1.1 Survey findings
1.2 Conclusions and recommendations
The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has always seen design quality and place making as being at the heart of planning. However, the Institute's survey of planners in early 2019 revealed that while the vast majority of planners want to engage more in both, they consider that the current system makes this difficult. In this paper, we report more of the findings from this survey, and offer recommendations for improving design quality and place making through planning.
1.1 Survey findings
In the spring of 2019, the RTPI surveyed planners on issues relating to design. The following are the key findings from their responses:
- At least half of professional planners reported having limited influence in housing design and an overwhelming 87% wanted to have more say.
- The majority (77%) of respondents believe that design is of equal importance to factors such as affordability, and the availability of infrastructure; only 12% see it as a minor consideration.
- The majority of respondents (57%) use some kind of tool or process to assess design quality but many express the need for more national consistency and standards. 86% of respondents want the Government to further promote design codes and style guides.
- Creating quality design goes beyond the concept of securing beauty; a more holistic focus should be on delivering sustainable places and communities.
- Any new definition of design quality should not include reference to style or beauty, as there are clear, objective criteria against which the quality of design can be assessed. Design quality should focus on problem-solving. It should have regard to inclusivity, consider wider needs and impacts, and secure accessible, safe and useable development. It should result in contextual, deliverable buildings and spaces that draw on the qualities of a place, and that create new layers of history through contemporary solutions.
- There are very many sources of evidence for homes and communities that have achieved sustainable and walkable densities, strong public support, high levels of well-being, and environmental sustainability. Evidence and good practice compiled by the Commission for the Built Environment (CABE, now the Design Council) is still relevant now, in contributing to improving design quality to help alleviate the housing crisis and address other current planning issues. Award-winning, housing-led projects endorsed by local communities and residents - and international sustainability exemplars - provide further guidance on good practice.
- Recognising that there are resource implications, carefully conceived and well-executed collaborative engagement processes can help to involve communities and stakeholders early on, and provide legitimacy to final outcomes.
- There are great benefits but also some limitations to using 'design methods' (masterplanning and design codes being the most common). Having too much design guidance in place can restrict the ability for new and vibrant places to be delivered. However, ill-crafted or no design guidance can lead to poorly-designed places. Masterplanning should be a design-led, collaborative process, contributed to by government, local planning authorities and communities. Masterplans need debate and co-production to be effective and implementable. Design codes are most successful if they are evidence-based and localised, and drafted by urban designers or architects (depending on their content) using clear language. Planning authority area-wide codes are not as effective, although they can help speed development through planning, where there are smaller sites likely to be brought forward by SMEs.
- A step change in the approach to quality design in the built environment is needed; it should be possible to achieve in the short term. This will require support from the development sector.
1.2 Conclusions and recommendations
Based on the survey outcomes, the following are the RTPI's recommendations for improving design quality in the built environment:
- Consideration should be given to extending the term 'quality design' to 'urban design quality', to bring the spaces between buildings into the definition and help avoid giving the impression that the planning system should be concerned principally with architectural quality.
- Higher benchmarks in design ought to be recognised by Government as essential for creating places where people want to live, work and spend time – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is not yet worded strongly enough. For example, the NPPF and national Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) need to explain how the development industry can and should embrace innovative design, alongside viability.
- Quality design should be given appropriate weight on appeal. The NPPF therefore needs to be revised to be more explicit about the degree of priority to be given to each of its policies; local planning authorities having a 5-year housing land supply currently appears to be at the expense of everything else, including design quality.
- Whenever design quality is identified as a key issue, the PPG should encourage high levels of 'end-to-end' engagement from developer teams and local planning authorities alike, from pre-application discussion and negotiations, through to the discharge of conditions, including liaison with design officers, and/ or panel design review of projects.
- The awaited PPG on well-designed places should explain how independent design review panels can be key to ensuring that design quality is considered in terms of built form, accessibility and landscape. The timing of design review is key; panel advice should not be sought too late in the day, Use available tools to help achieve design quality.
- The new PPG should reference - and provide access to - the vast resource of published material available for assisting the development sector in ensuring design quality in the built environment. National guidance should be given on adhering to simple architectural principles, as these are more likely to achieve design quality. This could provide the consistent approach to design quality that is needed across England, providing a loose framework that each local planning authority can then adapt to its own local character and setting.
- Existing permitted development rights for changes of use to residential should be abolished (and proposed new rights for upward extensions, and offices to residential rebuilds, not introduced).
- The role of Homes England in promoting quality design should be boosted. For example, the public body could create guidance and publicise examples of best practice for design codes etc., arising from the new generation of urban extensions and garden settlements that are coming forward.
- Quality design should be a key factor in formulating and implementing local planning policies, given that it can: improve health; create more environmentally sustainable places; attract investment; and support civic pride. Design-based statutory plan policies should then be used to prepare more detailed supplementary planning documents (SPDs).
- Design-led highways' policies and standards should replace rigidly-defined and applied standards. Additional Government and planning fee income resources should be part-used to focus on local highways' departments, to ensure officers have integrated training and an understanding of good design, leading to a move away from a car-led design approach to one that is landscape-led, interrelated with planning and that prioritises pedestrians and cyclists.
- Councillors' design expertise should be enhanced with training, and council resourcing increased, to help address the hollowing-out of design capability and understanding within local government.
- Up-to-date IT tools should be brought more into everyday use in pre-application and planning application determination processes. 3D models of designs should be used too, to test their quality prior to planning submission stage.
- Post-occupancy evaluation should be undertaken by planning professionals, with councillor visits encouraged. Observations should be used to inform future policy making and decision taking.
- To raise the standard of housing design, consideration should be given by Government to a new validation requirement for full applications and reserved matters, this being a site specific 'Housing Design Quality Statement' that would detail the design of individual dwellings, their construction and materials, and the 'place' that they would create.
- The teaching of urban design principles and practice on both architecture and planning courses should be strengthened in tandem, to increase an appreciation of context and sustainable development. From the start of higher education, architecture and planning courses should explore joint ways that the education system for both professions could develop opportunities for shared teaching, particularly in early years, so as to ensure that each has a clearer understanding of the other.