With the publication of the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) last week, many of the changes set out in February’s draft version are confirmed – and should be no surprise to those following the Government’s push for “beauty” or the wider reaction to the planning White Paper put forward last year.
The language is tighter and more direct about the purpose of planning, and it requires everyone involved to think longer term. Planning’s role in tackling climate change is clearer and there are more links to other policies. Permitted development rights, too, are tightened up.
Paragraph 96 is new – focused on faster delivery of public service infrastructure including further education colleges, hospitals and criminal justice accommodation. Elsewhere, streets and transport are brought into focus, with the need to incorporate design of streets, parking areas, other transport elements into new development and offer a genuine choice of transport modes. Trees are an important new addition – not just the tree-lined streets that made recent headlines but parks and community orchards, with maintenance and retention also factored in (§131).
But the key take-away is the focus on design, placing “beauty” at the heart of the social objectives of the planning system (§8), a key objective of new housing schemes (§73, part c), and achieving well-designed spaces (section 12).
The link between the National Design Guide, the National Model Design Code, and policy, is now crystalised (§129), with the proposal that ‘area-based character assessments, design guides and codes and masterplans can be used to help ensure that land is used efficiently while also creating beautiful and sustainable places.’ Ideally local authorities will produce their own supplementary planning documents and developers can contribute or prepare their own for specific sites, but otherwise these national documents would be used to guide decisions on applications.
What does this mean in practice, however? First, the direction of travel is very clear and should shape new applications coming forward: design needs to be at the heart of new development and even in central government’s drive for housing delivery, standards must remain high.
While the underlying principles are commendable, as a concept, this idea of beauty remains completely undefined (there is no definition in Annex 2) and malleable. For us and many others, beauty forms just one part of good design, alongside the ideas of durability/firmness and utility, together with by sustainability and environmental aspects that should be yet more prominent in planning policy and will help in the drive for net zero carbon.
In practice, local design codes and guides need to be well resourced to truly represent each area, the local community, and its potential. They need to draw from specialist advice to make sure they are well considered from the start, while flexible enough to evolve over time. The opinions of local stakeholder groups must be distilled and incorporated into the wider vision alongside practical and technical points before becoming documents that carry weight in the planning process.
Now that the national framework is set, clients, project teams and local authorities will need to think carefully about how to meet these new requirements, Our villages, towns and cities need daring and quirky buildings – old and new – to remain attractive and vibrant places. We need innovation and we need projects that work for the long-term as well as successfully clearing the planning stages.