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30/04/2020

Planning's new pattern book: Talking head - Andrew Taylor

Words: The Planner

When writing the cover article for May’s The Planner, we spoke to a number of people at length about their thoughts on design and planning reform. We simply couldn’t fit the full range of their opinions and insights into the piece. So here are the interviews, edited for clarity and length

Balancing quality and cost

“In terms of the larger strategic sites, we need to make sure that they have that sense of place and sense of belonging. We’re there a long time, so we can't mess up the first few phases because we're still there 10 or 15 years later. 

“So there is that focus on delivering a quality of design and place. Having said that, we're marrying that with the need to go down modern methods of construction routes, standardised elements, simplifying it. There's always a cost issue. If we are in the general land market, we are obviously competing against everybody else in that general market. And if our product is more expensive, because of what we put into it then that's going to harm us in terms of that land market.

"Local authorities should be holding us to account and should be pulling us because that's how the system works, isn't it?"

“It's one of those really difficult balances. The principle [of the BBBBC report] is great and spot on and we should all be trying to do that. It's obviously more difficult in action. All these things are when you're trying to get something over the line and you're being pushed and pulled in different directions either internally or by the council.

“On the other hand, local authorities should be holding us to account and should be pulling us because that's how the system works, isn't it?”

Design guides

“Design guides locally, nationally, it's all good stuff that’s helpful from our perspective in terms of understanding what the authority wants, understanding what nationally is wanted, and understanding how we can deliver that. 

“But within that, you know, we've got two timber timber panel factories producing the panels, and the whole purpose of that is to standardise, simplify, but also improve the quality,improve the certainty, improve the speed of delivery. And all those things mean that no, you can't have an extra half metre on the width of the house, because it doesn’t work because it;s coming in this panel.”

“Is it possible to make adaptations to meet local design standards or particular site design standards? What we currently do is we don't do anything on the outside, we're investigating that within the factory. So our panels come and then they can be bricked or they can be rendered - whatever you wrap them in, you can therefore be different. 

"The problem from our perspective and all the other larger housebuilders is that if you're working across areas you want simplicity"

“There is the ability to have that flexibility, but it is more difficult to say I need a corner window right in the corner of the building. In theory, if it wasn’t a standardised design of the internal shell - you’re then trying to change that on site and you’re defeating the purpose of going down the MMC route.

“Local design codes are fine, and it makes sense for the locality with a very strong design tradition. I think the problem from our perspective and all the other larger housebuilders is that if you're working across areas you want simplicity. We've seen a plethora of internal design sizes pop up over time - it’s just a complete nightmare. 

“Let's just have one that goes across the country. You understand the need for that local differentiation. But as much as possible, it needs to be simple.”

Tax reform to encourage long-term stewardship

“If you just take the larger strategic sites, actually having a landowner involved in that long-term stewardship is difficult under the current tax regime, because if they stay involved they're considered to be trading, and it brings all sorts of implications.

“If that changes, then landowners might want to be more involved. You get a completely different range of landowners from some of the universities, colleges, large landowning families who have been there a long time and they want to see that quality maintained through it. There are different ways that they can do that through oversight through the process and being able to sign off planning applications and things. 

“We don't often have private landowners staying involved through the process because of the current tax regime. Yeah. So if it changes, then that might have a general beneficial interest in terms of improving the quality of the outcome.

“For the large strategic sites, I don't think it's quite so much of an issue. I think it's the shorter turnaround sites where there's more of a problem in terms of people have bought them on the open market, they've been the highest bidder, and therefore they've cut things as much as possible. So actually, that tax change won't help that scenario.

“I think the long-term stewardship, we're always trying to think about that right up front - I mean, we're using this with the Land Trust model at the moment quite a lot, which is the charitable trust [which owns or manages open spaces restored from derelict land for public benefit]. We're using them on most of our large strategic sites now and will be going forward. So we're not using for-profit management companies. All the land goes to them in perpetuity and there's a service charge on the properties, but then that’s ring fenced to that property. The Land Trust have local committees that help in terms of stewardship.”

Viability and design quality

“I think it's all about having clarity upfront. If you have clarity as part of the pre-allocation about what's required and the standard, etc, then that's all priced into the equation and the amounts of money that's been talked about that go to the landowner. 

“If it [design requirements and standards] comes in part-way through which inevitably, when you bring something in the planning system, you've got different timescales in different areas, then it causes a bit more of a problem because you're retrofitting something on top of something that's already had a viability ruler run across it.

“What gives? Whether that's a different mix on the affordable housing so you have more shared ownership or more first homes rather than rented? Obviously, that's not what all the councils want, but you can still maintain an affordable percentage if you can flex some of the mix, otherwise you are looking at probably reduction of affordable housing.

"Good design doesn't always cost more"

“Unless you get a government grant [towards higher design quality] but I can't quite see that going to be happening. But also good design doesn't always cost more. It requires you to think about it, it requires you to carefully place the houses in the masterplan that you've got and make sure you've thought it through. But that in itself doesn't cost very much more. It might cost a bit more in time to think. Materials might cost more or certain things might, but actually, overall, good design isn't necessarily an increase in cost. It's about greater thought and a greater clarity of vision and the willingness of everyone to work together to work out what's what's best.”

Resourcing

“The biggest thing is getting through the local planning system. It’s partly to do with resourcing in terms of numbers of bodies, or certainly money, but numbers of bodies. I think it’s also to do with the fact that it has got far more complex. There are so many different things that the planner is trying to juggle and fit into that committee report. It's far more complicated. So can things be simplified? 

“But the biggest issue is certainly the lack of sufficient people to deal with planning applications, experienced people, that's the key thing that we find in terms of -  all over the place - being the delay that we're experiencing. It’s different in different areas. 

“And some councils are much more positive about development, and you see that or could be just that they want that particular scheme to go ahead and you definitely see that. Others say they are, but actually you don't get that coming through.

“So it's not really at all about good design and how you pull that up. The biggest thing from our perspective is that. 

“The second thing is - well, second and third - having all the information up front, the clarity of what's required so you can price it all in right up the front, which means the local plan is clear, you don't have a plethora of supplementary documents which bring in different ideas over the next few years. 

“But you have that clarity right at the beginning of the process and you don't have lots and lots of individual rules for individual councils. You have a more coherent approach, either across an area - a county, if that's the starting point, or the country - in terms of the quality of development.”

Andrew Taylor is director (head of planning) for Countryside Properties

Read more thoughts on design and planning reform

Illustration | Craig Bowyer

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