Many thanks to Geraint Jones, Director of Planning at Savills, for providing the below article having recently obtained planning approval for ‘Upbrook House’, a Para 79 (e) (now Para 80 (e) dwelling in Wiltshire. (www.savills.co.uk).
Geraint Jones is a director in the Bristol planning team. Operating as lead consultant, he manages multi-disciplinary teams through the planning process and has a proven track record of delivering complex applications.
The summary below outlines an application assessed against the February 2019 version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
The government has since released an updated NPPF, in July 2021, and the policy change to the tests regarding new homes of exceptional quality in the countryside is considered at the end of this note.
Jennifer and Eddy Shah have lived at their current property, Steinbrook House, for 16 years. During that time Jennifer has become reliant on a wheelchair for her mobility, and the layout and design of the house has created numerous challenges in everyday life.
Despite an extensive search in the local area over several years, they found nothing that truly responded to Jennifer’s needs, and ultimately concluded that it would be necessary to design and build a property to their own specifications.
As they are settled in the local community, with family and friends in the local area and Jennifer’s trusted health care professionals close at hand, they decided to test whether they could build a home within the grounds of Steinbrook House.
Savills were appointed to assess the planning potential for securing permission for a new home at the site, and ultimately to manage the application through the planning process.
The site is located within the open countryside where opportunities to deliver new homes is limited by planning policy. One route available to applicants is to present a case that there are special circumstances for granting permission, in accordance with paragraph 79 (e) (now para 80) of the NPPF. This policy supports isolated homes within the open countryside where the design is of ‘exceptional quality’, and specifically requires that the proposal:
- Is truly outstanding or innovative
- Reflects the highest standards in architecture
- Would help to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas
- Would significantly enhance its immediate setting
- Is sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area
Case law has made clear that these tests represent a very high bar for applications. Gone are the days where simply proposing a grand country home or including new energy saving technology in the design would give you a good chance of securing a paragraph 79 (e) (now para 80) permission. There are numerous examples where significant sums of money have been invested by applicants in evolving such designs without success.
The starting point to committing to a paragraph 79 (e) application, and the time/effort/cost that entails, was developing a true understanding of why Jennifer and Eddy had been unable to find a suitable property within the local area, and whether what they wanted to achieve could meet the NPPF policy test of being ‘truly outstanding or innovative’.
Through discussions with our clients, and a wider review of the market, it became clear that new open market residential properties typically approach issues of accessibility as part of the need to comply with building regulation criteria. This focuses on functionality, and navigating through the basics of life, but fails to properly consider the wider needs and desires of people who are wheelchair bound. As a simple example, the window sill levels in most homes are at the eye line level of wheelchair users, preventing them from engaging with a view that non-wheelchair users will take for granted.
As a consequence it was agreed that evolving a proposal that considered accessibility at every stage of design had the potential to produce a scheme that is both truly outstanding and innovative, while also responding to the other criteria of paragraph 79 (e), now para 80 (e).
Developing the Design
With the commitment to accessible design running through the scheme, we had a consistent theme that created a strong narrative in response to paragraph 79 (e). However, the criteria requires a successful proposal to also succeed in its detail.
The client appointed an experienced design team to develop that detail, with Bindloss Dawes architects supported by, amongst others, Macgregor & Smith landscape architects.
Once an evidence base was built to better understand the constraints and opportunities of the site, we agreed a pre-application process with the local planning authority (Wiltshire Council) to ensure that the approach to design development was supported by officers. Critical to this was the agreement that we should engage with The Design Review Panel (www.designreviewpanel.co.uk) . Given officer’s relatively limited experience of paragraph 79 (e) applications, the Panel’s input was to provide an experienced and independent view of the proposals to inform the Council’s assessment.
What followed was a collaborative pre-application design evolution, engaging the client, consulting team, Council officers, The Design Review Panel, statutory consultees and the community. This constantly tested the design approach until we (and The Design Review Panel) were satisfied that we had a scheme that surpassed the requirements of paragraph 79 (e).
While the detail of the proposals was amended further during the course of the Council’s determination of the application, the principle of the approach carried through from the initial concept.
The scheme proposed a single storey dwelling set into a south facing hillside, with the roof kept below the ridge line on which Steinbrook sits. The extensive grounds were balanced between formal and informal, but with wheelchair access to both.
The final proposals had accessibility at their core, from enabling the smooth transition of a person approaching the house, through to the way in which internal space could be uplifting for Jennifer and Eddy, allowing them to visually engage with the landscaped setting. The layout was based on a pin-wheel design, with key living spaces accessed from a central hallway and an accessible garden adjacent to the kitchen/dining space and master bedroom.
It was important for Jennifer that the house did not constantly remind her of her disability. So while the structural design of the building did allow for specific equipment that may be required in the future, such as hoists between bedrooms and bathrooms, it also includes subtle innovative features such as wall designs which provided a hand grip without the need for unattractive hand rails.
In addition, sound sustainability credentials were incorporated, excelling in respect of the energy performance of the home, renewable energy generation and green infrastructure (including landscaping and its response to ecology).
Outcome & Key Learning
The depth of a paragraph 79 e) application means that there are several learning points that emerge from each proposal. The accessible design focus of this scheme raised a number of interesting outcomes.
The mental well-being of future residents can be as important as their ability to physically use a space, but is often overlooked. By creating a home that had at its heart Jennifer’s ability to mentally engage with a space, this elevated the design process and identified several learning outcomes for the wider industry.
In assessing whether a development is innovative, this is an assessment against the current open market residential properties. That meant the approaches and/or products used in other industries can still be argued to advance design in the open residential market, and we drew from emerging accessible design in both the leisure and retirement sector to deliver solutions that were new to the open market sector.
The level of detail required to prove that a proposal has met the tests of Paragraph 79 e) pushes way beyond what a ‘normal’ policy assessment considers for a new dwelling. Critical to these proposals were internal accessible design features, and so it was necessary for internal features to be capable of being secured by condition to be given full weight in the decision making process. Conditioning internal features was ultimately accepted by officers and an ‘Accessible Design Features’ schedule was secured by Condition 8.
Ultimately, planning permission was granted under delegated powers, having the support of both officers and Councillors, on 20th April 2021.
July 2021 Amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)
The first point of note is that paragraph 79 is now paragraph 80! Other than that, there is only one subtle change to the policy approach.
Previously a proposal could be ‘truly outstanding or innovative’, but the latest version of the NPPF removes the ‘or innovative’ part, so innovation in itself is no longer sufficient to meet that first test. The clear intent is to prevent an applicant relying on innovative design (i.e. a single piece of technology – such as power generation) to meet the test of being truly outstanding, and instead encourage truly outstanding design as a whole.
Of course, innovation can continue to contribute to a scheme being considered to be truly outstanding, and we would recommend that this forms a significant part of the design testing, but it is a broader assessment than looking at innovation in isolation. "
Within the Planning Committee Report, the Wiltshire Council local authority planning officers notes the following:-
Paragraph 129 recognises the role of design review panels, and steers local planning authorities to have regard to their outcome and recommendations when assessing applications …
… to assist consideration against the requirements within paragraph 79 to the NPPF (specifically, understanding whether the proposal reflects the highest standards in architecture), the applicant has sought to present the proposals to the SW Design Review Panel (DRP) [The Design Review Panel, www.designreviewpanel.co.uk ]. The Panel has agreed that the proposal meets the very high standards required by Paragraph 79e) and that the proposal is of exceptional quality in that it is truly outstanding or innovative, reflecting the highest standards in architecture …
… Compliance with the criteria set out in Paragraph 79e) is rightly a high bar to reach, as it should not be able to be achieved often. The submission has demonstrated considerable efforts to reach this high bar, including as a key factor, the support of the South West Design Review Panel (DRP) [The Design Review Panel, www.designreviewpanel.co.uk ], who in turn consider that exemplar design has been reached. As an independent review panel, it considers considerable weight and whilst the reservations of the Council’s own Urban Design and Landscape officers are noted, the weight attributed to the DRP’s comments is considered to tip the finely balanced argument in favour of permission, where the key components (the internal features that make the dwelling innovative; the methods to raise standards of design in the rural area and those features which allow the building to enhance its immediate setting) can be satisfactorily controlled by condition.
… Whilst the dwelling, in order to comply, does not need to be truly outstanding (as well as innovative), it is considered that the approach taken and the level of detail submitted to ensure the scheme is fully inclusive is outstanding The architecture is of a very high standard and whilst the Council’s Urban Designer and Landscape Officer have raised concerns throughout the process and with the end result, the South West Design Review Panel (DRP) [The Design Review Panel, www.designreviewpanel.co.uk ] consider the very high bar set by Paragraph 79e) has been achieved and on balance, this view is considered of great weight in the decision.
Planning approval was issued on 20th April 2021.