by Sam Dewar director of DPA Planning
The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) provides a comprehensive approach to building more homes, quicker than ever before, in the locations where people want to live and raise a family. But it unquestionably also places extra emphasis on good quality design across the housing spectrum, with implications for applicants and planning authorities.
A closer examination of the revised framework reveals a stronger emphasis on a culture of design than existed in its predecessor – that’s for sure. And those involved in the planning process must understand this. However, the cynics will say that central government is seemingly obsessed in increasing housing densities at the expense of interesting, game-changing design. I find it hard to believe that you can reconcile both – it’s impossible to have both sides of the coin.
Unfortunately, the volume house builders are only helping the housing minister limp towards the delivery of any sort of respectable housing vision at a severe cost to the quality and design of the final product. Alternatively, small to medium sized sites can invariably bring a more individual, bespoke and genuinely mixed approach to housing development.
This must be seen in contrast to the volume-driven national house builders, who develop large scale, 1,000 plus unit schemes often incorporating as little as four or five design styles. Many will opine that such ‘brick monstrosities’ will never add up to more than the sum of their constituent parts: bland, featureless, vacuous behemoths, bestriding increasingly depressing urban landscapes. Yet, it’s the former smaller sites, which are the ones often left vacant and unincentivised.
Effective design in planning generates added value throughout the property development chain, differentiating the ordinary from the extraordinary. Simply put, it contributes to delivering more value and return on investment for developers and builders struggling in an extremely competitive sector. It doesn’t have to cost more as ‘affordable quality’ can be secured through simply thinking differently or eschewing the traditional for the new.
Developers can not only drive design improvements within a new-look framework through improved engagement with the customer and wider communities, but by also working collaboratively to bring forward new technologies and techniques that build quality. Finding different ways of working, that involves a wider range of stakeholders and brings new skills early on, also plays a part.
Contained within the newly revised NPPF is a shift away from a concentrated focus on the aesthetic towards holistic schemes, which better facilitate the creation of community-focused developments around which local people can enhance and enrich their lives. That said LPAs might now be more likely to insist on the use of design codes and obligations to retain particular architects in planning agreements to secure the final quality of the built environment.
Moves that demonstrate a meaningful approach to engagement, which offer a genuine opportunity to help in bringing to fruition positive planning decisions, must be welcomed. The weight to be given to these matters in determining applications lies clearly with the decision-maker. However, with competing challenges around housing quotas and the new housing delivery test, it will be interesting to see if more emphasis on design will facilitate how LPAs consider the concept.
Government and by implication, local planning, must endeavour to raise construction standards as they look to balance quality and long-term sustainability with expediency of delivering housing. We also need a robust pursuance of housing diversity through encouraging small builders and those involved in community and custom build projects to deliver alternative developments.
It’s clear that all involved in planning and development need to think long and hard about the long-term legacy for those who live in the houses we build if we are to produce better homes. Improved engagement with the customer, whether the homes are for sale or rent, will help. Also, too, will greater collaboration across the industry’s professional sectors and trade bodies.
However, in the clamour to deliver the quantity and quality of new homes this country desperately needs – 300,000 units per year – it as important as ever to repeatedly strive to consider new opportunity for design innovation and think beyond today’s norm. I think the revised NPPF will come to be seen in the long run as a fortuitous driver of real change in the way we build houses in this country.
Sam Dewar is a qualified planner. His firm, DPA Planning, based in Leeds, provides services and advice to enable clients to secure town planning needs and requirements. These include turnkey services, involvement part way through a planning application, and planning enforcement support. More at www.dpaplanning.co.uk