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Design quality needs to be on everybody's agenda in the planning debate

The more talk there is of local identity, the faster we see the closure of fire stations, libraries, police stations and swimming pools, writes Paul Finch

For successive UK governments, policies to give local people more control over their immediate environments have been in conflict with the desire to promote growth and/or regeneration. Ministers have simultaneously demanded more consultation and speedier planning - without pausing for laughter.

The cynical view is that politicians want to give ‘communities’ maximum control over minor issues, but little say over anything really important. It is unacceptable, for example, for a neighbourhood to promote a policy of no development on its patch, however firmly held that view may be. Meanwhile, the more talk there is of local identity, the faster we see the closure of fire stations, libraries, post offices, police stations (just pop along to the non-local post office!) and swimming pools.

Planning officers have to hold the ring between conflicting interests and desires, producing the built environment we have around us.

The usual arguments over major developments might be described as trial by ordeal, to test the will and staying power of those proposing change. But let’s remember that this is not typical of the vast majority of planning decisions, made on the basis of advice from a hard-pressed professional group forever having to adopt, adapt, absorb and advise on endless changes of policy and guidance.

Not surprisingly, the accretional nature of planning in the UK has resulted in layers of planning law which have had the effect, at worst, of creating stasis by finding reasons to say no rather than yes, and of imposing cost and time delays on anyone who wants to build anything substantial. Hence the National Planning Policy Framework tried to reset the context in which planning takes place. It may yet succeed.

That context should be much more concerned with local communities, say those politicians who invented the concept of localism. That concept is now enshrined in law, even if there seems to be abroad a more dirigiste spirit which is more worried about growth than local corns being trodden on. The question remains: how to square the circle of national priorities, regional regeneration along Heseltinian lines, and that sense of local empowerment?

The Department of Communities and Local Government, which was responsible for the NPPF, has been working hard on this question and, it must be said, has started in some areas to pursue a positive vision of local plan-making. This is to be rolled out across the country with help and advice from organisations with a track record in advising on planning at a local level, Design Council CABE being one of them, we hope.

What is different about this government’s particular strategy is that it is based on positive planning, rather than reactive response to external proposal. That is a model which could usefully infuse the entire planning system, with plan-making at its heart rather than development control. If this initiative succeeds, it will mark a major change in how we think about the future.

Architects need to play a big part in this to ensure that design quality is on everyone’s agenda. As the demise of Design for London shows, that is not always the case.

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