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Planning's new pattern book: Talking head - Tracey Coleman

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

‘Beauty’ in design

"I would say the defining thing is pride, not just beauty.  For me it’s about placemaking. Beauty or good design is an element of placemaking.

"Design codes have been and gone. We've moved on quite a lot from just pure design codes. And we’ve just gone through a period about garden villages and cities. I just pick up on the Ebenezer Howard principles - beautifully and imaginatively designed homes with gardens that are a combination of town and country. This ‘beautiful’ thing was already there in the work of Ebenezer Howard.

"One of the problems is that if you keep putting things out there and keep changing them and having more and more, we don’t get to functionally use the guidance that there is.

"If you keep putting things out there and keep changing them and having more and more, we don’t get to functionally use the guidance that there is"

"Planners are not architects. Very few have design qualifications. Very few local authorities have any staff with design qualifications, and they are only one element of all the issues that you are bringing together within an application. From a resource point of view, how do you deal with that? How do you address that?

"You have to balance all the issues. Good design is balanced. You can't look at one element and get that one right if you get everything else wrong."

The importance of local plans

"Being able to achieve placemaking in piecemeal ways is very difficult. It’s about having that overarching policy and vision. If you’ve got an up-to-date local plan and up-to-date character appraisals and neighbourhood plans [then that gives you the vision]. 

"In Guildford we have a heights and views document, a strategic development framework, a climate change SPD. All of these elements together create design and beauty. Architectural aspects cannot do this on their own.

"It’s really important to have up-to-date policy in place so that you understand where you are going, you have an evidence base and you understand what’s really important to be able to move forward.

"Design and quality is a collaboration between the community, developers, the government and the local authority"

"Design and quality is a collaboration between the community, developers, the government and the local authority. It’s something you cannot really influence or force people to do to the level that we would actually all like.

"For example, there was the Solum development at Guildford Station (a £150 million redevelopment/regeneration of the station that would include 400 homes, which was passed at appeal). The community opposed it. The council refused it. The planning inspector accepted that there were significant problems with its impact on historic views [of Guildford Cathedral]. But the inspector ultimately said that homes were in the public interest. The presumption in favour of development applied because the local authority didn’t have a local plan.

"Now Guildford is going to have that poor quality design forever and a day, for a generation, because it didn’t have an up-to-date local plan. An up-to-date local plan is the most important thing here. What’s really important is the policies that hang off of that, and things like neighbourhood plans.

"When developers are buying land they understand the constraints that are there when they buy that land and value it.  He’s going to fight you all the way because he can only produce what he can afford to produce. We have to make sure the constraints are in place which map out what the community wants - and that comes through the local plan. And neighbourhood plans are particularly important for our rural communities and those being pressured by our strategic plans."

Design codes

"I don’t think a national design code would be a good idea. It’s almost a contradiction because what they are saying is that local resident ideas [don’t count - be careful of this] if you have a national situation. You are taking that local ability away. 

"But those documents are already there - there’s the 2007 English Partnerships Urban Design Compendium. All of these things are there and maybe we should use them.

"You cannot expect planners to be the experts on absolutely everything. I do think it would be very worthwhile for planners to as part of their qualifications have a clear understanding about design principles. For me urban design is probably more useful than architecture."

Resourcing planning

"I think there should be more development corporations, even covering every local authority area. Local authorities are tightly resourced at the moment, and planning officers are carrying very, very heavy caseloads. 

"There’s a resource issue, being able to get the right people to give the right advice at the right time"

"They’re also talking about fees. Most local authorities have planning performance agreements, so they do have a mechanism to collect money. But they have reduced staff and reduced specialisms. There’s a resource issue, being able to get the right people to give the right advice at the right time. With reductions in local authority staff those specialisms aren’t always available.

"Developers come in and tell me ‘What do you want?’ and they are prepared to come in and do that. What we need are the right people within local authorities to be able to give that advice."

A return to regional planning

"I also think that looking at regional planning again would be very helpful because I think it’s really important that we have a joined-up approach to infrastructure. You can look at all the regional applications coming forward [and see how they relate to] infrastructure plans.

"If I relate it to Guildford, we have a situation in the local plan where we are dependent on an upgrade to the A3. But Guildford isn’t part of RIS 2 (Road Investment Strategy 2, which runs from 2020-2025). RIS 3 is 2025. 

"There has to be commitment from the government in relation to funding for strategic road networks and pieces of infrastructure. You can do this through regional planning and understanding the amount of sites it would unlock and deliver, and take transfers from all of the authorities cross-border to deliver pieces of infrastructure.

"We have to stop working in isolation. We have to work in a regional and national context. We have to have the same aims and all be working towards those aims, because we cannot do it on our own."

Tracey Coleman is director of strategic services at Guildford Borough Council

Read more thoughts on design and planning reform

Illustration | Craig Bowyer