70. Planning for an uglier future

Alongside the budget this year we saw the publication of the policy document Planning for the Future.  The document exemplifies the continued split personality that has come to characterise this and previous governments when it comes to planning.

On the one hand the document espouses a ‘world-class planning service’ and the need to ‘create beautiful and sustainable places’ for everyone.  On the other it talks a language of deregulation wrapped up in extending permitted development rights, expanding the use of zoning tools, and giving automatic rebates of planning fees when local authorities loose appeals.

This is a schizophrenia that is impossible to disguise.  It is an approach that is simply not credible if we are to really have world class planning!

Taking the positives first

Focussing on design, there are a number of very welcome although largely undefined commitments in Planning for the Future:

  • Reinforcing the treatment of design in the NPPF – here the aim should be to remove the ambiguities and wriggle room that continues to let mediocre and poorly designed schemes through the planning system: three quarters of volume housebuilder projects according to A Housing Design Audit for England.
  • Deliver tree lined streets – currently too many highways authorities are unwilling to adopt street trees without developers first paying crippling commuted sums for their maintenance. As new tree lined streets have increasingly become a rarity, these practices need to be stopped.
  • Introduce a new National Model Design Code – as long as it avoids attempting to be too prescriptive at the national level and instead allows and encourages local authorities to shape local codes to local circumstances, this is a valuable commitment. The critical point to remember is that it is not the presence of a code per se that leads to good design, but the act of place-based design that goes along with creating it.
  • Introduce a new Future Home Standard (80% reduction in carbon emissions for new homes by 2025) – this is long overdue and very welcome, although some will question whether it goes far or quickly enough.

These are all sensible and proactive tools of Government and reflect the idea of a state that is active in setting clear design aspirations in the public interest because they add place value, or, in the parlance of the paper, create more beautiful places (mentioned 14 times across the eleven pages).

Now for the negatives

Offsetting these ideas are three proposals that pull in the opposite direction, towards an uglier future.

Automatic rebates will lead to more poor and mediocre design

The policy paper suggests: “to promote proper consideration of applications by planning committees, where applications are refused, applicants will be entitled to an automatic rebate of their planning application fee if they are successful at appeal”.

In the 28 years that I have been researching the relationship between design and planning, a recurrent issue has been the fear local authorities feel in pushing poorly designed development to appeal because of the threat of having costs awarded against them.  This move will make planning authorities even more reluctant to refuse poor and mediocre design for fear that it will land them with a big bill which they can ill afford.  Some developers (knowing this, and not subject to reciprocal measures themselves) will adopt a policy of deliberate belligerence, threatening to go to appeal at every turn.

A Housing Design Audit for England revealed evidence that successive phases of large housing schemes were already being dumbed down over time as some developers were resorting to appeal in order to water down design ambitions during the consideration of reserved matters applications.  This proposal will simply make matters worse, fatally undermining the most important tool that local authorities have at their disposal to drive up standards, namely the threat that planning permission will be withheld.

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This ‘poorly’ scoring scheme was pushed through on appeal

Either we should properly balance the scales by granting local authorities automatic recovery of their costs when appeals are dismissed, or Inspectors should simply continue to use their current discretion to grant costs (but not fees) in exceptional cases.  Anything else will perpetuate poor and mediocre design and an uglier England.

Zoning is no short-cut to quality

The policy note states: “the government will outline further support for local areas to simplify the process of granting planning permission for residential and commercial development through zoning tools, such as Local Development Orders”.

In various guises this is something that Governments have repeatedly come back to over many years.  Simplified Planning Zones, Local Development Orders and Permission in Principle are all cut from the same cloth, namely a thinly disguised belief that discretionary planning gets in the way of economic development and should be done away with.  The result is usually pretty ugly!

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Heywood Distribution Park – Simplified Planning Zone

Today zoning is being advocated because it leads to ‘as-of-right’ permissions based on criteria set out in a zoning instrument with little or no discretionary interpretation.  The reality is not so clear cut.  Zoning, like planning, comes in many shapes and sizes although crudely we can identify three types:

  • Pure as-of-right zoning – This is used in countries such as Japan and large parts of the USA. It crudely controls land uses, development quantum and certain form-based issues e.g. set backs and building height, and, as long as you build within those parameters, you can build what you want.  This seems to be what the current policy paper is after as it offers simple, speedy and effective control.  But let us be clear, it does so at the expense of design quality as there is no interpretation, no contextual application and no coherence.  If you have travelled to Japan or seen an American strip mall or suburb you will see this form of zoning in its purest form.  The result is either visual chaos or monotony (depending on what is being controlled) and the very opposite of what most would regard as beautiful.
  • Zoning overlaid with discretion – To overcome these problems, cities such as New York epitomise a zoning system that has at its roots a ‘pure as-of-right’ system, but one that has been repeatedly developed over the years in order to overcome the limitations of such systems.  This has been achieved by adding layer upon layer of so called special districts and overlay zones.  These add contextual sophistication to the system and opportunities for the sort of discretionary interpretation that characterises the British system.  Today, New York’s zoning ordinance is over 900 pages long and requires an army of zoning officials to interpret it and an equally big army of lawyers to challenge it.  If the aim is simplification, this is not the route to go down!
  • Design-based zoning – If we wish to combine as-of-right with design sophistication, then this is the model to use. In Germany, for example, land use provisions are accompanied by carefully constructed site-specific regulating plans (B-plans) that establish the morphological framework within which development occurs.  In effect this guarantees design quality by setting the unifying design parameters through which subsequent developments (large and small) coalesce to form coherent and connected bits of the city.  But be in no doubt, this is not cheaper, quicker or more efficient, instead it requires careful up-front design for each site – typically by the public sector – and (crucially) before developers are able to submit their schemes and achieve a consent.

No system is a panacea.  Design-based zoning can lead to poor quality design outcomes as well as to exceptional ones.  The key is in linking the zone allocation with the preparation of a place based design code or framework (not a generic one).  When zoning was last on the national agenda, working with Studio REAL I suggested that this might come in the form of a simple Coordinating Code for each site that combines elements of a design framework with a code underpinned by a basic site analysis (all on one A3 sheet).  The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission picked up on this idea and recommended it to Government.

Ultimately there is no short-cut to quality.  To achieve it requires a coherent place-based design process.  Using a Coordinating Code can assist in smoothing the process through quickly and simply establishing the key ‘must have’ parameters from the point of view of the local authority and the community it serves, but it will still require a coherent design response from the developer.  Anything less and the outcome is bound to be unacceptable.

Building beautiful but permitting ugly

Finally, the policy note states: “we will introduce new permitted development rights for building upwards on existing buildings by summer 2020 … We will also consult on the detail of a new permitted development right to allow vacant commercial buildings, industrial buildings and residential blocks to be demolished and replaced with well-designed new residential units”.

Our recent dalliance with loosening Permitted Development Rights has not been a happy one, notably the relaxation of office to residential.  Colleagues at the Bartlett School of Planning have shown that the consequences of living without the safeguards of planning result in subjecting some of our most disadvantaged citizens to living in totally isolated locations, next to bad neighbour uses, in units with little (and sometimes no) daylight, or with space standards that would shock an Indian slum dweller.

Extending this to the demolition and redevelopment of vacant industrial and commercial buildings (even if the units themselves are well designed) is an extension of the same wrong-headed approach to development.  The new block may be beautifully designed, but if it is in the middle of an industrial estate, on the edge of the city with no public transport, or has no local facilities and amenities, then it is ‘bad’ design and life will not be beautiful.  Planning was invented to protect us from such basic errors, and as we face new global health and climate challenges, we need it more than ever.

The same goes for extending vertically upwards without the need for planning permission.  One only has to visit any non-conservation area residential district to see the sorts of ugliness (on a much smaller scale) that we will be allowing to further engulf us.

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Cancerous roof lumps                                 Ugly extra stories                                 Oversized pretend roofs

Of course it is possible to extend sensitively upwards with the right design in the right locations, but this needs to be well designed and any negative consequences need to be carefully considered and weighed against the advantages.  The question is, do we really want to extend such practices wholesale to allow two extra stories without the checks and balances that planning brings?  Few would welcome such unchecked ugliness.

Ultimately the issue is not whether we should convert office, retail or industrial to residential or build higher, in many cases we should.  The issue is whether we should do so without regard to the circumstances, the unintended consequences, or to the quality of the place.  The planning system is our safeguard against inappropriate development, and we only have to look at recent disastrous relaxations of permitted development rights to know what happens when we circumvent it.

Say it loud and clear, good design is not optional!

There is an essential lesson from this discussion.  We don’t need a new system of planning, what we need is to properly resource the one we have.  A system properly staffed with highly qualified and design literate planners, properly empowered within local authorities, and able to deliver proactive but focussed design guidance will deliver both an efficient and effective process, and one that offers the certainly and quality that we all – including developers – desire.

This, of course, cannot be achieved over night, although we should start the investment immediately.  In the meantime, is the short-term development gain (more sub-standard homes) worth the long-term loss of living in an uglier world?  I would argue no, because once ugliness has been inflicted, it will be all but impossible to row back.

This is not a zero sum gain, we can have both good design and enough affordable homes to go around, but to do this, first we need to abandon our schizophrenic approaches once and for all and then empower a design-led planning system.  Sending mixed messages only undermines the process in favour of more, mediocre, poor and ugly design.  The Government has an important role to play in encouraging a more flexible planning system – re-purposing buildings on our high streets, for example – but not in creating one without basic safeguards.

You only have to look at the results of A Housing Design Audit for England to know what happens if we decimate our planning system and look only to the market to deliver the housing we need.  Extending this from new estates to our existing urban fabric is not the right way to go.  Building ugly is not the answer, the Government’s policy paper says so itself: “We want a planning system that supports beautiful design”.  Say it loud and clear, even in our current crisis state, the Government needs to hear: good urban design is not optional, it is a basic necessity of life.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL

@ProfMCarmona

March 2020