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Outstanding issues

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New guidelines may result in a more explicit promotion of good design as a way of convincing planners of an application's merits

At the end of last year, the DETR published a good practice guide on urban housing capacity Tapping the Potential*. The aim was to help authorities identify opportunities for reusing existing buildings, empty homes, office conversions and underused or derelict land, to meet future housing needs.

The document describes an approach to assessing urban capacity which can be followed systematically.

Paired with this is a draft good practice guide on the managed release of housing sites which aims to ensure brownfield sites are used before greenfield sites. Both documents were foreshadowed in PPG3.

Planning minister Nick Raynsford has emphasised that the draft guides do not attempt to prescribe how urban housing capacity studies should be carried out and that the approach chosen by local planning authorities will need to reflect local circumstances and opportunities. He underlined the fact that the DETR is looking to engage in a focused dialogue with planning professionals and trade bodies (that is code for professional institutions) before publishing the final version. Architects should make a point of making their responses known.

In the background to all this government policy and guidance is a resurgence of influence on planning matters from the professions, designers and urban designers in particular.

A new draft PPG1 - the umbrella planning policy guidance from DETR - is promised early this year. It is understood that, having dropped specific reference to the role of architects in the preparation of planning applications, a new emphasis will refer to the importance of design and urban design skills available to applicants and authorities alike.

Two recent appeal decisions demonstrate how this new emphasis might work more frequently in future.

Robert Adam Architects has designed a large country house in undeveloped countryside in Hampshire's Test Valley. The inspector ruled that consistency in the design and all its elements is the best pointer to truly outstanding architecture and resisted the authorities' reliance on PPG7 (The Countryside, Environmental Quality and Economic and Social Development) whose main thrust is to stop new housing being built away from established settlements.

However, it does provide for the exceptional case 'the opportunity to add to the tradition of the country house, which has done so much to enhance the English countryside' . . . provided that such a house is of the 'highest quality' and 'truly outstanding in terms of its architecture'.

While the objectors argued that Adam's classical design was not of its time and therefore not good architecture, the architect called two experts with different stylistic predilections: arch-Modernist Michael Manser and architectural historian David Watkin. Both told the inquiry that the design fulfils the test by being of the highest quality.

The inspector concluded that the house and its landscaping is outstanding in that the design has evolved under the direction of a skilled architect and is based on sound principles of composition, proportion, space and style and will be both attractive and enduring. This will become an important precedent for PPG7, being the first case where the exception clause has succeeded since its introduction in 1997. More broadly, it indicates how the Planning Inspectorate will address the integrity of the design as distinct from the integrity of the style in future appeals.

In a rather different recent case, architect Stock Wolstencroft designed a 14-storey private and shared ownership development for a housing association in Tower Hamlets and found itself fighting an appeal solely on the design of the building on its 0.25ha site. This produced a residential density of 1,000 habitable rooms per hectare, which compares with the borough UDP maximum of 250. The inspector was satisfied with design-related issues such as sunlight and daylight standards and the impact of the building height, and was sufficiently convinced by the design quality to award costs against the planning authority.

The pressure is now on, and not just in major metropolitan centres, to find housing opportunities capable of meeting a variety of markets and standards. Increasing planning authority demands for house developers to concede a proportion of 'affordable housing' can, in the end, only be met by permitting significantly higher densities of development. Combined, these factors will make ingenious and compelling design in terms of layouts, urban compositions and mixed-use developments essential rather than optional.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel 020 7828 6555 or e-mail brian@bwcp.co.uk

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