it and, despite endless tinkering and a good dose of disinvestment, the planning system remains largely intact.

At its heart, a few tweaks to planning policy (seemingly always the first call of our national politicians) will never be the answer to the systemic problem of lack of supply caused by an over-reliance on a few large housebuilders whose own best interest is not served by trying to solve the housing crisis.  Seen from their perspective, a housing crisis stemming from a lack of supply to meet an ever-rising demand is very good for business thank you!

Similar things can be said about the NPPF’s paragraphs on design.  Since the early 1990s I have been writing pieces on the various incarnations of our national design policy (currently contained in the NPPF), and in that time, very little has really changed.  So what’s the evidence this time around.

Goodbye to a few old chestnuts

Whilst previous incarnations of the design paragraphs (1969, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1992, 1997, 2005, 2012) have tended to feature a slow evolution of the same text, with whole sections copied almost word for word between iterations, this time around the paragraphs have been completely re-written, with few phrases surviving completely intact.  In the process a few old chestnuts have been swept away:

The design / planning interface: One that I shall miss is the very clear and forceful statement included in the 2012 version of the NPPF but with origins in the 2005 Planning Policy Statement (PPS1), that good design “is indivisible from good planning, and should contribute positively to making places better for people”.  To my mind this simple statement really establishes the centrality of design to planning in a context when many of our planners have little design training and can all too readily feel that design is something separate and distinct from planning – IT IS NOT.  So saying this loudly and clearly at the front of the national policy on design has a clear benefit.  Instead the new draft begins with the simple and unequivocal statement that “Planning policies and decisions should support the creation of high quality buildings and places”.  A little less poetic, a little more direct, but maybe that’s no bad thing.

Prescription on design: Also gone, and good riddance to this one, is the list of seven physical factors that have been knocking around in one form of another since a draft Circular in 1983 and which are typically used to place limits on the scope of design policies.  Thus, from the Planning Policy Guidance (PPG1) of 1992 onwards, policy has stated that ‘design policies should avoid unnecessary prescription or detail and should concentrate on guiding the overall scale, density, massing, height, landscape, layout and access’.

Whilst these matters are all central design concerns, they are also exclusively physical and so limiting local design policy to such matters has increasingly contradicted the broader notion of the social and environmental contribution that good design can make as advocated in successive iterations of the national policy.  NPPF (2012), for example, advocates that plans cover the design implications of adaptability, sustainability, functionality, site capacity, mix of uses, character, identity, safety, sense of community, and visual quality, all in direct contradiction to the advice in the same note that design should concentrate on the seven physical factors.  In the new draft we see a diverse list of qualities for planning authorities to address that range from visual attractiveness to a sense of place, to safe and inclusive access, but this time, no contradiction – hooray!

Design innovation: The somewhat negative assertion that planning authorities “should not stifle innovation, originality or initiative through unsubstantiated requirements to conform to certain development forms or styles” is also gone.  This wording had its origins way back in the Development Control Policy Note 10 of 1969 and ever since has been at the forefront of a tension between the freedom that many architects feel is necessary to practice their art, and the tendency of many communities and their councillors to favour more contextual and traditional styles.

On this issue the pendulum has clearly shifted.  So, whilst the new policy states “great weight should be given to outstanding or innovative designs”, it qualifies this with the assertion “so long as they are sensitive to the overall form and layout of their surroundings”.  Here, a separate analysis published alongside the draft NPPF and seeking to explain the changes, notes that the NPPF: “has been revised to make clear that ‘outstanding or innovative designs’ should not be given great weight where they are in conflict with local design policies, or would not be sensitive to their surroundings”[2].

Strangely, this does not seem to apply in the countryside, where 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.  Now the key tests are that such a project should be of truly outstanding or innovative architectural design and would significantly enhance its immediate setting.  Plenty for the lawyers to continue to get their teeth into there!  But one wonders why similar tests don’t apply elsewhere?

The question of variety: No doubt by way as a sop to those architects for whom contextual design is an anathema, the revised NPPF now states that the level of detail and prescription in planning documents “should not inhibit a suitable degree of variety” in the design of development, particularly “where the existing urban form is already diverse”.  In other words, greater freedom should be allowed in areas without a coherent character.  Perhaps these will be the architectural playgrounds of the future?

A more proactive planning

As well as stripping out some of the remaining ‘negative’ associations between design and undue interference and prescription, the proposed new policy framework introduces a welcome emphasis on planning being more proactive and visual through the creation of a positive design framework through which to guide development.  It does this in a number of ways.

Propositional tools: Like PPS1 (2005), the 2012 framework explicitly endorsed the use of design codes by local planning authorities, although counter-intuitively also warned that “any additional development plan documents should only be used where clearly justified”.  In the latest draft this has been replaced with what I and others have been calling for many years (e.g. here), namely a call to arms for local authorities to “provide maximum clarity about design expectations” up front and early in the development process through the use of plans and supplementary planning documents.  These include design codes and guides that are explicitly visual and directive and focussed on “creating distinctive places with a consistent and high quality standard of design”.

Finally, it seems, the Government have shed their reticence to recommend more proactive design tools.  Let’s just hope that local authorities have the necessary skills and resources to once again create or commission them. The recent research on Urban Design Skills in English Local Authorities reported in my last blog suggests that currently they don’t.

Understanding context: Related to this drive to a more active planning, the draft framework reinforces advice included in national policy from 1997 onwards that local policies and proposals should be based upon a proper “understanding and evaluation of each area’s defining characteristics”, and consequently that “Permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area”.  Currently character appraisal rarely happens, and one suspects that the resource constraints currently faced by local government won’t assist in moving this assertion much beyond an aspiration.

Involving communities: More forceful in this iteration of the NPPF is the affirmation that local communities should be involved in both the development of design policies, in order that “they reflect local aspirations”, and in the evolution and assessment of individual projects.  Like the 2012 NPPF, applicants that can demonstrate such engagement in an effective manner, “should be looked on more favourably”.

For the first time the use of ‘design workshops’ (commonly referred to elsewhere as charrettes) are advocated by the Government as a means to improve the design of development, no doubt by engaging key parties, including the community, in a more proactive manner early in the process.  In Scotland, such methods are increasingly advocated by the Scottish Government in order to achieve early and positive engagement.  Their greater use in England would undoubtedly encourage a further move along that road from development based on confrontation to a greater degree of consensus.

Two surprises

Whilst this move (even if subtle) towards a more proactive planning is welcome, two other changes were not.

Design review: On the question of design review, the new framework (perhaps unintentionally) seems to retreat.  Whilst the draft policy states: “Local planning authorities should ensure that they have appropriate tools and processes for assessing and improving the design of development”, it merely states that “these include design advice and review arrangements” and does not attempt to require the use of design review.  This contrasts with the more forceful 2012 statement that: “Local planning authorities should have local design review arrangements in place”.

In reality, the design skills research refereed to earlier demonstrated that this exhortation carried little weight with many local authorities up and down the country to whom design review remains a stranger.  Nevertheless, the new wording provides even less motivation to make a dedicated provision for design as it is open to greater interpretation on this point.  “Appropriate tools and processes” may, for example, simply imply standard development management arrangements where a non-specialist planning officer is charged to give advice and make decisions on design.  Yet, as forthcoming research on design review arrangements in London will shortly show, where systematic design review arrangements are in place, substantial benefits follow for all parties, notably in the culture change on design that such provision can help to inspire (watch this space).

We don’t quite trust you: In a further unexpected development (although this was trailed in the recent Housing White Paper, so perhaps it shouldn’t be), the proposed design paragraphs of the revised NPPF state “where the design of a development accords with clear expectations in local policies, design should not be used by the decision-maker as a valid reason to object to development”.  This raises the question, why does design (uniquely amongst the range of topics covered by the NPPF) need to have such a statement warning local authorities against ignoring their own policies.  Is this because there remains a lingering sense in the Ministry that this is all rather subjective and that policies can all too easily be set aside with design used as a means to oppose unpopular development, regardless of its merits.

I have yet to see any evidence that this is the case, but perhaps it is also why design is omitted from the range of issues that the proposed NPPF argues should be covered in the ‘strategic policies’ that are now required “as a minimum” from local planning authorities. 
 This is worrying.  If delivery of a high quality built environment is not a strategic priority everywhere (as it is here in the new London Plan) then we are surely doomed to see a continuation of the very poor places that remain all too common across England.

Two key final challenges

The revised framework does deal head-on with two critical challenges that have often been at the root cause of poor quality placemaking: density and highways.

The challenges of density: The first of these, the move towards making more effective use of land, is one of the key drivers behind the revised NPPF, with new policy provisions that range from encouraging the development and use of minimum density standards to utilising the airspace above existing premises where opportunities allow.  At the same time authorities are reminded of the desirability of maintaining an area’s prevailing character (including residential gardens) if that is a positive one, and of the importance of securing well-designed attractive places, even whilst density is increasing.

If anything, the drive to raise densities (which I have argued for in a recent blog) is entirely logical and sensible in many of our large cities, constrained as they are by green belts and other designations, but each having to deal with their own version of a local housing crises.  But building at density does bring with it the even greater design challenges that an intensely used and built environment brings, arguably requiring an even greater focus, commitment and leadership on design from local government and the Centre.  This revised policy seems lukewarm at best.

The highways problem: The second is particularly welcome and comes in the explicit recognition in the Transport section of the proposed NPPF that “patterns of movement, streets, parking and other transport considerations are integral to the design of schemes and contribute to making high quality places”; or currently, more typically, contribute to undermining those qualities.  Highways design all too often remains the thorn in the side of planning authorities with an ambition to create high quality places but whom are then unable to persuade their Highways Authorities to share a similar vision.

In such localities, rather than an ambition to create places of quality, the 1992 roads dominated visions of Design Bulletin 32 (as opposed to Manual for Streets) still hold sway as written in stone in the standards of too many County Councils.  If anything, on this point, the NPPF needs to be stronger and endorsed by the Department for Transport to ensure it has the full weight of Government behind it.  If not, Highways Authorities will continue to go their own tarmac dominated merry way!

So have the rules been re-written?

In a narrow sense of a substantial edit (more so than usual) the design paragraphs of the draft NPPF have been re-written.  But what of the wider ‘root and branch’ sense implied by the Prime Minister that this new draft represents a step change in planning policy?  On the evidence of the design paragraphs … not really.

There have been some welcome deletions and a few welcome additions, many focused on a new priority to the ‘process’ of good design as enshrined in the revised title for the section on design: “Achieving well-designed places”.  But despite the many new words, the content is not dramatically different and the fine words, whilst welcome, will not require or inspire the culture change on design that is so desperately needed across England.

On this front the Government sill is not showing the leadership that is so clearly required.  A few rules have been tweaked, some entirely re-written, but without a significant injection of resources, drive, and commitment from the Government, the outcomes will be more of the same.  I would conclude: Could do better!

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


March 2018

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-speech-on-housing-to-set-out-changes-to-planning-rules

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/685288/NPPF_Consultation.pdf