When the NPPF was first published in March 2012, the most revolutionary aspect of the document was its brevity. 50 pages were sufficient to set out the Government's planning policies. Another consideration was the role of design review which for the first time ever was inscribed into the planning system. Montagu Evans critiqued the newly revised version of the NPPF which came out last year, specifically providing comment on the new concept of "beauty" and contextual local approaches that the Government is promoting.
The 10 year anniversary now provides a good opportunity to assess whether design reviews have led to more beauty in the built environment across England. I have been personally involved in organising and delivering design reviews for many years, first running design review for CABE and Design Council. Most recently I have joined two London Borough panels. I have also presented to design review panels.
Design review can be a fantastic service – when done well and at the right time early enough in the pre-planning process. CABE's national design review panel has been supplanted by a plethora of small panels, some are local authority led, some are run by private companies. Design Council continues to provide specialist panels for large-scale projects and national infrastructure agencies. With all these panels, independence and an unbiased setup are paramount for a useful outcome.
Design review offers the unique opportunity to discuss a scheme in the round, with experts who have an in-depth understanding of the constraints and opportunities that drive development. Panel members bring fresh perspectives that can help unlock design issues. They are the bridge between design teams, clients and local authorities and significant importance is given to the outcomes of their discussions by planning authorities.
The big risk to schemes going through planning is that, despite good advice, feedback is not taken on board. The reasons are manifold – timing issues, lack of understanding or resourcing.
Thanks to the NPPF and the local authorities' commitment to design review, this is changing. Design reviews now have to be taken seriously, and most recent reviews I've been involved in have ultimately improved the final scheme.
Sometimes, design reviews do bring bad news and highlight fundamental flaws that a scheme may have. Whether a scheme is over-developed or the site diagram doesn't work, there are many opportunities for improvement that panels can identify. A good design and client team will be able to constructively engage with the panel and subsequently find a solution that works better for all stakeholders.
Design reviews can also celebrate good design and give a local authority the courage to approve a scheme that may be different, innovative and aspirational. Beauty can come in many different forms.
Successful design panels require rigorous processes and a diverse range of experts. When these conditions are met design reviews contribute positively to the built environment and help deliver buildings that are durable, functional and beautiful. This open discussion generated from panels is invaluable to deliver design quality and places that people want to use.
Montagu Evans always champions better design outcomes. As such we welcome the chance to help clients prepare for design reviews as a critical friend, with advice and design critiques that improve projects and help increase positive feedback from these panels that carry such weight. In the end, good design will reduce planning risks and lead to a faster, more efficient planning process for everyone.