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There's nothing clear about NPPF

Greg Clark says he’s simplified planning, but the view from the coalface is different, writes Christine Murray

When AJ reporter Merlin Fulcher asked planning minister Greg Clark this week whether England should have a policy for architecture, he said the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was England’s architecture policy.

Clark said that by culling hundreds of pages of guidance and embedding an emphasis on design, the NPPF puts architecture at the heart of planning. ‘This is the feature of the NPPF which is most innovative and most radical,’ said Clark. ‘Clearly it’s a clarion call to high quality and innovative architecture.’

‘What we have actually done with the NPPF is to make it absolutely unambiguously clear that high quality architecture is encouraged in the planning process,’ added Clark.

But Clark’s comments struck with some irony, because while it may be too early to judge the full impact of the NPPF, architects working at the coalface of planning have said there is nothing clear or unambiguous about it.

Indeed, by inviting so many community groups and stakeholders to judge a project’s architectural merit, planning is becoming more arduous and even more vulnerable to the vagaries of taste. It seems architects no longer simply have to win over the planning authority, but every local husband, mother and child. 

Greg Lomas, director of Foster Lomas, describes the policy as ‘vague and full of statements that are open to interpretation. The claim is that it should simplify planning policy, but it’s just confusing.’

Lomas feels this ‘lack of clarity’ might be the reason why applications are taking three to four weeks to be validated, whereas a year ago two weeks was the norm. ‘There is also far less dialogue with planning officers than there used to be, although this could be the result of cuts to staff and budgets.’

And while Dominic Eaton, director of Stride Treglown, agrees that it may be too early to judge the NPPF effect, he is nevertheless concerned ‘that the planning process has become very complex with a wide range of stakeholders involved in decision-making.’

‘I was involved in a start-up meeting for a large housing scheme recently won in competition, and there were 23 people around the table,’ says Eaton. ‘There has always been collaboration and consultation with local design review panels and third-party stakeholders, however the amount of time and effort this takes is considerably more than, say, five years ago.’

Which raises another concern for Eaton: the amount of work now required to prepare a detailed planning application: ‘I believe that much of this work is actually moving into RIBA Stage E, while our fees for a detailed planning application are still calculated up to Stage D.’

Clark said he remembers the AJ voicing concern back in March 2011 that the PPS7 country house clause would be rescinded: ‘Far from repealing it, my intention was to mainstream it, to apply it not just to the countryside but to the whole country.’

Perhaps that’s exactly what we’ve got. As anyone who’s ever tried to win planning under PPS7 knows, it’s exceptionally difficult to make the case with the planning authority for a project on the basis of design alone. Under the NPPF, architects will also need to win the hearts and minds of NIMBYs everywhere.

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