In this, the second bulletin in our series, we take a look at Pillar Two of the "Planning for the Future" White Paper – planning for beautiful and sustainable places. In this Pillar, the government sets out its vision for how a reformed planning system can enable the creation of beautiful places, protect and enhance the environment, and support the country's efforts to combat climate change and achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The White Paper highlights the importance of planning as a tool with which to create visions of place, engaging communities and fostering high quality development. Planning should, we're told, not be satisfied with "no net harm", and instead should generate net gains for the quality of the built and natural environment.
No doubt these are ambitious aims – but how does the government propose to achieve them?
Three key strands
Drawing on some of the recommendations of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, the White Paper deals with its second pillar in three key strands:
- Creating frameworks for quality;
- A "fast-track" for beauty; and
- Effective stewardship and enhancement of our natural and historic environment.
Let's take a look at each of these in turn.
Creating frameworks for quality
Acknowledging the subjective and contentious nature of the concept of design, the government tackles it head on. It proposes to build on its October 2019 National Design Guide in order to turn the broad principles in that document into a detailed framework, whose approved principles trickle down.
In the autumn, a National Model Design Code will be published to supplement the National Design Guide and set out detailed parameters for development in different types of location. Together with a revised and consolidated Manual for Streets, the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code will constitute national planning guidance and are expected to have a direct bearing on the design of new communities.
Alongside the national guidance, the government also expects design guidance and design codes to be prepared locally "wherever possible" and then brought forward, either through the local and neighbourhood planning process or by applicants in the context of specific development proposals.
However the challenge, as with many of the aims of the White Paper, will be to harness local engagement successfully in order to achieve "what is popular and characteristic in the local area". As simple as it sounds, this is a big question with far reaching consequences. Designs and codes are to be given weight in the planning process only if it can be demonstrated that effective local input has been secured. Where that is the case, decisions on design should be made in line with the resultant design guides and codes. Where it isn't the case, and locally produced designs and codes are not adopted, the National Design Guide, Model Design Code and Manual for Streets are to guide decisions on the form of development. Given how contentious design routinely is, we can expect the local engagement stage of the process to be very hard fought indeed.
The government appears to acknowledge that this is the case. To help ease the transition it proposes:
- To explore establishing a new expert body to help planning authorities make effective use of design guidance and design codes, as well as performing an oversight role for the development sector in terms of building better places;
- That each planning authority should – as recommended by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission – appoint a chief officer for design and place-making; and
- To consider how Homes England's strategic objectives might be strengthened to give greater weight to design quality and more deeply embed design quality and environmental standards in all Homes England's activities and programmes of work.
A fast-track for beauty
Related to the concept of quality design – and no less contentious – is the matter of beauty. Drawing again on the propositions of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, the White Paper proposes a fast-track for beauty. Where proposals comply with "pre-established principles of what good design looks like (informed by community preferences)", they should be expedited through the planning process. The rationale is to incentivise attractive and popular development whilst relieving pressure on planning authorities when assessing proposals.
This is to be achieved in three ways:
- First, by updating the National Planning Policy Framework ("NPPF") to make clear that schemes which comply with local design guides and codes have a positive advantage and greater certainty about their prospects of "swift approval";
- Second, by legislating to require that masterplans and site-specific codes are agreed as a condition of permissions in principle granted through the plan for Growth Areas. The masterplan and site-specific code should be in place before detailed proposals are approved in order to direct and expedite those detailed matters; and
- Third – and potentially most controversially – by legislating to widen and change the nature of permitted development to enable "popular and replicable forms of development to be approved easily and quickly", supporting the "gentle intensification" of towns and cities in accordance with design principles.
The government proposes to revive the tradition of "pattern books" of standard building types, options and associated rules (such as heights and set-backs) to speed up development in Renewal Areas. A limited set of "form-based" development types will be developed to enable the redevelopment of existing residential buildings where the relevant conditions are satisfied. The White Paper acknowledges that this proposal will need technical development and testing, and so a pilot programme will be introduced to test the concept.
The requirement to have a masterplan and site-specific design code in place before detailed proposals can be approved is incongruous with the wider rhetoric in the White Paper around speeding up the planning process. For many schemes, the need for a masterplan and site-specific code will effectively introduce an extra step before a developer can break ground.
On the other hand, a shift towards standard forms will no doubt speed up the consenting process. But what about the risk of the pattern book approach resulting in identikit development being rolled out from district to district, removing innovation and relying on pastiche as a crutch, losing sight of context?
The recent changes to the existing permitted development regime have resulted in undesirable compromises being made to place-making in favour of homes at all costs. Critics will be wary of further extensions to the regime which are rooted in the thorny concepts of local preferences and what is – or is not – beautiful. Watch this space.
Effective stewardship and enhancement of our natural and historic environment
The government has been at pains to stress that, despite all the talk of growth, reform and speeding up development, the planning system will continue to protect our natural and historic environments.
The White Paper sets the expectation that the planning system should do more to proactively promote environmental recovery and long-term sustainability, mitigating and adapting to climate change and reducing pollution, as well as improving the liveability of towns and cities.
The government proposes:
- To amend the NPPF to make sure that it targets areas where a reformed planning system can most effectively play a role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and maximising environmental benefits;
- To design a quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities, in a way which speeds up the process whilst protecting and enhancing the most valuable and important habitats and species in England.
The UK's exit from the European Union presents the prospect of a reform of the existing environmental impact assessment regime which, the government considers, can lead to duplication of effort and "overly-long reports which inhibit transparency and add unnecessary delays". Online and digital processes are to be a key tenet of the drive for simplicity and clarity;
- To review and update the existing statutory framework for the protection and conservation of historic buildings and areas to ensure their significance is conserved while allowing, where appropriate, sympathetic changes to support their continued use and address climate change. The White Paper raises the prospect of a more pragmatic approach to the way in which consent is sought for "routine works"; and
- To complement planning reforms, to facilitate ambitious improvements in energy efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver the net-zero commitment by 2050
The detail of these reforms will be eagerly awaited. In particular, changes to the environmental impact assessment regime to make it simpler and more transparent will be scrutinised by developers, campaign groups and their lawyers alike. Already the government's reforms to permitted development rights and the Use Classes Order are the subject of legal challenge on environmental grounds. We can expect this to be only the first skirmish in a more sustained conflict.
So what does this mean?
As we noted in our previous bulletin, the far reaching and significant proposals contained in the White Paper around design and sustainability could be a slam dunk for developers, bringing certainty to an issue which is all too often relied upon as a "kitchen sink" reason for refusal. That certainty is likely to come at the cost of design innovation with pattern books encouraging the wide-scale roll out of safe and standardised plans.
However, the very significance and extent of the changes could be their undoing. When it comes to sustainability and environmental reforms, the hawks are already circling and any wide-ranging reform is likely to take up its fair share of the judiciary's time. Allied to this, the proposed reforms lean heavily on the need for local consensus and it would be naïve to assume that any such agreement – on something as contentious as design – will be easily or quickly achieved. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.
Keep an eye out for our next bulletin in the series – "Pillar Three – Planning for infrastructure and connected places".