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Planning's new pattern book: Talking head - Matthew Carmona

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

Regulation vs deregulation

“What you seem to be seeing is almost a government with two faces, pulling in different directions. One face is very much coming from the Building Better, Building Beautiful perspective that we regard design as important. We need to push hard on it. We've not been doing good enough or well enough - our (Place Alliance) recent housing design audit showed that very clearly.

“We need to do better and I think there's a perspective in government that shares those views. The secretary of state has been very clear that the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission recommendations will in large part be adopted, and that all seems to me very positive.

"There's this side of government that we keep on seeing which has a deregulatory instinct. It's sort of against planning"

“But then there's this side of government that we keep on seeing which has a deregulatory instinct. It's sort of against planning. It thinks that we shouldn't have discretion because that somehow is slowing the economy down - not that we need in the current situation. In the long term, it is antagonistic, I think, to planning and everything that planning stands for. 

“Ultimately, if we go down that route it will lead not only to worse planned cities, but it will lead to unclear cities as well. When we look around the world, look at the precedents, that's very clear - the route that will be taken is in a polar opposite direction to the side that says we need better design, we need better quality places. You can't have both.”

Permitted development rights

“The community development right is very troubling. Colleagues at UCL have been doing a lot of research in this area and we see that not only does it lead to very unfortunate outcomes in terms of people - you know, the sorts of quality of internal space that people are having to cope with - but also people live in entirely inappropriate locations. 

“You know, all those things that planning is there to put in place and right with checks and balances, if we sweep them away then we end up with all sorts of unintended consequences. The same goes for design. We're talking about allowing people to build two extra storeys on buildings willy-nilly without any planning. That's got a lot of unintended consequences, and ultimately, creates an ugly environment. Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't build higher. I'm not saying we shouldn't add to storeys. I'm not saying we shouldn't convert unused industrial buildings to offices. But we need to do it with the right checks and balances in place.”


“Planning, as we have it in this country, is about taking a set of principles and applying them in an intelligent way to different situations as we find them. There’s a discretionary element. And you can get rid of that discretionary element by having a zoning system and that, to a certain extent, is what the new paper is suggesting. 

“I'm not suggesting it couldn't work in the right circumstances. If you go to Germany, you see a zoning system that works incredibly well because it goes alongside well-resourced local authorities who have design capacity in-house and they're able to produce not just a generic design code that applies to a whole district, but actually a design code for each site that comes forward. That's the critical thing. If you have that, alongside the zoning system, it will work extremely well.

"If you go to Germany, you see a zoning system that works incredibly well because it goes alongside well-resourced local authorities who have design capacity in-house"

“We don't have that capacity in our local authorities at the moment. So if you sweep away our planning system, and you don't put in place the checks and balances that they have in, say, the German system, then you end up with essentially what you have in American suburbs, which is, you know, anything goes and ugliness.

“Up to now, the government has talked a lot about zoning and they've introduced various measures to try and introduce zoning systems, but it hasn't been taken up a lot because they've tended to leave the discretion to local authorities. If they push them harder, then it may be that we do move further down that line. I hope that common sense will play out and we will get a system which values design and values place quality.”

Place-based design codes

“It seems to me the one thing that we absolutely need if we want to deliver good quality design is a proper place-based design process. What I mean by that is that every site is properly designed with perhaps a site-specific design code designed for that site, either within the local authority or externally. So there's a proper consideration of design quality in relation to every single context. It cannot just be imposed through having a set of standards which then, like the building regulations, generate a tick box approach that doesn’t work. We've only got to look at the sort of poor to medium quality design that we constantly deliver in this country to know that actually, if we want to do better, we need to engage in proper design.”

Resourcing local authorities

“Certainly local authorities need to be enabled to take on more design skills in-house. And we need to promote the idea of design codes, site-specific design codes. I’ve argued elsewhere that we should have a national unit for design which helps local authorities to build that capacity, to put in place the right tools for local authorities and to take design more seriously. There's a number of things that we can do. It's all about properly resourcing design If we value high quality, beautiful places then we won't get them by accident.”

Patient capital and design quality

“That sort of long-term patient capital, whether it's the state putting in that capital and investing itself, local authorities, or whether it's landowners or developers, I think that's a very good way of creating better quality places because there's naturally an incentive to invest in quality of you're responsible for it over the long term.

“I think that could lead to change. But I don't think we’ll ever move to a system where that’s the only way of investing. Hopefully, there will be a move in that direction. But currently the way our volume housebuilders are set up is short term: find a site, develop it, move on, turning capital around as quickly as you can to maximise your profits. 

"Ultimately, it comes down to giving local authorities the skills and expertise and authority to absolutely require good quality design"

“It would take a seismic change over many years, perhaps decades, to move away from that. So I think in the short term, we have to rely on other mechanisms. Ultimately, it comes down to giving local authorities the skills and expertise and authority to absolutely require good quality design.

“There's actually no reason why housebuilders can't produce it. What the housing audit shows is the same volume housebuilders are producing excellent quality design in one place or [poor] quality [in another]. If they are pushed, they can do it. That's the point. It means a proper design process, a proper, site specific design process.

“Because these house large housebuilders are based regionally, what they find is some of their regions produce very good quality as standard and other regions are just not interested. Even if they have national policies within individual house builders it’s up to the regions to pick those up and take them forward. We saw again in the housing audit very clearly that when you start to look at these large housebuilders by region, you see that some regions are producing really good stuff and others are not. So they can do it.”

Culture change

“It's not entirely the housebuilders’ fault. In this country have major, major problems with our highways authorities and that's something the government needs to get a grip on -  this sort of, you know, won't adopt anything [attitude]. It won't adopt any trees unless huge amounts of commuted sums are paid, standards which are still based in the 1970s car-dominated environments still being rolled out today. We need a culture change. We need a culture whereby the quality of place is valued.

"We need a culture whereby the quality of place is valued"

“It needs to come both from the grassroots upwards, but also downwards as well, because I think it's limited what a planner can do if they're working in a context where, every time they attempt to improve something, they're squashed. It's undermining, this sort of objective of numbers, numbers, numbers.”

Matthew Carmona is professor of planning and urban design at UCL and chair of Place Alliance

Read more thoughts on design and planning reform

Illustration | Craig Bowyer