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28/04/2020

Planning's new pattern book: Talking head - Nicholas Boys Smith

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

Government support for the BBBBC recommendations

“When we published this back at the end of January, the government was full-throated in its support. Robert Jenrick couldn't be less ambiguous. And he's repeated that to the media. So we have to take that at face value. We have no reason not to take their word on that. 

“I think some of the commentary on this report has slightly missed the point because everyone looks at the report and to some degree takes the bits they want to take. And I think some of the commentary has been ‘This is great, but it's all been said before’. 

“Actually, I think people and analysts looked at what the government said before [publishing its planning reform policy paper Planning for the Future] and afterwards and said, ‘Oh, there's a potential disconnect’. I think there is a potential disconnect, but I think some of the comments just ever so slightly missed the point because, actually, this is something that hasn't been said before. 

“So, yes for making the case for humane and popular urbanism, and making the case for more effective community engagement, but also arguing for a shift in the way planning works from a development control-like process to a plan-led process, but one which is able to set certainty but also evolve over time to make greater use of [emerging] technology."

Extensions to permitted development

“Some of the ongoing interest [from government] in permission in principle for development completely contradicts the support for the report. I think they [critics of the report's position on PD rights] are missing the point because what we're saying is actually, ultimately, you won't need permitted development in the way it's currently constituted. We understand why the government's previous ministers were attracted by it, [but] is clearly not defensible in terms of the things its delivered. It has delivered on some new homes, which is a good thing that reduces pressure on house prices and creates affordability. 

"We know we've got to have some way of having basic standards in a predictable way"

“Clearly some of the extremes - no one could stand up in public, or even in private, and defend those, and I'm not going to try to. We know we've got to have some way of having basic standards in a predictable way. So whereas I think some of the wording in the budget statement about going up two storeys... It was a very brief statement. It wasn't trying to be complete. It wasn't trying to put all the bits together in a coherent whole. I think that's fine because it [Planning for the Future] was a short paper that comes out from the budget. Clearly if there's going to be rights in some circumstances, that needs to be very carefully set in what circumstances that’s doable and what form it takes. As long as it's clearly set, in the terms that we were trying to set out in Living with Beauty, I think the two are compatible."

Tax reforms to encourage long-term investment

“The thing with tax reform is there are always winners and losers, and you just need to construct an outcome or a route to it whereby the losers don't lose too badly, because we're all psychologically very resistant to losing something we already had and much less aware of what we might gain on the other side. So people who will lose something from the government through change always shout loudest because they can count their loss. That's just the fact and we will just have to work out a route that that works for them. 

"What was underpinning the whole report, I hope, was a recognition that we are in a volume housebuilder-led market. Any reforms that turn that off are never going to get you anywhere. That's the model. It's going to be the model for the foreseeable future and we need to grow better or diverse in every sense of the word. 

"If the places and homes that we create are as good or better than the places that we have now, I've absolute confidence, both based on the data and personal experience, that that will systemically reduce the opposition to new housing. It wouldn't remove it altogether bcause there's a bit of nearly all of us that's actually conservative and opposes change - but typically when a change is uncertain or unclear, or when it removes some amenity that we currently enjoy or perceive that we enjoy. There's always a natural resistance to things being done at us.

"There's always a natural resistance to things being done at us"

"I'm not naive enough to think you remove opposition if the standard response to a new settlement or a urban extension or a slightly increased height or a slightly densified or intensified bit of a street is ‘Gosh, that's lovely’. If the cultural assumption over the next 10 years changes from one of 'Anything new is basically worth opposing', which still is actually what people support in principle, to this, [an acknowledgement of] the need for new housing. 

"But still, most of us ultimately sigh and worry when something is proposed around the corner. If we can change that for enough people, then all the polling and the pricing data suggests that it will ultimately make it easier to create new homes because more people will be able to do it. It used to be the case that anyone who owned land in some situations you essentially could create homes. That's no longer the case because of the money you have to spend to get planning permission.

"We've got to make it clear when you can and you can't [build a home on your land] and what is normally accepted and what isn't. So that a wider range of people, as well as companies, self builders, custom builders, can create things in which people can live, as opposed to being these complicated processes done to people, which is the status quo. So I think ultimately, there isn't a conflict [between quality and volume]

"I was talking to a landowner in the West Country looking to do not very much but wants to do in the right way - an addition to a rural village.His tax adviser is saying 'Get planning permission and sell it. Anything else is adding risk to you'. That tax adviser’s giving good advice. But that tax adviser needs to start giving good advice that doesn’t say that. That’s where we need to get to.

"There's clearly a huge range of attitudes. Certainly some of the landowners, the developers, I've spoken to since the report was launched have been very enthusiastic about it. They're the ones who've reached out to me. I'm sure there are landowners and developers out there who are less aware, less confident, more worried about the risks, and again, any change brings greater risks or uncertainty. So, I’m sure there are lots of people out there who will be not fully comprehending what we're trying to set out or worried about it. I think the role of all of us is to try and assuage those concerns. Some may need a nudge, some may just need it made easier for them.

"Some landowners care about it design and quality absolutely passionately and with a precision and the clarity of thought that is inspiring. Others couldn't give two hoots"

"The example I was just referring to, I’m genuinely persuaded this landowner wants to do the right thing. He grew up in this village, he owned a bit of land there, he’s always lived and worked nearby [Lost quality] It’s not even than he needs help, he just needs a level playing field. He just needs to be making less of a short-term irrational decision. In the long term, I think it would still be in his best interest to do what I think he will do.

"Some landowners do care about it [design and quality] absolutely passionately and with a precision and the clarity of thought that is inspiring. Others couldn't give two hoots. It’s just not their thing. So where I think it will become important is that  landowners, developers, who are less focused on this for whatever reason - if it’s just neutral in the short-term, then they can see the financial benefits in the medium to longer term. That's what we need to do. It's got to be done in a gradualist way and aligned to an incentive. It’s just a rational thing to do for yourself, for your family, for business, or for your stakeholders and shareholders or for your friends."

Local design codes and planning as a regulatory activity

"Civic engagement is crucial. Planning and civic engagement I almost see as two halves of the same coin. It's pulling the community engagement - or, at least, much of it - from the development control process into the plan-making process. So that actually does involve local preferences and engagement, which despite the best intentions of some people it’s just not happening at the moment.

"What is absolutely crucial in the shorter term is the procurement process. The logic of a code and a process that has got greater clarity about what is and isn't acceptable should make it easier for a wider range of people to to create a new urban extension or a new development.

"The process where you create a level playing field, accept there’s regulation in this bit of the market and there always has been - the point we always make is that we've always regulated what we build. If you don't believe that, go look at the Sumerian cities or ancient Rome. This is just one of the things governments tend to do, because if you own house A and I own house B, and I thatch my house and it burns down or burns down your house, you can sue me but it doesn't really help. You’d much rather I just didn't burn down your house. So that's why governments get pulled into this and always have and in my view always will be. Tthat's not a left or right wing thing; it’s just a thing.

"All the evidence I've read says make it as simple and as upfront as possible"

"Once you accept that, then I think you get into the next question of, 'Okay, well, how do we do that in a way that is regulatorily as efficient as possible?'. Then I think you get into the space where essentially all the micro-economic studies on regulation - and I know planners don't like to talk about planning as regulation, but that is what it is, economically - all the evidence I've read says make it as simple and as upfront as possible. And it’s predictable and consistent. And I’m afraid that's just not how we do it.

There are reasons why and there are advantages to not doing it that way. There are some times where you need to be much more discretionary and I absolutely get that, but we just need to move it in that direction. I think the government does get that and I their instincts are that rather than the state's gonna come in and buy your land, which is uncomfortable territory for them. It might be different with a government of a different colour.

Land procurement

"The thing I learned during the report that I hadn't really understood at the start, was that the public sector procurement process is very, very important - and growing in importance - to the quality of the places that you make. 

"The current system, a very high majority of times, is not building in quality. The systems are not set up to, the processes, the perception of risk, the perception of value. In a way, even more fundamentally than that, it doesn't believe that it should. 

"It may seem a bit emotional almost where it [the report] contrasts the creation of civic entities in the Victorian period with what we're currently producing. There's a great quote from an architect who was designing a hospital a few years ago where she was asked to make it look cheaper because we can’t have things that look too expensive. 

"As well as the specific things we say about the scoring of quality versus cost in Homes England and the creation of sustainability and stewardship funds as a way of investing rather than just 'get out the door as fast as possible' - over time this doesn't need to reduce the speed of building, it just means you're thinking about it in a slightly different timeframe."

A culture change in planning

"I think there needs to be a profound reunderstanding by civic society and the public sector about what it is they're trying to do when they intervene in the built environment. The short way to do that, which we suggest, is just put it in some key performance indicators. So as Transport for London is effectively doing, they're putting metrics for wellbeing and targets for some of their key managers and some of their teams. 

"We are a visual species. We respond to things visually"

"So by all means, let’s do that, but actually it goes beyond that. It's about really understanding what it is that local government does in a town and being physically present. We are a visual species. We respond to things visually. We've just got to get beyond this sense of 'This doesn't matter, it’s all about utility and how it performs'. Well, yes it is, but what it looks like and how it fits in with a place and its sense of history is an absolutely existential part of that. And anybody who doesn’t recognise this is missing the point."

Nicholas Boys Smith is founder of Create Streets and chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission

Read more thoughts on design and planning reform

Illustration | Craig Bowyer

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