Architects and planners alike are celebrating the release of the National Planning Policy Framework for its emphasis on local decision-making and innovative design
Architects welcomed the long-awaited centrepiece of the government’s planning reform this week, an overwhelmingly pro-growth document that slashes policy from more than 1,000 pages to 52 and introduces a strong focus on design.
The draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out guiding principles for planning across England, including the assertion that ‘decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is “yes”’.
Robert Adam, director of Adam Architecture, said: ‘This is a fundamental change. The right to do as you wish with your property is a democratic right, unless there is a very significant reason for not doing it. I’m looking forward to going to a planning department and saying to them, “It’s your job to tell me how you’re going to say yes.”’
Design has a high profile throughout the document. Local plans will set out the quality of design expected in an area, while local authorities are told to favour outstanding or innovative designs, and refuse poor designs. Design review also looks set to play a major role in planning.
Philip Singleton, chair of the RIBA Planning Group, said: ‘I had feared that the public sector was showing some signs of dumbing down its understanding of the importance of design. Now, because of this framework, local planning authorities will need to turn the volume up and make sure that design is understood and on the agenda through the planning application process.’
Andy von Bradsky, chair of PRP Architects, praised the design aspects of the document, but added that this is only the first step. ‘Requiring local design reviews to ensure high standards of design is particularly welcomed, together with significant weight on truly outstanding and innovative design,’ he said. ‘The big question will be how the framework’s objectives and aspirations become reality in the current economic climate and how long it will take to implement. ’
The framework is now subject to a three-month consultation period, during which it can be taken as a material consideration in planning decisions.
At a glance: The draft National Planning Policy Framework
Sustainable development is the principal aim of the planning framework. Ministers have defined this as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. A ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ underpins the whole document, described as a ‘golden thread’ running through planning decisions. Plans should have
an economic, social and environmental role, while authorities should ‘approve all individual proposals wherever possible’.
The government’s description of development management is intended to spark a shift in the way local authorities approach planning. Ministers have stated that ‘the primary objective of development management is to foster the delivery of sustainable development, not to hinder or prevent development’. Local authorities are told they need to ‘look for solutions rather than problems so that applications can be approved wherever it is practical to do so’. The importance of pre-application discussions and community engagement is a strong theme. In addition, authorities are advised to consider a range of options to speed up the planning process, including planning performance agreements, local development orders and the community right to build.
The importance of good design is prominent throughout the framework. Planning minister Greg Clark’s foreword states: ‘Our standards of design can be so much higher. We are a nation renowned worldwide for creative excellence, yet at home, confidence in development
itself has been eroded by the
too frequent experience of mediocrity.’ A dedicated
design section adds that ‘significant weight should be given to truly outstanding or innovative designs’ and that ‘permission should be refused for development of obviously poor design’. Planning authorities are expected to have local design review arrangements in place and refer major projects to national design review.
Increasing the number of houses being built is a key objective for the government. Local authorities are expected to identify sites to provide five years worth of housing, with an additional 20 per cent allowance to ensure choice and competition. If councils are unable to show an up-to-date five-year supply of housing sites, planning permission should be granted. The country house clause, which allows for isolated homes in the countryside based on ‘the exceptional quality or the innovative nature of the design’ has been kept after concerns that the policy would be lost were raised in the Architects’ Journal (AJ 10.03.11).
Heritage assets are to be protected ‘in a manner appropriate to their significance’. When considering applications which will have an impact on
the historic environment, local authorities are told that conservation should be attributed ‘considerable importance’ but that a ‘balanced judgement’ will be required in weighing this up against the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Ministers are clearly wary of allowing bureaucracy through the back door, instructing authorities to ensure that conservation areas justify their status and that ‘the concept of conservation is not devalued through the designation of areas that lack special interest’.
The environmental impact of such a pro-growth approach to planning has been a primary concern of many think tanks and campaigners. Ministers advise that the planning system should protect ‘valued landscapes’ and prevent risk to new and existing development from ‘land, air, water or noise pollution or land instability’. Development in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty should be refused for major developments except in exceptional circumstances, but consideration of such applications should include both environmental concerns and an assessment of ‘the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy’.
Comment: Greg Clark, planning minister
With this policy we are able to give a much firmer advantage to good design and made it more difficult to impose mediocre design. I hope that communities will feel more confident in this clear and simple framework to assert their own needs and demands. Clearly communities have an important role to play in judging good design. But through design review there is a professional role.
Peer scrutiny has a valuable part to play. Britain has some of the best architects in the world and it is mad not to have their contribution encouraged in the planning system rather than excluded. This policy gives significant weight to truly outstanding or innovative designs. Applicants will no doubt present evidence from respected people in support of their applications.
This is a fantastic day for design and the architecture profession. Part of the purpose of planning is to improve our standards of design. That is one of the most important aspects of this document.