Many thanks to Philip Bisatt, who has provided the below. Philip is a Chartered Town Planner, Senior Planning Policy Officer at Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset Council, was Chair of the RTPI’s South West Region in 2016 and is a Design Review Panel member, attending Design Review Panels across the South West; in Cornwall, Devon (both Plymouth and Exeter), Dorset, Wiltshire and Swindon.
"I chose to take up planning as a career 35 years ago primarily because I was concerned about the design quality of many of the new developments that were then appearing across the UK.
As one who studied architecture in the early 1980s (and urban design some years later), today I find myself in a small minority of UK public sector planners who have had any formal architectural training. This seems to be in marked contrast to planning systems elsewhere in the world, which draw heavily on the architecture and engineering professions.
I have found it less than easy at times to engage with planning professionals about the way our statutory planning system works, and whether this system in itself might be having a negative effect on the quality of some of the places that we are creating. Perhaps understandably, people seem to find it hard to imagine that town planning could operate in a different way from the model UK planners have grown up with and become used to.
Maybe this is in part because in Britain, public sector planning has been marginalised, and ‘under the cosh’ of central government for so long, that there is now an aura of weary resignation about the prospects for beneficial change. Perhaps - but by no means always, and certainly this is not the way in which we should be approaching the challenges we face.
The Rise of Design?
Along with many planners I welcomed the fact that, from the 1980s onwards, ‘urban design’ moved significantly higher up the planning agenda, exemplified by the publication in 1985 of the seminal work by Ian Bentley et al, Responsive Environments. Then in 1988, the late Francis Tibbalds became President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, having been Chairman of the Urban Design Group from 1979 to 1986. In the words of Andy Karski, “Francis was the person who re-energised the RTPI and the planning profession and put urban design firmly on the policy agenda.” As a recently-qualified planner at that time, I was inspired by his ‘ten commandments’ for architecture and the built environment, which he produced in 1988.
There is no doubt that enthusiasm for design amongst planners has grown considerably during my time as a professional. It is therefore frustrating that, unfortunately, too many of the design outcomes of UK planning remain poor, particularly as regards large-scale, greenfield development schemes. There have been some much better examples – such as Poundbury and Upton (Northampton) - but these remain in a minority.
It also has to be said that some of the most poorly-designed schemes have been on publicly-owned land, which seems paradoxical given the oft-claimed community benefit of bringing development land into public ownership. Local authority-owned sites have too often been, in effect, ‘planning-free zones’, with objections by council planners to poorly designed proposals, overridden by other parts of the governmental machine. Early in my career, I recall one particularly unfortunate retail ‘shed’ being allowed by a local council directly opposite the entrance to its city centre from the railway station, simply to avoid the developer taking its investment to a neighbouring local authority. That building, along with its associated car park, is still there 30 years later, a visual ‘blot’ and a barrier to organic urban change.
What’s wrong with planning?
There does seem to be a clear gap between the aspirations of planners to deliver better-designed places, and what all too often actually happens on the ground. What are some of the key features of UK town planning that, it might be said, arguably work against the achievement of good urban design? (In using the term ‘UK’, I am aware that there are legislative differences between England and the devolved nations, but the modus operandi of planning is the same in each case).
One of the most important is what the 2014 Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment termed the ‘reactive’ nature of UK planning. Instead of designing the future layout of roads and streets, building plots, and the permitted forms of development within the plots (as typically happens countries), our development plans consist of written ‘policies’ (including, of course, design policies). In other words, plans do not set out a vision for the future form of an area – instead, they effectively say, ‘OK, developers, go away and produce something, and we’ll have a think about it.’
In this sense, the statutory planning system in the UK might be characterised as ‘design-free’, in that local authority planners do not use legislative instruments to actually ‘do’ design. UK development plans are thus not ‘plans’ as the term would be understood by many lay people (or indeed, I feel, by planners in much of the rest of the world).
The biggest problem our non-physical development plans create for design is arguably this: written policies and ‘land use’ designations are really of no use as design control mechanisms. Reliance on them also places planners in the rather odd position of becoming, in effect, objectors to the design of development proposals, almost as if they were members of the wider public.
The unsuitability of the UK style of plan for controlling design means that, on top of development plans, we are required to have a wholly additional system called ‘development management’ to address the three dimensional aspects that the plans themselves omit. This development management function (the ‘reactive’ aspect referred to by Farrell) consumes the majority of the resources that are available for statutory planning. Having a two-stage planning process also creates the anomaly that, despite having allocated sites in a development plan, the principle of their development can effectively be challenged all over again when the planning applications to actually develop (containing the three-dimensional content) are submitted. This both delays the process of development, and increases costs.
A further consequence of the ‘development management’ model of design control is that it opens the door to forces external to the planning system to influence design outcomes. As is well-known, one of the most consequential of these has been highway engineering. The absence of designs for roads and streets in UK development plans has left a vacuum that has been filled by highway design standards, many of which – as testified by the emergence of Manual for Streets – remain antithetical to the creation of good-quality places. Another issue, implicitly referred to above, is the ability of a local authority to put forward proposals for development on its own land, however poorly designed, and grant itself planning permission for reasons that in reality are unrelated to planning, such as maximising financial return.
The UK planning system contains a serious democratic deficit, in that there is nothing to prevent developers from submitting proposals for schemes that are contrary to the approved development plan – which will have been the subject of public consultation and an Examination - and even from getting consent. It seems remarkable that some local communities have thought it necessary to petition Government to introduce a community right of appeal against development proposals that are granted planning permission contrary to their Neighbourhood Plan. Excuse me – but a local community needing to appeal against development contrary to a plan which they have themselves prepared?
In my experience, local people would like to be able to debate the design aspects of proposed development sites at Local Plan Examinations - but they are effectively prevented from doing so. They are told by planning inspectors that design is a matter to be addressed at the development management stage – when those wishing to make representations are reduced to the status of ‘objectors’. They have no right to have their concerns considered by a planning inspector; nor, unlike in some other countries, do they have a ‘third party’ right to appeal against a grant of planning permission by a local authority when a proposal is contrary to the adopted plan for the area.
One thing that strikes me is how outdated the concept of a written development plan can now seem. For example, computer technology has made it possible to engage whole communities in the physical design of their own neighbourhoods. Such democratisation would seem transferrable to the design-based planning systems found in most of the rest of the world, yet appears at odds with the UK approach of leaving design decisions to a local authority operating on the basis of written policies.
The UK government has got itself into something of a ‘pickle’ by trying to introduce more certainty for developers via ‘permission in principle’, whilst retaining the UK’s non-design based development plans. Concerns were expressed that democratic accountability would thereby be seriously weakened. Actually, there is nothing wrong with permission in principle – the issue is that (as a colleague of mine observed), elsewhere in the world permission to develop is guaranteed by conformity with the development plan, which conveys a legal right to develop. This does not seem possible with the UK system of non-physical plans and ‘development management’. It should also be noted that, with design-based plans to work to, the actual process of development approval can be only a matter of days, rather than the weeks, months, or even years that is required in the UK.
The wider importance of design
It would be easy to dismiss concern about design quality as a preoccupation of an arty, liberal elite, but there is another critical reason why the ‘non-physical’ approach to statutory planning found in the UK needs to change. This is that the built form of development that is permitted on a site is very much linked to the value of that site.
With 65% of the average cost of a dwelling now being accounted for solely by the value of the land on which it is built, there has begun to be serious debate about the effect this is having on the often cripplingly high cost of housing, and how land value might be captured for community benefit.