Construction minister Nick Raynsford has offered radical housing design solutions which could help meet the future need for more housing in the coming years. Addressing July's Capita/London Planning & Development Forum housing conference,1 Raynsford said that we need to get away from the standard approach to house building. 'Certainly higher densities than 20 houses to the acre, more of a town-centre focus and better design solutions are called for. The last should involve reduced parking and road-layout standards,' he said.
'The biggest challenge isn't the numbers but the quality of urban design - lifting the quality of what is built is the key. Some developers and local authorities don't think there's a problem. This is a terribly short- sighted view. Communities are increasingly sceptical about any sort of development and the industry has to respond with imaginative solutions and proposals. Look at what's happened to the road-building industry in the last 10 years - this could become a reality for the house-building industry.'
Raynsford announced a revision to ppg 3 Housing, the consultation draft of which is due 'later in the summer'. Part of this will be revised guidance on housing layout design. The changes will be first seen in 'Design Bulletin 32: Places Streets and Movement', commissioned from engineer Alan Baxter Associates. Raynsford claimed that ppg 3 will give developers more certainty: 'They will be less the victims of the whims of local committees,' he said.
'The last government was about 'Where shall we all live?' while this one is about 'How shall we all live?'' Raynsford asserted, which did not stop him claiming for another New Labour planning initiative that it was the most important exercise since the Domesday Book. Work on the National Land Use Database is pulling together all the previously used sites in England by asking local planning authorities to identify 'all possible such sites capable of development'. 'This will be the source of information on land available for recycling. It has not been done since the eleventh century and the implications and potential value have yet to sink in.'
Raynsford went on to suggest that the exercise will involve a lot of co-operation between the government and local authorities, but will save the latter work - and arguments - later on. He did not explain how it would be more accurate than the London Planning Advisory Committee survey of 1992 when London Boroughs underestimated the large numbers of dwellings which were to be created out of office and other conversions ('windfall sites'). This level of inaccuracy is probably now being repeated as an overestimate, since the 1998 survey underestimates the effect that affordable housing policies and the resurgent office market are having in reducing potential housing conversions!
The underlying message for architects should be clear: if house builders do not adopt a design-led agenda they might find permissions increasingly hard to come by. Unfortunately this presupposes a change of culture for many local planning committees, but Raynsford underlined the government's determination, announcing the first call-in of a decision by the Secretary of State on design grounds alone. So, despite the omission of any reference to architects in ppg 1, there will be top-down pressure to raise design standards for house-building. This is already evident for urban infill sites and conversions, but just might lead to the longed-for radical improvement in new-build housing developments. It is an opportunity for architects and house builders in the wake of the model Millennium Village.
Cutting development-plan costs
acapag is the Association of Consultant Architects' planning advisory group.2 Chaired by architect-planner Eli Abt, it seems to get to the point when consulted on policy. Responding to the detr's 'Improving Arrangements for the Delivery of Local Plans', the group makes two pleas.
acapag endorses the call for brevity and clarity and suggests that this be encouraged by regulating the cost of development-plan documents - some now exceed £100. 'Not only is this likely to ensure maximum accessibility to plans in the public interest, but authorities will be encouraged to manage their plan-making resources and commitments more effectively with shorter, clearer plans,' it says.
More subtle but equally telling, acapag acknowledges the government's decision not to make the recommendations of the inspector's report binding on the local authority. Instead, it suggests that 'the inspector's appraisal of, and recommendations on, the issues raised in the course of the plan inquiry should not, in aca's view, cease to be a material consideration. The planning authority's justification for rejecting the inspector's recommendations should be capable of being tested at appeal.'
acapag goes on to point out that there is a precedent in ppg 153 for the designation of conservation areas: 'An authority's justification for designation . . . is a factor which the Secretary of State will take into account in considering appeals against refusals of Conservation Area consent for demolition and appeals against refusals of planning permission.'
1 New Rules for Housing: Planning for the Communities of the Future, papers from Capita tel. 0171 222 5110.
2 Details of the Association of Consultant Architects from 0181 325 1402.
3 PPG 15 para. 4.5.
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership: 0171 828 6555.