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Planning portal: PPS7 and design of ‘exceptional quality’

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Having our appeal dismissed taught us valuable lessons about PPS7 and design of ‘exceptional quality’, writes Richard Rose-Casemore

Our experience with Planning Policy Statement 7 (PPS7) came about in November 2008, when I was introduced to clients looking to build a large family home on their estate in Quainton, a village six miles north-west of Aylesbury.

Introduced in 2004, PPS7: Sustainable Development in Rural Areas is designed to complement rather than overrule other national policies. Paragraph 11 contains the critical test of a planning application:

‘Very occasionally the exceptional quality and innovative nature of the design of a proposed, isolated new house may provide this special justification for granting planning permission. Such a design should be truly outstanding and ground-breaking, for example, in its use of materials, methods of construction or its contribution to protecting and enhancing the environment, so helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas.’

Our ambition for the site was for a fusion of architecture, landscape and engineering, using natural site levels to form a deliberate ambiguity between what would remain natural landscape and what would become ‘house’.

As the first PPS7 house in the area, our initial presentations received an enthusiastic response from the Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC), with the proviso that this application would need to set a high benchmark for future applications in the district.

It was understood from early consultation with AVDC that their own guidelines had only certain relevance. By its definition, PPS7 paragraph 11 seeks to address both ‘local distinctiveness’ and ‘innovation’, which is a sophisticated balance to achieve. It soon became clear that AVDC was struggling with the PPS7 guidelines and thus sought independent advice from the South East Regional Design Panel.

A site visit with them provoked supportive comments with valid observations that were incorporated into the design. Officers and committee members were clearly seeking ‘approval’ as an expert auditor, despite the panel’s advisory rather than sanctioning status.

Likewise, BRE were appointed to assess the project. We had been encouraged by AVDC to design to Code 6, since ‘anything less would have to be considered less than outstanding’. While our own assessors viewed the house as Code 6, AVDC’s independent audit by BRE said it was a certain Code 5, potential Code 6. To this extent, the level of code remained ‘aspirational’ until the house could be built and evaluated, causing further confusion at committee.

In short, committee members were looking for definitive confirmation of these issues and planning officers were not able to give them that. The application was deferred at the first committee, due to a poorly attended site visit, and refused at the second.

An appeal was lodged. The hearing involved roundtable representations and a site visit consisting of visiting nine key viewpoints requested by AVDC and local objectors. The appeal was dismissed in December 2011, but we learned some valuable lessons:

• Do not enter into a PPS7 commission lightly. Dismiss any notion that you will be designing to Stage D. The evidence to achieve a certain level of Code for Sustainable Homes (or BREEAM) and the requirements to demonstrate technical innovation in structure, construction and material will take you a long way into Stage E. Ensure your client is aware of the fees needed to support this.

• Interrogate the site and the potential for the design to achieve or exceed the principal credentials of a PPS7 house: isolated site; exceptional ground-breaking design; innovation. Also look at the opportunities for the built house to ‘help raise standards of design more generally in rural areas’.

• Consult with the parish council and local pressure groups early, regardless of their relationship with the local authority.

• Establish at the outset whether the local authority has the in-house expertise to make assessments of design quality. If not, discuss which independent body would be appropriate. Most importantly, ensure design review is continuous and that the committee are presented with a proper narrative of that review process, as well as feedback on the final iteration.

• While the current wording in paragraph 11 exists, judgement will continue to be somewhat subjective. ‘Exceptional quality’ can be applied to any architectural idiom and architecture that looks to the past is just as likely to succeed as that looking forward.

• Where possible, design the site and the house as self-supporting or self-sufficient. Rural sites offer the opportunity for biomass coppices, filter beds, water harvesting, etc.

• Ensure ecology of the site is protected or enhanced.

• Find a way to summarise the supporting detail for committee members. Do not assume they will wade through all the documentation.

• Approach a PPS7 project at the outset on the assumption that the planning process will end in an appeal. Record all documents and correspondence meticulously.

Richard Rose-Casemore is director at Design Engine, a Winchester-based practice working in all sectors from masterplanning to furniture design

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