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Why I ♥ the NPFF

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Why I read the draft National Planning Policy Framework with delight and near-incredulity

It would be a mistake to think that there is a universal attitude towards architecture shared by coalition ministers. Michael Gove made an idiot of himself with his remarks about school design, and was too graceless to apologise and move on. Others have been much more perceptive in recent observations. In the case of Greg Clark, planning minister, these were translated into draft government policy.

I read the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) last week with delighted, near-incredulity, which at only 52 pages is very readable for a legislative document. For the first time in living memory, the idea of high quality design, innovation and even experiment is being endorsed within the heart of the planning system. The two pages that focus on design are about as much as anyone could have hoped for. It is worth every architect with an interest in planning reading and digesting this section – and offering a warm endorsement.

It is true that those concerned with countryside preservation and historic buildings have expressed reservations. However, a fair-minded reading of the draft proposals can only lead to the conclusion that the government is intent on protecting what should be protected, but is also interested in supporting outstanding quality rather than treating it with suspicion.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Some faint-hearts are already dismissing the framework document as a set of platitudes that will have little effect on the ground. I think that is unfair. Let’s remember that there is an important phrase in the framework, lifted straight from what was previously policy guidance: proposals of obviously poor design should be refused permission.

It is sometimes difficult to convince sceptics that it is possible to assess design except on the basis of personal aesthetic preference. That is not what planning is about. I always say to sceptics that if they wanted to know if a suit was any good, they would ask a tailor, or better still a group of tailors. As we have often said at CABE, you can admire a design without liking it. Good reviewers will set aside their personal preferences in making an honest assessment of what they see in front of them.

The reason design review is helpful to hard-pressed planning departments is that it can reflect the views of seasoned designers from across a range of disciplines that one would not expect to find in a planning office. At Design Council CABE, we almost never have a panel made up of architects alone. As a result, we have comments in the round from a variety of perspectives.

Design review is not about taking decisions. We rarely say that a design is not in a condition to justify planning approval, preferring to point out what is good, not so good, or sometimes downright bad about a particular proposal.

This raises the question of timing. Without question, it is best to carry out design review when there is still enough time to discuss the details. When a final design is presented just before it enters the formal planning process it is too late for an effective design review. No one wants reviews to result in unnecessary cost or time delays, which is what can happen if it is only seen when an application is already made.

The independent advice offered by design review is something that governments of all persuasions have taken since the 1920s. The NPPF encourages, not instructs, local authorities to use design review as part of their assessment procedures. National design review, currently provided by our team at Design Council CABE, also gets support.

We are reviewing our own procedures in the light of both localism legislation and the NPPF, and will be adapting our ‘offer’ to the new planning era, which is beginning to look hopeful for good architecture of whatever style.

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