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Planning for better design The Urban Task Force report calls for serious consideration of design concerns in local planning. But what about ppg3? BY BRIAN WATERS

The design agenda seems to be infiltrating planning, and not before time. The Civic Trust, in evidence to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs select committee, this month urged the government to 'lead by example in its own programmes and, in the practical encouragement to local authorities, to find resources to develop their design and development skills'.

The Civic Trust was considering the new draft ppg3 on housing1, whose consultation period has recently come to an end. It went on to point out that the Urban Task Force report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, has made several recommendations which could help reduce what the trust sees as weaknesses in the draft ppg2. It is not alone in being critical of this draft and in hoping that the final version will be substantially different. Even departments of government have been privately dismissive of some of its content.

Referring to quality

Our own Association of Consultant Architects has made a robust submission3 to detr which includes a go at the design implications. 'The draft makes repeated references to quality of design', says Eli Abt, writing for the aca planning group. 'Local planning authorities (lpas) are asked to promote good design in new housing developments to create attractive, high-quality living environments. Their plans should promote improved layouts of developments which promote good quality urban design.

'To achieve all this lpas are asked to plan for the whole built environment - buildings, streets and spaces - and to prepare planning policies and supplementary design guidance which takes into account existing planning- policy guidance and advice on design. ...The most notable single omission from the document and its related guidance - indeed conspicuous by its absence - is any reference to the need to involve competent and suitably qualified designers ... to help attain the draft design objectives. The entire document is predicated on the idea that good design can be achieved by declarations of planning policy. It cannot: good design can only be achieved by good designers.

'Instead the government offers applicants and authorities' officers and members advice on design in an as-yet unpublished research project entitled Design in the Planning System: a Companion Guide to Planning Policy Guidance Note 1 (1999). Leaving aside the anomaly of having to comment on draft guidance in which unpublished advice references cannot be verified, that approach is considered misguided. Whereas any attempt at achieving a more informed approach to design is to be welcomed, especially as planners are not generally trained in the subject, this initiative is surely not enough on its own.

'The government expects decision-making to be backed by professional advice in numerous aspects of public life, from health to investment; yet in the all-important matter of creating and renewing the built environment, it prefers to ignore the design professions entirely,' concludes the aca submission.

Quite apart from the new emphasis on the need for good (urban) design seen in the Urban Task Force report and the draft ppg3 - both see salvation in higher, urban densities, which will be hard to provide in an acceptable way without skilled consideration of form by architects - there will be a need for extensive new planning work which can only be achieved with input from designers.

ppg3 will introduce the 'sequential approach' for housing development and is supported in this by the Task Force. lpas are to be asked to 'assess potential sites and areas against a comprehensive list of criteria'. This will be a rich seam for consultants to mine.

An obvious weakness in the draft is the confusion of the need for such analyses in plan preparation and in the consideration of planning applications.

Sequential approach

As the aca points out: 'The effect at development-control level will be that any refusal on the grounds that a proposal does not meet the criteria of the sequential approach ... is likely to generate extended debates at hearing or public inquiry about whole lists of urban housing sites, if appellants have grounds for demonstrating, as is likely in these circumstances, that the lpa's capacity study is flawed, inadequate or out-of-date. Para. 30 of the draft calls for planning-by-appeal to be avoided, but it is difficult to see how that can be achieved in practice. The number of such debates conducted hitherto in the retail sector is likely to pale in comparison with those in housing, a prospect which does not augur well for the performance of the planning system.'

The most difficult criterion to assess will be that of availability. The London Planning Advisory Committee in 1992 prepared a capacity-assessment for housing sites and conversions which fell dramatically short of what developers actually achieved as the office market collapsed and the housing market revived.

Five years on it has over-compensated in its expectations, as the value of commercial uses has revived and the circular on affordable housing has significantly reduced the total of market and social housing which had been anticipated. To prepare urban-capacity studies worth having will take much time, skill and resources yet to be identified; the market does not wait.

1. Revision of ppg3: Housing from detr Tel. 0870 122 6236 or at www.planning.haynet.com

2. Brownfield Housing 12 years on, the Civic Trust's report for the House Builders Federation from Tel. 0171 930 0914.

3. From ACA Tel. 0181 325 1402.

Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership: 0171 828 6555/ brian@bwcp.demon.co.uk

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