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14/08/2020

Fit for purpose? 'Rebalancing' planning can create distinctive places

Words:
The planning balance

Visionary planning has stagnated as the system has evolved into a means of mediating competing interests, says Roger Evans. But it can be rediscovered in true engagement with communities

Towns have always grown by a mix of planning and accumulation, from ancient cities and mediaeval market towns to the new towns’ movement and garden cities. The planning element is pro-active, how could it otherwise?

Yet town planning in England has increasingly become a quasi-legal mediator between competing interest groups. A key driver of local development plans is the ‘call for sites’ where land-owners and their developer representatives submit red-line boundaries on an Ordnance Survey map to indicate that their land is available for development. The relative merits of each site are then scored with the result being that the sites with the fewest downsides tend to be selected while a spreadsheet checks whether sufficient land is being accumulated to meet anticipated development need.

While each development site is scrutinised through planning applications, there is less scrutiny of the highway schemes joining up these sites to carry the predicted traffic. The result is that most major development sites are inward looking and frequently provide a backside to the street network which connects them. What could have been splendid avenues and green boulevards providing a focus for civic life are often a nowhere-land, hostile to pedestrians and alien to building urban frontages.

“The current planning system does not encourage a visionary approach where communities can explore three-dimensional options for the future of their towns”

Does this accumulation of ‘sites’ make for attractive towns and city quarters? The fact is that the current planning system does not encourage a visionary approach where communities can explore three-dimensional options for the future of their towns. 

The local plan consultation process is primarily a forum for professional advisors arguing about whose client’s land wins the development jackpot. It is a lengthy and expensive process and difficult for ordinary people to engage with. Most communities are against development because they know what they are going to get: estates planned by volume housebuilders with few rising above a dismal norm.

This ‘call for sites’ approach to each local plan kicks the design can down the road as something that can be considered later when planning applications come forward. Unfortunately, at least half of the design decisions will have been inadvertently taken: how well connected the site is will determine the dominant mode of transport; the street pattern that will emanate from limited points of access; the lack of mixed-use development that would be viable from such a street pattern and the uniform character of development that often results from such a layout.

We are capable of better, much better. That requires local authorities to truly engage with their communities to identify options for the future of their towns and cities and then to draw up a vision. Many European cities do this using ‘architecture’ rooms, often no more than marquees in the park during summer months, where scale models of the town and options for renewal and growth can be displayed and discussed.

Rather than zoning different land-uses, these urban design exercises focus on the creation of streets to release new development land. With an agreed vision in place, design codes can be prepared for the principle streets, setting out building frontages, heights and the character of the streets. These codes need to be site-specific.

“Most communities are against development because they know what they are going to get: estates planned by volume housebuilders with few rising above a dismal norm”

Local development plans using this approach can offer both greater confidence in the planning system to locals and certainty to developers and investors. It is reasonable to expect that developers who build out part of the plan in accordance with the design codes will be welcomed. Such plans can also provide development land for small local builders and self-builders. 

Of course, landowners would have to agree to make their land available for development but a glance at any ‘call for sites’ map shows that almost all will be only too keen. 

Much of the initial reaction to the white paper Planning for the Future has concentrated on the reduced scrutiny of planning applications under the proposed new system. However, proposals would have to comply with the local vision and design code and also generic design requirements set out by a new national design code, a street design code (Manual for Streets) and a raft of design guidance including Building for Life standards.

Over the next 20 years new development in England will cover an area the size of Surrey, given current densities, space standards are car ownership. The urban form created will be primarily estate layouts that are car-reliant, single use, inflexible and uniform. Is the current planning system fit for purpose?

Rebalancing planning does not necessarily require additional resources but a redirected effort. Design inputs currently going into development management will need to be shifted to the production of local plans. 

“We are capable of better, much better. That requires local authorities to truly engage with their communities to identify options for the future of their towns and cities and then to draw up a vision”

It will take time not only to prepare the new plans but also time to redeploy resources. It will also require careful thinking as to which design aspects can be covered by a national design code as opposed to local plan codes. 

Perhaps the answer is that the former is generic whereas the latter is site-specific. There will, however, be situations where local codes need to be more detailed, perhaps for areas abutting conservation areas, and good planning might require that the local code takes precedence.

There are issues of resourcing and also a careful thinking through of checks and measures in the white paper but a rebalancing of the planning system is long overdue if we are to build back better.    

Roger Evans is an architect and urban planner specialising in urban design

Illustration l Roger Evans

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