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3) Achieving quality design

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3.1 Creating sustainable homes and communities 

 

There are stronger, more suitable and more effective broad objectives for achieving quality design than 'securing beauty'.

The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission ('the Commission') was just one of the Conservative Government's initiatives in 2018 to boost housing supply; it followed that of 'rewriting the planning rulebook to strengthen expectations for design quality and community engagement when planning for development' (see the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announcement of the Commission on 3 November 2018[2]).

The Commission itself had three aims for taking 'the Government's work further', with none expressly referring to 'beauty'. Instead, they are to:

  • 'promote better design and style […] to reflect what communities want';
  • 'explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent'; and
  • 'make the planning system work in support of better design and style'.

Therefore the Commission only nominally has a narrow focus on 'beauty'; the misplaced perception having most probably evolved from a series of Policy Exchange events[3], to 'showcase the importance of beauty in the built environment'.

Despite publicity to the contrary, the Commission itself clearly and rightly has much more than a narrow concern for beauty and the aesthetic (important though that is); this reflects all that has been learnt by built environment professionals in the years since the successor to the Royal Fine Arts Commission - the Commission for the Built Environment (CABE) - was established in 1999. In some RTPI members' views, CABE held an invaluable advisory role to government and extensively beyond on architecture, urban design and public space. This role diminished, once public funding was withdrawn in 2010 (with CABE then being merged with the Design Council in 2011 and since January 2019, it no longer being a named entity).

RTPI members have said that there is much to learn from 'the CABE years': they are concerned that the Treasury, MHCLG and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are not aware of the extent of CABE's knowledge and expertise, nor the research, guidance and advice[4] that it generated for creating sustainable places and communities. The member view is that its material is timeless and as highly relevant now as it ever was, in terms of contributing to improving design quality to help alleviate the housing crisis and address other current planning issues. CABE's 'By Design'[5] is an example of guidance, published by the-then Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions in 2000, that most certainly endures.

With this background in mind, RTPI members consider that it is important to properly define what is meant by design quality; it is not necessarily the case that design quality means aesthetic quality. 

"It is important to properly define what you mean by design quality. A very ordinary brick box without any particularly distinguishable aesthetic identity can have design quality because it is low energy, well-composed and a well-planned place to live for it intended occupiers. I think there is a tendency to assume design quality means aesthetic quality." (RTPI design survey 2019 response)

A definition should not include reference to style or beauty, as both are subjective and cannot be objectively evaluated within a planning or design framework. Good design is not subjective; there are clear, objective criteria against which the quality of design can be assessed – yet there seems to be a reluctance to take such an approach and as a consequence, there is a widely-held view that planning should not consider design in detail.

Any definition of design quality should embrace inclusivity, as design is part of a wider development process. High quality development also needs to consider wider needs and impacts, such as supporting infrastructure (e.g. roads, public transport, parks and open space, pedestrian and cycle links, and community facilities). In addition, it needs to encompass the interiors of buildings, reflecting how people want to maximise their use of internal space (i.e. interiors should not just comply with building regulations - which do not ensure better internal space standards for new homes to assist with people's quality of life and improved mental health - or simply satisfy the nationally described space standard).

"Design quality is therefore not just about the aesthetics of a building, or architectural style or quality, it is a much wider concept that embraces problem-solving and functionality" (RTPI design survey 2019 response)

It is paramount too that design quality be defined in a way that secures useable and sustainable development.  The definition must consider communities and reflect sustainability in recognising that schemes should last for many years.  The economic benefits of new development should be recognised too, but not at the cost of good design, appropriate density/ scale and landscaping.

There is also a need for a new definition to reflect how quality design is a significant factor in determining how safe and secure a building or a place feels, and how neighbours/ the public react to it. Well-designed places tend to be respected and maintained to a better level by public and private bodies, as well as by individual tenants, residents and the public; they then encourage interaction between users which can positively add to feelings of safety and security.

Overall, RTPI members want to encourage a broad definition that results in contextual development that draws on the qualities of a place but one that also creates 'new layers of history' through contemporary solutions. Consideration should also be given to extending the term to 'urban design quality', to avoid giving the impression that the planning system should be concerned principally with architectural quality.

"We should be talking about urban design quality to avoid giving the impression that the planning system should be concerned with "architectural quality" (RTPI design survey 2019 response)

Whilst the visual appearance of a building is an important consideration, there are very many other elements – including technical and commercial deliverability - of design quality. Design quality is currently a highly subjective material consideration often given insufficient weight in determining planning applications, with the outcome being too dependent on the opinion of the decision maker. This long-running situation should not continue.

Creating sustainable homes and communities

There are very many sources that can be used for creating homes and communities that achieve sustainable and walkable densities, strong public support, high levels of well-being and environmental sustainability. Good practice is provided by housing-led projects that have been completed, endorsed by local communities and residents, and that have since won development sector awards for their sustainability.

Two recent publications draw detailed, well-illustrated case studies of many such projects together:

  • David Levitt and Jo McCafferty, 'The Housing Design Handbook: A guide to good practice' (second edition), Routledge 2018[6]
  • HTA Design, Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE), PRP and Proctor & Matthews Architects, 'Distinctively Local', 2019[7]

There are 4 exemplar cases which appear in both of the above publications.

A further key source of evidence should be the RTPI's annual awards for 'planning excellence'. In April 2019[8], the winners, commended entries and finalists[9] - particularly the projects in the categories of Excellence in Planning for Homes, Small Schemes (up to 50 homes) and Large Schemes (50 or more homes) – exemplified quality design in relation to all manner of developers successfully re-using brownfield land, creating new communities of various scales and importantly, providing affordable homes as an integral or even predominant element. The projects demonstrate clearly how quality design is not only achievable in higher end housing schemes.

 

[2] MHCLG (2019).  James Brokenshire: building better and beautiful will deliver more homes. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/james-brokenshire-building-better-and-beautiful-will-deliver-more-homes

[3] Policy Exchange (2018). Building More, Building Beautiful.: https://policyexchange.org.uk/publication/building-more/

[4] The National Archives, Cabe. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100913142554tf_/http://www.cabe.org.uk/resources

[5] CABE (2000). By Design. Urban design in the planning system; towards better practice. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110118121743/http:/www.cabe.org.uk/files/by-design-urban-design-in-the-planning-system.pdf

[6]David Levitt and Jo McCafferty (2019). The Housing Design Handbook: A guide to good practice (second edition). https://www.levittbernstein.co.uk/research-writing/housing-design-handbook-a-guide-to-good-practice-second-edition/

[7] HTA Design, Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE), PRP and Proctor & Matthews Architects (2019). Distinctively Local. http://distinctively-local.co.uk/storage/app/media/Distinctively-Local-Fnal-Report.pdf

[8] RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence (2019). https://www.rtpi.org.uk/events/awards/awards-for-planning-excellence/

[9] RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence. Winners, Commended and Finalists (2019). https://www.rtpi.org.uk/media/3322240/Planning%20Excellence%20Brochure%20final.pdf

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