The complexity of the planning system is here to stay - our buildings last longer, look better, are safer and more usable, writes Craig Casci
In an attempt to kickstart an economic recovery, many governments turn to deregulation as a way of stimulating growth. The belief is that regulation stifles trade, creativity and wealth and that it is easier to remove ‘restrictive’ regulations than it is to develop new stimuli.
Desperate governments seem to forget that most regulations are former responses intended to produce better results. Hacking away at, say, town planning rules is much more likely to result in uncontrolled development than boost GDP. Thatcher deregulated many of the City’s constraints and in hindsight we now know that these rules and their regulatory watchdogs also prevented criminality (and may have been able to prevent global economic collapse). In truth, the coalition’s ambitions are meek compared with the ideological posturing of some former governments.
A generation ago, a planning application would consist of a letter, some forms, a cheque and a small bundle of drawings. A ‘pre-application’ meeting was a chat with an officer on site (yes, they used to meet you on site). Application, committee and consent took about six months. Now a large project will have 20‑30 consultants and the pre-application process will be married to an extensive public consultation programme and political discussions. After 28 verified views, an environmental statement, various papers on construction, refuse and sustainability and, 18 months later, you have a decision. So obviously getting rid of impediment will speed things up and make it cheaper. But the key question is: will it make it any better? And where would that leave due process, local involvement and sustainability - all agendas created for good reasons?
Regulations are the consequence of a logical sequence of events. That is not to say that circumstances do not change and that redundancy is not part of any regulatory framework - after all they no longer expect adept hand signals in driving tests. Section 20, which was repealed in January, was aimed at large-volume buildings, commonly warehouses, but also applied to residential buildings. It didn’t do anything - and hadn’t for the last 10 years - so its demise will save neither money nor time.
In the 1980s there was a huge ‘simplification’ of Building Regulations. This simplification was intended to reduce the regulatory and constrictive nature of an aging document, removing mandatory solutions and replacing them with principles. Gone was that A5 beige softback that could be slipped in a briefcase, replaced instead by two lever arch files of approved documents to be read in conjunction with the Act and numerous British Standards. Simplified? No. More effective? Well, yes, but only if you had the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to know how to reflect the spirit of the regulations. Like law and medicine, deciding what action to take is a lot more complex than understanding the documents on the table. It needs experience, skill and judgement of interpretation.
The complexity of modern buildings and the planning system is here to stay - our buildings last longer, look better, are safer and more usable by all user groups than they have ever been and there is no doubt that this is in the greater part due to regulations and guidance. They were created by the demand of our ever greater expectations and we should never reduce our aspirations.
By all means have a clear-out of redundant references, but don’t expect to fuel a bonfire. And don’t expect to create a regulatory Big Bang - we collectively want better accessibility, durability, flexibility and (no apology) beauty. You may have noticed that medicine is ever more complex and expensive and that we are living longer. The medical profession deals with this demand by specialisation - and so should we.
Craig Casci is a director of Grid Architects