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What the NPPF means for architects

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The NPPF means planning policy is now more confusing than ever, says Christine Murray

The best hope for the NPPF is that this bonfire of red tape – a thousand pages of planning policy down to 50 – will allow architects to get back to what they do best: design.

An architect’s ability to unlock the potential of high-density sites, develop masterplans for complex areas, or to attract the right kind of buyer will remain under any planning system.

But contrary to its stated intention, the NPPF’s simplification of the rules may make planning more complex than ever, as each local plan interprets those 50 pages in their own way.

These local plans by local people will make planning more complicated, muddy and confusing, especially for nationwide developers, potentially stalling house building and growth.

Cash-strapped councils may be ill-equipped to develop sophisticated pro-growth local plans - they should employ architects to help

Regional architects who pride themselves on long-standing relationships with local planners and their ability to get projects through planning may be vindicated. With a local-plan led system, what goes in one locality will not be applicable to another.

It also seems disingenuous for this government to presume that developers haven’t been building simply because the planning system is too arduous.

The banks, as we learned at MIPIM, still aren’t lending. Without seed money, there is no growth, planning notwithstanding.

There have been changes made to the NPPF to address concerns outlined by opponents, including the National Trust and Campaign for Rural England’s efforts to protect rural greenbelt or environmentally sensitive areas. Given the choice, what developer would choose a tricky urban or brownfield site over planting a lucrative house orchard on a naked field of open land? In response, planning minister Greg Clarke has said that it is within local authorities’ power to allocate brownfield land for development and ringfence greenbelt land. What they don’t have, however, is the choice to not develop at all. I expect this pro-growth agenda will be policed via appeal.

Concessions have also been made to the push for office to residential change-of-use, opposed by the City of London. The NPPF encourages it, but stops short of removing the need for planning permission.

The local plan is key to the NPPF. Cash-strapped councils may be ill-equipped to develop and manage sophisticated pro-growth strategies. The long-lost local authority architect could have managed this, were they still widely employed in local government. Design review panels will fill this skill gap, to be carried out by local design review panels, with Design Council CABE brought in for large-scale schemes, as stipulated by the NPPF. Councils should ensure their design review panels are run by architects – a good way to get design expertise back into local government.

The design challenge we publish in this week’s AJ, the result of our Peckham charrette run in association with Philips and Southwark Council, is an example of how architects can be engaged by local government in valuable thought-leadership. The ideas developed during the day-long exercise are now under consideration by the council. If architects were brought back into local authorities as consultants, they may do more good for planning policy than a thousand pages ever did.

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