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National policy reforms greeted by mixed response 

Words: Huw Morris
Well designed houses

Built environment organisations are urging the government not to dictate definitions of ‘beauty’ and to extend high-quality design to permitted development in response to its reforms to national planning policy in England.

In a package of reforms, the government announced changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) obliging local authorities to develop design codes after consulting their communities. It also unveiled a National Model Design Code (NMDC) and formally launched the Office for Place.

The Town and Country Planning Association welcomed the government’s recognition of the importance of high-quality places in which communities and the environment can thrive rather than focusing solely on housing numbers. But it noted that key recommendations of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which advised on the reforms, have not been addressed.

“These include the emphasis the commission placed on long-term stewardship if we want places to be renewed, regenerated and cared for and their proposition that meaningful standards for design and placemaking should be applied to permitted development rights,” said chief executive Fiona Howie. “These still need to be addressed if communities, supported by local authorities, are to truly be able to take the lead.”

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) welcomed the NMDC’s community-focused stance, which will see planning and development experts work directly alongside local authorities.

But RIBA president Alan Jones added: “I remain seriously concerned that wider planning system reforms – including the extension of permitted development rights – undermine the stated commitment to quality design. Good design is about much so more than the surface appearance. 

“These planning reforms need to level up the quality of new housing developments across England; this means requiring developers and local authorities to think about the long-term sustainability of new homes and communities, as opposed to cramming of the greatest possible number of homes onto a site.

“Unless they are prepared to challenge the commercial incentives that govern the housing market, these reforms will do little to address the gap between the quality, safety and sustainability of many of the new homes we build and our country’s commitments under the Climate Change Act. The absence of critical guidance that effectively demonstrates the importance of enlisting knowledgeable professionals such as architects at the earliest, most critical stage of a project also remains a huge omission.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) called for the Office for Place to include local government representation.

“Decisions about the design of planning need to be locally led and are best made by local councils together with their communities,” said housing spokesperson David Renard. “Any specific details and measurable criteria for good design is most appropriately set out at a local level. The requirement for councils to have a local design code will also require additional resources and skills, so it will be important that councils are fully funded and supported to provide the extra capacity needed.”

Barton Willmore design director Luke Hillson said a balance must be struck between prescription and allowing space for innovation and creativity. 

“A guiding hand from government has the capacity to support a necessary step change in the design of our homes and neighbourhoods, and the establishment of the Office for Place could be a positive step in providing clear and consistent advice and support that encourages carefully thought-out development. The drive for more green space in particular is commendable, and we’ve seen during the pandemic more than ever the importance of access to green space and the benefits to health and wellbeing. 

“But the government must be careful not to be overly prescriptive or stifle creativity. ‘Beauty’ in design must not come to mean pastiche architecture or identikit communities up and down the country.”

Read more:

Government changes planning policy to encourage beautiful places

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