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Irrelevant or what the country needs? New NPPF splits architects

James brokenshire
  • 2 Comments

The contents of the government’s revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – billed as a new design-focused planning rule book – has split opinion among architects 

Housing secretary James Brokenshire, who launched the reworked policy document yesterday (24 July), said the new rules would make it easier for councils to challenge ‘poor quality and unattractive development’, and give communities a greater voice about how developments should look and feel.

According to the government, the six-year-old NPPF has been redrawn following extensive consultation to provide stronger emphasis on high-quality design of new homes and places, increase the protection for the environment, and introduce a new methodology which aims to deliver more homes in the areas where they are most needed.

The document includes a new Housing Delivery Test for local authorities focused on ‘driving up the numbers of homes actually delivered in their area, rather than how many are planned for’.

The new framework also calls on councils to make use of ’innovative new visual tools to promote better design and quality, which will also make sure new homes fit in with their surroundings’.

However Richard Partington, director of Studio Partington, was quick to dismiss the relaunched policy. He said: ‘[The Government’s new planning rule book] is irrelevant, as what is actually determining the speed or outcome of planning is the way local authorities are abusing planning conditions and ignoring the government circular on the Use of Planning Conditions. Prior to commencement conditions, in particular, hamper projects.’

Yet Matt Swanton, a partner at Re-Format, said his practice welcomed any measure that would prompt proposals to be shown in a ‘more visually transparent way’.

He said: ’All too often planning design presentation is cloak and dagger stuff, including elevations presented with scant information, and no real understanding of how proposals sit in context.

But he added: ’The overriding themes of what is contextually appropriate, and what constitutes good design, are still long-debated and subjective arguments. It may just open Pandora’s Box.’

James Arkle of Yorkshire and London-based ArkleBoyce, which works mainly on new-build residential development, agreed: ’The principle of promoting ‘high-quality design’ is one that we welcome and would obviously wholeheartedly applaud. Our reservation is in relation to how this is achieved and implemented in the current planning system.

Design is incredibly subjective

‘Design is incredibly subjective and as a practice we have first-hand experience of both: our perception of design being different to that of the planning authority and local communities; and design that is supported by the planning authority but not successful at committee.

‘The proof will be in how and who implements the new rulebook.’

Meanwhile Mark Rowe, partner at Penoyre & Prasad, also picked up on how good design would be judged. He said: ‘It’s refreshing to see that the Framework addresses “unattractive” development – although wouldn’t it be great to see talk of ‘beauty’ in the positive sense rather than just the negative?

Wouldn’t it be great to see talk of ‘beauty’ in the positive sense rather than just the negative?

’In either case it’s increasing the degree of subjectivity within the process. Ultimately this is something that needs positive engagement with local communities from architects. Democratic participation on matters of taste should be embraced not feared.’

Felicie Krikler, director at Assael, said she welcomed the reworded policy which prioritised ’quality as well as the quantity of homes’ adding: ’We see the revisions as a great opportunity to deliver buildings that people aspire to live in and that have a positive impact on everyone. Policy implementation is vital to achieve these outcomes and we look forward to seeing further action both from local authorities and the industry.

‘There also needs to be safeguards in place to ensure Nimbys cannot hijack the design process to block much-needed affordable homes or stifle innovation. Developers of course need to work with communities but it needs to be a two-way street.’

RIBA President Ben Derbyshire said the ’fulfilment of these proposals’ would be the real test for the NPPF and urged the government to give planners the resources, tools and power to raise the bar of quality design in the system.

’It is vital that we now ensure these proposals make a real impact on the quality of the built environment. The new NPPF must be accompanied by appropriate guidance for local planning departments on proactive placemaking that delivers sustainable wellbeing as well as aesthetic quality.’

And although welcoming the Government’s ’efforts to tighten definitions and processes in the NPPF, such as the presumption in favour of sustainable development’, The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) warned that planning authorities could struggle under the increased demands placed on them by the document. 

John Acres, president of the RTPI said: ’[We] must recognise the significant pressure the new NPPF requirements will put on local authority planning teams.

’It is imperative that chief executives, council leaders and politicians resource planning departments sufficiently, particularly as they will now be held more accountable for delivery under the housing delivery test and are expected to carry out more regular reviews of their plans.’

Other comments

Mark Sitch, senior partner at Barton Willmore

With the summer recess almost here, the anticipated announcement has had us on tenterhooks, but the government has delivered on its promise to publish a final revised NPPF this month.

Disappointingly there has been minimal change following consultation on the draft NPPF in March this year. The industry – from local authorities, interested parties to developers – provided substantial feedback and it was expected to see some of this translated into the final revised NPPF. There are however no big surprises and no real changes.

The focus remains on housing. Overall, there is less, not more, for those looking to deliver employment floorspace. This may be a critical oversight as we all move towards a post-Brexit economy. It is encouraging though to see a new reference to storage and distribution in Paragraph 82, which certainly acknowledges the continued growth in this buoyant sector.

Setting that aside, the long awaited final version of the NPPF is now here, which means we can crack on with delivering what the country needs. The planning system is crucial to delivering growth and places that we all want and need and with this NPPF we can continue to do that.

The trick for everyone now, is to ensure we interpret its content in the same way and remind ourselves that we’re trying to respond to a housing crisis and, economically, a post-Brexit environment.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • MacKenzie Architects

    The entire scope of Planning powers should be reduced.
    They should get out of design completely, who is qualified to judge 'design' -none of us can even agree on that. The Client has to be the one who decides on 'design' and he should be smart enough to employ skillful consultants. We get the buildings we deserve, and if we are a greedy, short-thinking, lazy, untalented society, then that's what we get. The very last body you should trust on enforcing standards, is government. After all, they are currently telling is to cut construction costs by 30%.
    We would be better served teaching design appraisal in school.
    I actually think standards are improving, the worst culprits in design are pompous, self-regarding architects in my view. There are some absolutely dog-awful designs rammed down our throats by the bow-tie, comedy-specs and black turtle-neck brigade.

    Planning should be pollution, infrastructure, density, height and strategic issues such as green belt, use-classes zoning and big-picture stuff like Heathrow and HS2.
    What size your windows should be is not a planning matter, it is an invasion of freedoms.
    Planners should not be involved in the Appeals process either. That would speed things up and get more consistent decisions made.

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  • “Planners should not be involved in the appeals process either”

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