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Housing developments more likely to be rejected for poor design

Words: Huw Morris

The Planning Inspectorate is now three times as likely to back local authority rejections of housing developments for poor design following last year’s revision of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

A University College London (UCL) study reveals a “sea change” since the NPPF was amended last July to allow refusals for housing schemes that are “not well designed”. Previous guidance called for only “poorly designed” schemes to be refused.

The study, published by the UCL-based Place Alliance and using appeals reported in The Planner magazine, compares decisions after the July 2021 revision to those before. Appealing Design reveals that the odds in favour of planning authorities winning cases on design grounds have shifted from just 5:7 against to 13:7 in favour, meaning that when previously there were more losses than wins for councils, and now there are close to two times more wins than losses.

By extrapolating appeals data to account for the shorter period covered by the research after the July 2021 change, the success rate for planning authorities at design-related appeals is three times better than before.

“Compared to historical trends, local authorities were succeeding at design appeals in fewer cases than the national average for all appeals of this class of development,” the study says. “Now they are running significantly ahead of the national average when the focus is on design.”

But the research reveals that of the 32 design-related appeals examined, 26 were in London or the South East, with three in the Midlands and three in the North and none in the South West. The study suggests that South East planning authorities are more likely to have their own design policies and employ urban designers.

“While the numbers of major housing developments nationally are heavily weighted to the South East, this degree of skew in the appeals data seems to reflect a particular reluctance to challenge design outside of London and the South East.”

The research highlights 12 schemes rejected on design grounds in the past year. They include “unattractive” block of 15 flats on the site of a demolished car park in Crawley, West Sussex, a Taylor Wimpey plan for 307 homes in North Finchley that was “out of character with its low-rise suburban context”, and the proposed remodelling of an old police station in Newcastle that an inspector denounced for its “heavy, oppressive, almost monolithic feel”.

UCL planning and urban design professor Matthew Carmona said “most local planning authorities remain very fearful of going up against the major housebuilders on design issues”, particularly outside the South East.

“In the context of the difficulties that the government has been having with their planning reform agenda, the report also demonstrates an often unsung role of planning, namely the poor quality development that it stops getting built,” he added. “However, as we don’t see it, we tend not to appreciate it – or we forget it – and critics get away with bashing planning as just more ‘red tape’. 

“The research reinforces the important regulatory role of planning that is worth celebrating.”

Appealing Design is supported and endorsed by the RTPI and the Urban Design Group.

Richard Blyth, head of policy at the RTPI, said: “We’re pleased to see the Planning Inspectorate backing local authorities in England who refuse applications on the grounds of poor design. This should be an encouragement to local planning authorities across the country.

“We are pleased to support one of our accredited planning schools in doing vital research on the planning system in England as part of our ongoing research strategy.”

Image credit | Natakorn Sapermsap, Shutterstock