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Sustainable development is 'a golden thread'- but what does it really mean?

Sherin Aminossehe talks to MP John Howell about the government’s new national planning frameworks and what it really means for architects and design quality

Architects would be forgiven these days for a degree of paranoia when it comes to what certain members of the government think of them. However things have changed, we are told. The proverbial olive branch has been extended and the whole issue of our ‘money grabbing role’ in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) has been forgotten - for the moment. BSF has been replaced by a contentious new £2 billion programme which was announced at the end of July (AJ 20.07.2011).

Furthermore, we’re assured that under the Localism Bill the architect will have the opportunity to regain his or her rightful place at the top of the profession.

With the launch of Good design – it all adds (AJ 12.07.11) at the RIBA last month by John Penrose there seems to be a reassuring level of acceptance about the social and economic value of good architecture and design but how will that that translate into the new legislation. But what will the situation be in 12 months’ time when the Localism Act is in place, the regional tier of government is gone, the IPC has been disbanded and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has replaced the PPSs and PPGs.

For that I turned to Conservative MP John Howell, the original ‘architect’ of the government’s planning reports and the author of the Open Source Planning green paper. What safeguards will there be in the bill in presumption of good design and how does he sees the role of the architect developing?

He replies: ‘Planning will continue to be a mixture of that which requires legislation -the Localism Bill - and that which is planning policy. 

‘The latter is what the NPPF is all about. I’m looking forward to planning policy being in one volume, in clear English which makes planning policy accessible to the many. At its heart will be a strong presumption in favour of sustainable development as originally proposed in Open Source Planning and which will run like a golden thread throughout the planning system.’

The NPPF published on 25 July is important because for the first time since the announcement of the principles of Localism, the government has stated that planning should proactively drive and support ‘the development that this country needs’ rather than a NIMBY mentality which was what the industry feared.

Creating a definition for ‘sustainable development’ will prove slightly trickier and it will be up to the profession to press for a series of criteria rather than a standard definition which could prove to be too limiting, or too vague and open to misinterpretation.

Now that the NPPF and sustainable development have been ticked off, what about the design?

Howell adds: ‘In my mind, good design and good planning go hand in hand. Architects will want to work with local neighbourhoods and with local authorities to develop quality design which contributes to a shared vision for an area.  Architects have also got much to give beyond their immediate professional skills. 

‘Their wide experience of the built environment and planning will I‘m sure make many of them natural advisers to those communities wanting to take forward a neighborhood plan.

‘These are exciting and radical reforms which will transform our planning system.  I hope the profession is as excited about this as I am.’ 

Apprehensive is probably a better description. But while being cautious about new legislation can be a good thing, there’s no time to cower in the corner or wait for others to take the lead, we should make a conscious decision to widen our role. Legislation looks as if it will broaden our remit and we should take advantage of it.

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