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28/04/2020

Planning's new pattern book: Talking head - Richard Blyth

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

Permitted development 

“There's an awful lot in the report that we can agree on and we were impressed that it took a holistic view. I think it was very ably managed and they took a very sensible decision to have quite a variety of head commissioners and there were some very interesting other activities and minority work in the background.

“There’s a tension between retaining and extending permitted development and the beauty agenda. There have been some concessions following lobbying by us and others around what permitted development could include in the prior notification procedure - something around minimum dwelling size - but I haven’t seen quite whether that has extended into any design considerations.

“What I’m concerned with is the issue of extra storeys on residential streets. The latest iteration seems to be limited  to purpose-built flats so they don’t seem to be talking about terraced houses.

"There’s a tension between retaining and extending permitted development and the beauty agenda"

“As a general view it seems that the government is more interested in the quality of whole new development than changes of use or extensions, and that could be a problem in terms of political support because if you are in a street and they were to pursue policies in relation to purpose-built domestic dwellings people might find the view across the street looking very different if there were extra storeys and there could then be public design concerns and there’s a tension that the government needs to resolve over that point. It doesn’t follow that everybody necessarily puts their extra storeys on in a way that might please John Nash.

“In all of this a position that we want to emphasise is that there's a certain social justice. It’s easy to do if you are personally in control of very large areas of your own - for example, if you’re in a large plot where your neighbour does not necessarily see it, this [is not the same as having to live with it in a terraced house]. But at the moment the planning system treats everybody the same.”

Local design codes

“I think we are finding at the moment that you have to be quite careful about depending on public opinion in coming to conclusions. It’s not necessarily that the public are wrong in any sense, but more the question of how can you make sure that you’ve got in touch with them all?

“There’s a lot of talk about pushing decisions upstream. The planning system has been grappling with this challenge for a very long time. It would worry me a bit if we got a situation where someone said they seem to be building a two-storey extension on top of me and they ring the planning department and the planner says yes, don’t you remember there was a referendum in your area three year as ago and you decided it would be fine.

"Although much derided, the current professional system does have the advantage that if someone has slipped through the net at least there’s a second line of defence who is a professional person"

“How do you do it in a fair way?  Although much derided, the current professional system does have the advantage that if someone has slipped through the net at least there’s a second line of defence who is a professional person.

“One thing we would say is that when we have been hearing about trying to put more into the plan-making side is that the areas we would like that plan-making needs to take place may need reconsidering as well in terms of a beefed-up strategic planning approach.

“It even has a design aspect to this thinking. Quite a lot of the vernacular architecture that is cherished and we [would] sometimes [want] to reproduce follows a sub-regional kind of geography.

“[For example, you might find that] The elevation of a terrace in Greater Manchester is quite different to the elevation of a terrace in Merseyside but below that there's quite a lot of consistency.”

Zoning

“I thought the government was thinking about more regulation, a rules-based system rather than a discretionary system. The argument [is] that if we all agree what the rules are [it makes development much simpler to achieve].

"The American zoning system is incredibly inflexible and not necessarily more open to innovation and helping business and helping people get into homes than our system"

“The difficulty is how long would it take to agree what the rules are which, in the American experience, is that you end up with zoning rules that are stonkingly difficult to change. It [the American zoning system] is incredibly inflexible and not necessarily more open to innovation and helping business and helping people get into homes than our system.”

Planning outcomes

“It’s important for a planning system to have the right metrics. The RTPI is currently involved in curating a very large project in measuring planning outcomes across the UK and Ireland and trying to get to a better understanding of the value of planning which would not rest on a single outcome measure.

“If you measure more things, you get more and better results and if there was a way of measuring design and that was one one the ways in which the planning system was evaluated and rewarded and resourced, that would be something a lot of people would agree with.

“Why do things start off good and then go downhill? Now there’s [not] a lot of available evidence on that problem. I think if we were measuring that ‘downhillness’ it would be easier to draw into it and stop it happening. At the moment a house is a house is a house.”

The goals of planning

“We are concerned about reorientating the priorities of planning, which includes issues we know are at the heart of the government, such as levelling up, public health, achieving good services.

"Maybe we should resuscitate Daniel Burnham's ‘Make no small plans’ motto"

“We need plans of areas large enough to make a difference. Plans that are bigger both in subject matter and in territory. Maybe we should resuscitate (American architect and urban planner) Daniel Burnham's ‘Make no small plans’ motto. 

“[Maybe we should be] seeing the planning system as delivering on a whole series of cross-governmental objectives.”

Consultation on reform

“For a long time we have argued that if you want to address issues in the planning system [...] it’s quite  a good idea to ask people who work in it what the solution should be. There has been an enthusiasm to listen to people who don’t and ask them what their solutions are. We are a very broad church and listening to us will encompass the views of people who make and determine applications. It’s quite a broad view.

“We think we should go back to basics and ask what would a planning [system] for the 21st century [look like]?

“[Dealing with] the housing crisis, beautiful well-located development. [As a system] faster and more accessible.

"You don’t solve the housing crisis by printing more planning permissions. It’s a very wide cross-government issue"

“How do we think this should be achieved? Using technology, the way in which certain kinds of decisions could be assessed. Needing bigger plans, more subjects and covering larger areas. That will need powers [recognised?] and [introduced?]

“More community participation requires more funding. At the moment the planning system is entirely underfunded. [It means] getting to grips with the fact that you don’t solve the housing crisis by printing more planning permissions. It’s a very wide cross-government issue, where there’s a part to play in making sure land is available. But there's also a question about making sure land is available in the right place on the right terms and does get converted into completions.

“[We would like to see] a revolution in planning outcomes.

“The usual treasury line is that there are planning departments that work well under the resources [available], so why can’t they all? That assumes an infinite supply of the very best leaders.”

Richard Blyth FRTPI is head of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute

Read more thoughts on design and planning reform

Illustration | Craig Bowyer

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