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Creative architects will make the most of the new planning environment

Paul Finch’s letter from London: The new robustness toward design may concentrate the mind of those responsible for government procurement

The government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which with minor amendments and redefinitions has finally become law, offers opportunities to creative architects that were difficult if not impossible under planning policies of the past.

That is because the minister responsible for the new policy, Greg Clark, is concerned that we have become a nation of aesthetic nimbys whose default position, when faced with anything challenging on the design front, is to demand a planning refusal or a public inquiry.

That default position is a pity, given the wealth of architectural and other design talent available to clients in the UK today, and we can only hope that the spirit of design support evident in the NPPF is translated into reality.

The document is a spirited response to those ministers, like Michael Gove, who think it is fine to shovel children into dreadful third-rate environments, in his case in order to teach them. From its website, the school Gove attended looks very pleasant.

But, housing minister Clark is there to insist that where poor quality schools, or any other building type, are submitted for planning, the designs should be rejected. Good.

This new robustness toward design quality may also concentrate the minds of those responsible for government procurement, which appears to be heading towards an idea of integration that excludes clients from choosing their architects in favour of leaving it all up to the contractor. I hope this is not the case, but I fear it might be. If it turns out to be so, then it will be even more important for the construction sector to understand that if they hire poor designers who win the job with a silly fee bid, their troubles may have only just begun. One reason for this is the small but important change to the NPPF, urged by Design Council CABE: the removal of the word ‘obviously’ from the phrase ‘obviously poor design’ that should automatically trigger a planning refusal.

It may be time, given this new planning context, for the architectural profession to go on the front foot rather than fighting its usual rearguard action in the face of attacks on its competence, or community credentials, or ability to manage cost. This will be aimed at a variety of people and organisations who care nothing for design and its potential benefits. They may be ignorant of, or just prefer to ignore, the malign effect of poor buildings and places.

Planners themselves cannot be held responsible for circumstances where better or worse design results from planning decisions. I believe the Clark proposition also gives these professionals, who are often working under intense pressure, with limited resources and consequent low morale, the chance to reassert the importance of achieving high quality environments for local people. They are allies in the fight for good architecture.

Currently there are four typical situations in which applicants and architects find themselves: (a) where councillors are so keen on a development that they don’t care what the design quality is, and therefore the planning officers are hamstrung; (b) the council is minded to give permission if design quality is satisfactory, but may have difficult in determining whether that quality has been met; (c) where they are not keen on a development but might give permission if it was of sufficient quality; and (d) where the council is totally opposed to a development, even if designed by Christopher Wren.

The NPPF should help in cases (a), (b) and (c) – not least with help of independent design review.

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