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New planning push threatens design quality

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Government proposals to temporarily relax rules for house extensions in effort to boost building could see architects marginalised as homeowners turn to cheaper options, writes Merlin Fulcher

Architects have warned that the government’s new housing proposals could see the profession stripped of its role in designing house extensions.

Announced just six months after the controversial, pro-development National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was introduced, fresh plans to temporarily doubling the size
of permitted development rights on domestic extensions were met with criticism from small practitioners and provoked the RIBA to issue a statement about the threat to design quality.

Worrying data released this week shows that the NPPF has so far failed to kick-start house building. Research by the Home Builders Federation and Glenigan shows the number of new homes landing planning permission plummeted 32 per cent in the second quarter of this year.

Chris Medland, architect director of the recently set-up west London practice, One World Design, claimed the move would lead to architects being sidelined, with design and build firms benefiting.

‘By skipping the planning process, the process of design may also be skipped,’ he said.

He called on the government to instead license architects to self-certify small extensions and temporary permitted development.

Chris Wilkie, partner at Ipswich-based small practice Rees Pryer Architects – which focuses on affordable housing – is not convinced the proposed extension of permitted development rights would bolster the profession.

He said: ‘Rather than “boosting the industry” this will in fact have a negative effect – taking this [kind of] work out of the planning system [and] cutting out the involvement of professionals even further.

‘Not only would the planning stage be omitted, but also detailed design and builders would look to follow the building notice route. This will further stifle creativity. Many young architects develop their skills and showcase their abilities through these [smaller] opportunities. This could only be detrimental in the long run.’

In a statement, former RIBA president Ruth Reed – who leads the institute’s planning group – also raised concerns that further tinkering with the >> planning system could undermine the link between design quality and sustainable development established in the NPPF.

Under the potential new rules, households would be permitted single-storey extensions of up to 8m without the expense and delay of a planning application.Currently, only extensions of 3m on semi-detached homes and 4m on detached homes may avoid planning.

Businesses would also be permitted to expand shop premises by 100m² and industrial buildings by 200m².

The fresh planning upheaval was part of a raft of measures intended to kick-start the ailing housing sector which was revealed last week and included:

  • Removing affordable housing commitments thought to be hampering 75,000 new home stars.
  • A £10 billion loan guarantee scheme for private developers and housing associations.
  • A £300 million fund to deliver 15,000 affordable homes and refurbish 5,000 empty homes.
  • A £280 million boost to the FirstBuy scheme to help 16,500 first-time buyers.
  • Accelerating the release of surplus public sector land by providing a single shop window.
  • Fast-tracked commercial and residential applications to be decided by the planning inspectorate.
  • Poorly-performing planning authorities to be placed in ‘special measures’.

Alex Ely, senior partner at Mæ was sceptical about the government’s £300 million affordable housing contribution, pointing out it was equivalent to just £20,000 per house. ‘That’ll be an interesting challenge,’ he said.

However, Stitch Studio director Sally Lewis welcomed financial support for housing growth, though she added that ‘without well-resourced and well-intentioned planning authorities it will be wasted money’.

Glenn Howells Architects director Dav Bansal said the most challenging issue remained increasing access to mortgages.

He said: ‘If the government can focus more on lending criteria, we may start to see significant growth in building works within this sector. This in turn will help many of the smaller and struggling practices to grow their workload.’

PRP chair Andy von Bradsky said the fresh housing drive was ‘excellent news for architects but will not lead to an immediate increase in work’.

He added: ‘The remaining barrier is the supply of consented land, particularly public sector land, at realistic values.’

Stride Treglown director Dominic Eaton questioned how the government could defend plans to fast-track applications to the planning inspectorate in light of the localism agenda.

He said: ‘Unless clear guidance is issued soon, local authorities and the development industry will enter a period of even greater uncertainty at a time when what is needed is the removal of restrictions to financial borrowing, a positive attitude to plan-making and decisions in accordance with sustainable development principles.

‘These are the issues that have the potential to deliver tangible results, and quickly.’

Also included in the proposals was a revival of controversial permitted development rights for conversions from offices to housing, with councils able to request local exemptions.

The City of London sought an exemption from office to residential conversions – when it was mooted for inclusion in the NPPF – on the grounds that it would dilute the district’s unique business offering.

Responding to last week’s announcement, City planning officer Peter Rees suggested it was unclear if the policy was targeted at office premises or only retail.

Living Streets’ chief executive Tony Armstrong raised ‘deep concerns’ about the move, claiming it could place libraries and health centres at risk of redevelopment.

Last week’s overhaul of government housing policy occurred alongside the Cabinet reshuffle with Mark Prisk replacing housing minister Grant Shapps.

Liverpool-based planning consultant Jonathan Brown called on Prisk to remember failed past regeneration schemes before considering further housing renewal programmes.

Other appointments included RIBA honorary fellow Ed Vaizey replacing John Penrose as architecture minister and Caroline Spelman making way for alleged climate change sceptic Owen Paterson as environment secretary (see below).


Reshuffle: Meet the gang


Ed Vaizey

Source: DCMS

Ed Vaizey


Ed Vaizey, architecture minister

Conservative MP for Wantage Ed Vaizey has replaced John Penrose as architecture minister. Shadow architecture minister from 2006 to 2010, Vaizey will assume responsibility for heritage and architecture alongside his existing areas of arts, creative industries and museums. He replaced Labour’s architecture minister Margaret Hodge after the coalition was formed, but was forced to relinquish the role to ‘the conflicted’ John Penrose after just four days. The 44-year-old son of art critic Marina Vaizey was named an RIBA honorary fellow two years ago.

Nick Boles

Source: DCLG

Nick Boles

Nick Boles, planning minister

Conservative MP for Grantham and Stafford Nick Boles has been appointed planning minister, replacing Greg Clark just six months after the NPPF was implemented. The 46-year-old founder of think tank Policy Exchange told an Ipsos MORI seminar in December 2010 that planning ‘can’t work’. He said: ‘Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people’s communities should develop? Or do you believe it can’t work? I believe it can’t work, David Cameron believes it can’t, Nick Clegg believes it can’t. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.’ He continued: ‘Chaotic is what our cities are when we see how people live, where restaurants spring up, where they close, where people move to. Would you like to live in a world where you could predict any of that? I wouldn’t. So I want there to be chaotic in the sense I want lots of organisations doing different things in different areas.’ On BBC’s Newsnight last week Boles defended the remarks, explaining he was simply seeking attention. Boles backed plans to scrap wealthy pensioners’ entitlement to the Winter Fuel Allowance and free bus travel, prescriptions and television licences.


Mark Prisk

Mark Prisk


Mark Prisk, housing minister

Former construction minister Mark Prisk has replaced Grant Shapps as housing minister. The 50-year-old chartered surveyor and Conservative MP for Hertford and Stortford was welcomed by architects, who called for a ‘fresh perspective’ on the moribund sector. Welcoming Prisk’s appointment, an RIBA spokesperson said: ‘As a former construction minister and chartered surveyor, he brings experience and knowledge of the built environment which will prove important in helping to meet the significant challenges that lie ahead. It has been encouraging to see DCLG ministers put an emphasis on the quality of design over recent months, but it is crucial that, with the pressure to build and build quickly, that Ministers avoid the mistakes of the past and ensure that new homes are of a good quality and built to stand the test of time.’

Michael Fallon, construction minister

Michael Fallon has replaced Mark Prisk as construction minister. Policy areas covered by the 60-year-old Conservative MP for Sevenoaks include small business, enterprise and access to finance; the low carbon economy; the Olympic legacy and regional development.

Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary

Patrick McLoughlin has replaced outspoken Heathrow expansion critic Justine Greening as transport secretary. The appointment of the 54-year-old Conservative MP for Derbyshire Dales was slammed by London mayor Boris Johnson, who claimed it showed the government was ‘intent on the simply mad policy’ of a new runway at Heathrow. An independent commission on the need to expand airport capacity in the South-East led by former CBI chief Howard Davies is expected to report its findings following the next election. McLoughlin, a former miner, was parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department of Transport from 1989 to 1992.

Owen Paterson, environment secretary

Condemned as a climate change sceptic by critics, Owen Paterson has replaced Caroline Spelman as environment secretary. Taking over a job once held by Michael Heseltine and John Gummer, Paterson will assume responsibility for sustainable development, the natural environment, farming, animal health, environmental protection and rural communities. The appointment of Paterson – who previously supported shale gas and criticised wind farms and renewable energy subsidies – has already alarmed environmentalists.


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