Ben Derbyshire 'Getting design codes right will take time, resource and patience'

Local development strategies are already being successfully used by councils with useful lessons for planning reformers

The current rate of supply and quality of housing in Britain is inadequate and something must be done. Rather than the centralising control set out in the planning white paper, I would far rather government had picked up on the recommendations made by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in April for planning reform in England. This included investment in local authority planning departments and a major grants programme to stimulate homebuilding by local authorities, housing associations and SMEs.

Instead, the RTPI has concluded there is little evidence the reforms proposed in the government’s planning white paper will make planning faster and more flexible. I share the RTPI’s view that the plans and design codes capable of dealing with appropriate complexity will take time to develop. I fear the democratic input envisaged for local plans and the digital public engagement for preparation of design codes will be rushed and superficial.

There are, however, useful examples of how local authorities have already taken the initiative to set out aspirations for placemaking within the existing system. Croydon’s Suburban Design Guide is an excellent example of how a London borough set out to enable suburban intensification through appropriate development of small sites. If we take the street level design codes that are envisaged in the white paper for land zoned as ‘regeneration’, we can see an opportunity to develop this approach.

HTA Design has been developing the ‘Supurbia’ concept that with others for more than a decade. Supurbia envisages streets and neighbourhoods coming together to agree, using neighbourhood and local development orders, how individual owners can extend upwards, build at the bottom of their gardens, or redevelop altogether. So called ‘plot passports’ would be the basis for an acceptable maximum of development envelope for each plot owner. We delivered an example of this approach in a Camden conservation area where vertical extensions were previously prohibited. Mutual self-interest of homeowners was the key, but let nobody underestimate the commitment of time, resource, and patience necessary to get to an agreed outcome.

The Future Place programme, a collaboration between RIBA, RTPI, the Local Government Association, Local Partnerships and Historic England invites local planning authorities to work with architects on a vision for existing urban neighbourhoods driven by local engagement. The lesson of this programme is that there is a real appetite for visionary placemaking in local authorities which can be satisfied with appropriate expertise from national agencies and skilled designers and urbanists. A key to the future success of programmes like this is the ongoing leadership of local authorities and the services they deliver. I would argue that as well as being, in the words of the planning white paper, ‘provably popular’ amongst the communities served, placemaking needs the buy-in of local authorities for sustainable success.

To my knowledge, there are no local authorities with the in-house resources to deliver these consultation-based design codes, and not a limitless supply in the private sector either

Successful masterplans and design codes will rely on the extent, depth and thoroughness of public engagement, the design and technical expertise of the urbanists responsible for deriving appropriately flexible parameters for delivering the negotiated outcome of consultation (there is more to that than just appearance) and crucially, effective instruments for control as development is built out, often over many years.

To my knowledge, there are no local authorities with the in-house resources to deliver these consultation-based design codes, and not a limitless supply in the private sector either. Helpfully, government is proposing additional resources for local authorities and a central support agency to help develop expertise. Implementation should be allowed to take its time so that the skills become embedded in the industry. The engagement will apparently be enhanced by a new digital capacity to be developed in planning departments which, bearing in mind recent efforts at digitisation in the health sector, will not be an overnight phenomenon.

From long experience of community engagement, I know that the outcome is always challenged by those with a vested interest, an axe to grind or simply a political desire to disrupt. The planning white paper envisages that once agreed, ‘provably popular’ codes will be the basis of ‘fast track’ approvals. Developers who can demonstrate deemed-to-satisfy process can therefore cut through the normal checks and balances. So, the process will need to be demonstrably robust if trust in development is to be maintained, never mind improved.

The aspiration to encourage off-site manufacturing through the pattern book approach envisaged by the reforms is admirable. An aspiration to encourage small and medium development and construction enterprise is also welcome after years of decline. The key to this will be the agglomeration of the supply chain into an economically viable production of construction elements that can be deployed by small scale developers and constructors. Mass off-site production has learned to deliver flexibly, as we have shown in panellised schemes like Hanham Hall in Bristol and Savoy Circus, our modular scheme in Ealing.

Despite my reservations about whether the white paper will lead to effective mechanisms for delivery of these opportunities, there is much scope for improvement in the way we make and improve neighbourhoods. The devil is in the detail, and it is our duty to engage in the consultation that closes in October if the new regime is to come close to its promised objectives.

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